The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, June 1924
What's Wrong With The University Student Of To-day?
What's Wrong With The University Student Of To-day?
I have had great difficulty is selecting a suitable subject on which to address you. The subjects usual on such occasions are somewhat hackneyed, and, further, I do not consider myself particularly competent to lecture on art or literature. My present subject has the advantage that, thank heaven, nobody has as yet written a book on it, and accordingly I have not had to read the opinions of others and endeavour to refute such opinions or to reconcile my own with them. I am afraid, however, that I am about to preach a sermen. If so, no doubt it will be just as unpleasant to the listener as any other sermon, but I shall hope for the usual protection of the pulpit and not expect to be cross-examined and questioned at its conclusion.
In diagnosing the ills of the student of to-day, I can claim no special qualification, being but a student of yesterday or, if you prefer it, the day before. No doubt the same ills existed in my day; but, mayhap, the secondary and more violent symptoms are now appearing.
Having no qualifications, and being, therefore, but a quack doctor, I can only hope for the same measure of success that seems to accrue usually to the quack teacher in medicine, art, religion, and education. Although my diagnosis is probably entirely wrong, perhaps it may give you as debaters fresh fuel for the controversial tires, but, please, throw the fuel on the fires after I have gone!
Candid I shall be, but I trust give no offence; certainly none is intended. I have no intention of dwelling on the estimable points and characteristics of the student of to-day. Such are self-evident. I would merely draw attention to the ills of the body student.
I propose first to look at the process which moulds the student long before he reaches the University, and to try to trace back to a very early stage in his life the ills which afflict him. I'm not going as far back as Plunket Society teaching, but only to the position where I find myself up against the educationalists who mould our youthful destinies. True it is merely the opinion of a layman-once a teacher—who saw the error of his ways and his unsuitability for that great profession. My first criticism is levelled at to-day's system of hasty education—an education the purpose of which seems to be to push the infant into a kindergarten, from the kindergarten to infant school, infant school to primary, primary to secondary, secondary to university, through each grade at lightning speed. Push! Push! Cram! Cram! Cram! Turn out a host of neatly-labelled and numbered products, proficiency winners, scholarship winners, junior scholars, matriculated students, B.A.'s, LL.B.'s—label them as quickly as possible even if you do turn out nothing but intellectual machines, the Ford car type of educated product: mass production of a cheap article—good for a particular, limited purpose, useless for any other purposes. Education in a hurry!
What should be the aim of education? As a layman I suggest page 31 that it should be to lead you to think for yourself, to cause you to learn continuously as you go through life, to give you a joy in acquiring knowledge. If that is the aim of a true education, we may ask is our system of education doing this for us today Do we learn for the pleasure of learning, or are we mere Fords, sputtering and fussing along, doing our particular bread-and-butter work more or less efficiently? Are we pursuing knowledge throughout our lives for the joy of knowledge or do we end our College course as educated ignoramuses? Self-examination on these questions would probably be disquieting to all of us.
Let us go back and look at the various links in the educational chain. Take the primary school first. The ambition now appears to be to push the child out of such a school at the mature age of about 13. The useful old seventh standard, where the average child stayed until about 14, is gone. In that standard the child used to be given an opportunity to mature a little. He was able to consolidate the knowledge he had acquired before going out into life or proceeding to a different class of education. To-day he must hurry with all speed through the primary school in order to get the hall-mark of a u proficiency certificate "and so obtain a label entitling him to further doses of concentrated education in preparation for further examinations in a secondary school. Excellent that he should have that further education. But what is the nature of his further education? Is it not for the most part education (save the word!) for one of the professions or clerical work? Are Ave not to-day in our average secondary school educating a race of candidates for already overcrowded professions and candidates for the dull drudgery of clerical positions—a race of clerks? Little seems to be done in these schools to encourage the child with the ideal of service, less to inculcate the idea that he who labours with his hands is leading just as useful a life and probably a happier one than the member of a profession. The pleasure of work well done is unknown. The joy of work is a discredited ideal. Yet what can be greater than the satisfaction arising from the knowledge that one has done the job well, however menial the task? Personally, I believe the greatest pleasure in life is the joy of accomplishment—no matter what it is we have accomplished. A person holding a high judicial position in this country said recently he supposed no-body would work unless compelled to. God help us from such a stage of animal-like stagnation. In such an existence the line of demarcation between the beast and the intellectual being has vanished.
Would it not be better to spend more time in the primary and secondary stages of education? Equip the child above all to think and to derive his pleasure from thinking. Develop something more than the ability to obtain a living; develop the faculty of living. Teach the child the ideal of serving the community. Teach the child that there is nothing unworthy in work done with the hands while the brain is active- Discourage the idea 'that professional or clerical work is the hall-mark of respectability.
