Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 8. 10 June 1970
One of the likely criticisms is that the curriculum is irrelevant to the hearer's interests or objectives. This is indeed a common source of dissatisfaction. And this brings us in approximately where we started.
The traditional liberal educationist has an implicit belief in knowledge for its own sake. He seeks it not as a tool for use, but as something important in its own right, having its own concepts, laws and forms, and making its own demands. The scholar must bow to the dictates of the subject. According to this view, a subject is not and cannot be at the mercy of personal or public fancy, serving now this, now that temporary indulgence. That was certainly the 19th century view of the university's function—a dedication to the content of a subject and to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Is this still to be the role of the university? Ought education to be liberal, humane and non-vocational, as it has been, or ought it to be something different?
To what extent should relevance determine university curricula? Does the university have a part to play, in political affairs? Is it an instrument of social justice? These and related questions must trouble the thoughts of anyone who takes his association with a university at all seriously. I freely confess that I cannot give confident answers to many of these questions. But turning one's back on them will not make them go away. In the remainder of my talk I shall try to set out some ideas about the function of the university. I want to emphasize that these views are personal. It is not to be supposed that they will be shared by all academics, who, if notable for nothing else, are notable for their inability to agree, especially on matters pertaining to the institutions employing them.
The first question that I wish to ask—and to try to answer—seems to me to be the key to understanding the universities. It is this: Do universities have an educational function that is in any sense unique? Is there anything that marks universities off as different from other educational institutions? I am aware that such a question seems to carry with it snobbish overtones—an implication of superiority. But by 'different', however, I do not mean better, or, for that matter, worse. I mean different. This question can, I think, be most easily answered by first answering another question: By what criterion can one judge the relative excellence of different universities? To this there is one simple reply: a university is judged by the quality of its scholars. To me, no other answer is conceivable, and no other standard of judgement possible.