Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 21, No. 1. March 13, 1958
Focus on Politics, Economics
Focus on Politics, Economics
I am a man of peace. I hate arguments: they raise my blood pressure. There is no surer way of buying an argument than comparing the students of today with those of the past, especially if one's theme is the decadence of the present generation. To try to pass off one's comments as merely an objective account of the facts is useless when addressed to readers trained to question both our objectivity and one's facts. Let me therefore offer some subjective impressions. From this retreat I may be as impervious to criticism as L. D. Austin.
In the nineteen-thirties (and I give this only as a personal impression) the intellectual life of the student elite at Victoria was focused on problems of politics and economics. We need not consider the other members of the student body —those hordes who at all times worm their way into institutions of higher learning, not knowing what a university is for and with no desire to know. In those days their chief organ was the Haeremai Club, which excelled in doing hakas, improving the dividends of the breweries, and throwing its considerable weight against intelligent discussion of any kind. Other student groups, notably the Free Discussions Club, the Labour Club, the Debating Society, and the Social Service Club, earnestly struggled with the problems of the individual and of society. The shape of the questions they considered was profoundly affected by two influences: the rapid development of military aircraft and of new "scientific" weapons of warfare, and the Great Depression. The suffering and devastation from the First World War had been appalling, but we were threatened with total devastation of cities, and (so many believed) with the "end of civilization as we know it", if another World War should come. The economic depression of the 'thirties had involved the collapse of capitalist distribution on an unprecedented scale, and the spectacle of the deliberate destruction of food while millions of people were struggling for enough to keep alive left no thoughtful person content with the status quo.
There were many shades of political thought among students, but those who wrote and debated and discussed were in the main sternly or vehemently critical of the Government (it was before the day of the Labour Government) and were convinced that Socialism—with or without Pacifism, but mostly with it —would be the salvation of mankind. A smaller but extremely vocal section placed their faith in Communism.
Professor I. D. Campbell, Professor of English and N.Z. Law at V.U.W., is a graduate of Victoria and was prominent in the student movement of the '30's.
An article bearing the initials "I.D.C." was one of those offending articles banned in "Spike" 1937. It attacked the teaching of law in the college.
Today these elements are still present, but it is my impression that the argument is now going on in another room. The concentration of attention on political and economic measures has been supplanted by religious issues, or rather, by the re-interpretation of religious beliefs in terms relevant to the problems of our day. It has been succeeded to a lesser extent by fuller development in matters of aesthetics and an ever greater interest in science and its wonders—tilings by no means antithetic in themselves, but worlds apart from the religious outlook previously mentioned. Indeed, if the nineteen-thirties had as their motto that the proper study of mankind was man, the motto today would seem to be that the proper study of mankind is atomic structure, and that learning the alphabet means learning about alpha and beta particles or radiations.
On the whole the changes that have taken place seem to me to mark a regression rather than progress. (You will note that there is nothing "objective" about this.) In the 'thirties everything was dominated by concern for human suffering and by the belief that human effort, and particularly the better organizing of society, offered the most effective remedy. The severe setbacks that this viewpoint sustained in the next two decades have had the result that it has been largely abandoned in favour of the view that our only hope lies with either a supernatural power or some scientific legerdemain.
The fate of the left-wing political groups was particularly instructive. They died from success. Pinning their hope at first on a change of government, they saw a Labour Government elected to office. Wanting a new philosophy of State action in economic affairs they witnessed the birth of the "welfare state". Violently opposed to fascism, they ticipated in World War II, a war in which, though the "victors" suffered, the hatred of fascism became world-wide. This conflict was followed by prodigious activity on an international scale to remedy the ravages of war and to improve the lot of the impoverished peoples of the world.
But while all this was occurring there were other events which seemed to make the pre-war outlook untenable. The ranks of the pacifists had been decimated when there seemed no way short of war to end the barbarities of the Nazis. Fellow-travellers of the Communists sought other travelling companions when they realised what communism means in practice under Stalin. Socialists who expected Heaven on earth when a Labour Party dedicated to socialism came to power were disillusioned. Those who were less naive in that respect were often more naive about the miracles of science, and expected economic welfare to keep pace with the progress made in the laboratory.
In this way the presuppositions of pre-war days were eaten away, and the humanism which sustained most student thinking in those days was gradually, indeed rapidly, eroded. Instead of being re-inter-preted in the light of its deficiencies as a theoretical foundation for a plan of action it was more and more rejected in favour of reliance on non-human control of our destinies. The miracles that all can see—is not the stupendous work of international relief agencies beyond anything we could have believed possible thirty years ago?—have less effect on current beliefs than miraculous events from the distant past. The transformations achieved by patient work of many hands in the evolution of political organization (one of the few fields in which we have far excelled the achievements of the Greeks) have not led to increased confidence in man's power to solve his own problems, but ironically to greater dependence on supernatural authority.
This is the progress that we have made since the days before "Salient" was born. Its pages record the subtle and not-so-subtle changes of thought and feeling throughout this period— in all history one of the most critical periods of which we know. What of the next thirty years? We all prophesy in terms of our fears and hopes. My own: that we will see a return to rationalism and humanism, as the full significance of the revolution of the mid-twentieth century comes to be appreciated,