But what of the child when he reaches the University? Often he is little more than a child on entrance, as the result of this "education while you wait" policy. Too young probably to benefit. by ideal methods of University teaching, ill equipped in general knowledge and, worst of all, his power to think for himself dwarfed and stunted. What does the average student consider at the begin page 32 ning of his course? How to get through hiis course in the shortest time and acquire a label entitling him to earn a living—or rather make a living. That is his alpha and omega—"to make a living." Whatever incipient desire there may originally be to acquire know-ledge is firmly suppressed. Pie accordingly studies the syllabus and works out how he is to take his particular course in the shortest time and how to pass the precious examination with a minimum of effort. All subjects which have merely a cultural value are eschewed. The cultural aspect of bread-and-butter subjects is ignored. The only aspect that is studied is the examination aspect of bread-and-butter subjects. The scramble for a label once embarked on is pursued blindly until the label is in hand. The wider-aspects of University life are neglected by the majority. It is left to a few to take part in the corporate life of the College. The majority regard time spent on active College sport, student activities, the community life of the College, as precious moments wasted from the pursuit of a living. Of those who do take their part in these wider and invaluable activities, the majority at the present day do so for a short time only. The majority even of these few stay at College but a few years. The result? There is no continuity in the College life. The leaders of to-day are gone to-morrow. Few stay long enough to build up the College traditions, which were so well and truly laid 15 or 20 years ago by students who had time to think, time to develop themselves, time to build up a College tradition, and who regarded mere equipment to earn a living as a secondary consideration. What a small percentage of to-day's students give a thought either to the welfare of the College or to the advantages it offers for developing the power of thought, facilittating the pursuit of knowledge, and building character! What of these students at the end of this scramble? Are we broadly-developed men of culture, able and willing to reason all things and inquire into all things, anxious to probe into the truth of things, or are Ave a collection of singularly narrow-minded, ignorant pedants? Are we men and women of wide interests, well read, with minds stored with the riches of knowledge, seeking further knowledge, and imbued with high ideals? Or are we merely more or less wellequipped specialists in our particular walks of life, knowing nothing and caring nothing about things external to the pursuit of a living? Here again can any of us be proud of the result of a little introspective self-examination on these pertinent questions?
Summarised, then, my diagnosis of the ills of the student of to-day, wrong as it may be, shows him to be the product of an educational policy of pushing and thrusting the child forward along the path not of knowledge but of bread-winning, a policy of hustle and cram, forcing the student into a University too young, keeping him there too short a time, and permitting, if not encouraging, him. to subordinate everything to qualifying, not for complete living, but for earning a living, making him a machine, not a thinker.
If that is the process producing the student of to-day, what are the symptoms of his disease? What are the results of the immaturity of the student, the brevity of his stay at College, and the disregard by the student himself in most cases of the opportunity to develop mind and character?
I leave aside the consideration of the ultimate academic attainments of such a student. I leave to the imagination the sumpage break page 33
total of the store of knowledge of the average graduate. Consider what is the effect on the College and the corporate life of the students. I have already indicated the danger from lack of continuity in strengthening and building up the traditions of the College, traditions which make or mar the institution. It is obvious that if only the few interest themselves in the welfare of the whole, and those few are here but for short time, the corporate life of the College will be at a low ebb Certainly those few will reap tenfold the harvest of their work. But what of the majority? Surely they lose the best part of College life. Is not the result of this neglect of the wider College life visible in all our Colleges to-day? "What percentage of the students take their share in the work of the Students' Association? How many, if they play any sport, do so for the College? How many spend a single hour in any activity connected with the College outside the lecture-room? Of those who do strive to carry on the College activities—and to whom be all praise—must we not concede that they are handicapped by the system to which I have alluded? While the majority rush madly on with the scamper for a label, can we wonder that College extravaganzas have to be produced by a professional producer, that the production must be one to depend for its success on spectacular effects rather than on any intrinsic literary merit? Can we wonder that we still sing badly the excellent old songs written by an earlier generation and produce no songs of our own, that our muse is silent, or if not silent, only mutters? Must we not confess that as the scamper becomes madder the corporate activities of the students degenerate? Take our own Debating Society, of late so much criticised. Is it not conceivable that some small part of the criticism is merited? Can we always justify our activities? As your President I always try to defend your actions when, not infrequently, I hear them criticised outside the College. I confess I sometimes find it difficult, and regard myself somewhat as advocatus diaboli. Must we not plead in mitigation that our worst offence is youthful exuberance of spirits? Take the titles of our debates. Most of them involve a debate on some current political or social problem. Excellent that such problems be discussed, but does not our youthful love of mischief, our youthful desire to make people jump, cause us unnecessarily to give offence? May it not be that by reason of our joyous carelessness we unnecessarily defy the conventions, merely to have the pleasure of smiling, Puck-like, at the horror of our elders? Are we not in our youth too apt to pose and strike attitudes, to put ourselves on a high perch and crow lustily. All pardonable traits in youthful character, but far better for the institution that a little self-repression be exercised. If all are sincere in their expressions of opinion, if those expressions are the genuine result of careful thought and study, if they are free of any blatant desire to attract attention, devoid of humbug, are something more than popular hot air, then your critics are disarmed, your expressions of opinion are unobjectionable. But let us be sure of our facts, careful in our thought process, and, above all, sincere in our purpose and free of ulterior personal motives before we put ourselves, Bernard Shaw-like, on a pedestal, and seek with the vigour of youth to convert the other few millions of our fellow inhabitants of the earth to our particular fads and cranks of the moment. Let us at least be sure that we have something more solid than an attractive fallacy to offer the world before we insist on ramming it page 34 down the world's throat. Once you are sure of yourself, certain you are sincere, then fear nobody in your activities, disregard captious criticism, have the courage to defy conventions. Above all, when—but only when—you have fulfilled these conditions, resist all extraneous attempts, whether of politicians or anybody else, to suppress your legitimate expression of opinion or to mould your ideas to a particular model. But until you are certain of your own sincerity, certain that you are standing on the rock of truth and not merely crowing on the perch of youth, then take thought before you say one word or do one thing which gives needless offence, which brings the slightest frown upon the institution in which we all take pride.
Finally, lest I be regarded as merely preaching a shallow, hypercritical sermon, may I offer some suggestions as to how the student of to-day may outdo the student of yesterday, and, while helping his College, help himself. In the first place, why not determine to take a little more time over your University course? I fully appreciate the economic urge that drives many relentlessly forward; but if the sacrifice is possible, then the result will justify it. An extra year at the College will at least give you time to equip yourselves better for the material aim of earning a living. Better, it will give you time to browse among books, to develop your mind, to acquire an education instead of an equipment. Best of all, it will give you time to take your fair share in the general activities of College life. The corporate life of the College should be able to do more for you than all the professors and lecturers put together. It will give you the opportunity to live in a University atmosphere partly of your own creating, to exchange ideas and ideals with your fellows instead of being merely selfish, narrow-minded pupils of a night school.
I realise that in the absence of residential colleges the ideal is one difficult of full achievement; surely not impossible of partial realisation. The provision of a residential college in the College precincts, owned and controlled by the College, is perhaps the most clamant need of the University today. Maybe there is scope for your activities in bringing about such a provision. Certainly it won't be obtained without effort. Why not consider how you can-assist? Why not organise for that purpose and see if ways and (means cannot be devised for assisting the authorities in clamouring and working for such a boon?
While, however, the residential college is non-existent, I suggest you throw yourself wholeheartedly into all the student activities of the day—the Students' Association (which should be the very soul of the College), football, tennis, cricket—whatever be your sport, play it with the College for the College. Football, for example, can do much for the College for good or harm. If, in spite of all the handicaps of a College team—exams., vacations, the short period of membership of a College Club—the team could, instead of being merely an annual surprise packet, head the championship for a season, playing, as it has always, a clean and skilful game, the interest of a public whose god is sport would be quickened. A college flourishes or languishes according' to the measure of public support and sympathy it has. Again, with your debating, how few take advantage of your opportunities? Personally, I regard an active part in debating at College just as useful, if not more so. to a student as any single bread-and-butter subject. page 35 Yet how often do we find to-day a University-trained man utterly lacking in the ability to express himself adequately and attractively. Even in the law we find dozens of our brainiest aspirants for positions in our offices, fully labelled with the College label, but always "been too busy" to learn to express themselves in public. And so on through all the splendid list of College activities. If you will take your part in them, not only will you find yourselves better students in every sense of the word, you will find that you will carry through life an enduring memory of your College days as something very precious to you; you will find that in reality they have not only been the happiest but the richest days of your life. Carrying that memory, you will never completely lose touch with your College. You will seek to preserve a close association with the College, to assist in making it the power it should be in the community.
I ask your pardon if in my attempt to analyse the ills of the student I have myself fallen into the blatancy of ignorance and the positive assertion of youth.
In conclusion, I remind you that I have spoken of the average student only, and I realise there are many to whom my remarks have no application. Whether I be right or wrong, I have tried to convey sincere views formed as the result of much observation during past years.