The Spike or Victoria University College Review June 1925
Aims and Ideals
Aims and Ideals
The following address was prepared by Professor J. Rankine Brown, Vice-Chancellor of the University of New Zealand for delivery at the Capping ceremony. Unfortunately, an untimely manifestation of the Capping spirit resulted in its remaining undelivered. The greater portion of it appeared in the local newspapers of the following day, but we feel that its full text should be made available in more permanent form for the perusal of students in their more thoughtful moments. It is the finest treatment of the subject we have read.
I shall address myself mainly to the graduates in whose honour we have met, and shall begin by congratulating them in the name of the University of New Zealand as well as of a professor of the Victoria University College on the successful conclusion of their University career.
The Athenians exacted from their young men when, at the age of eighteen, after a careful inquiry or examination into their descent from free-born Athenian citizens, they were put in the class of ephebi or aspirants for citizenship, an oath or promise that they would fight bravely for their country—not abandon a comrade on the battle field—do what they could to advance the Commonwealth—obey the statutes and honour the ancestral religion.
The University of New Zealand exacts no promise from its graduates, but it expects them to go out into the world animated by a chivalrous desire to make it a better place than it was when at birth they entered into it. It also expects them to remember that they are the inheritors of a great tradition. The increase of knowledge began, I take it, as soon as man assumed the upright position, and the pursuit of knowledge by societies or combinations of men united for that purpose is of almost immemorial antiquity. Moses, we are told, was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. Great philosophers like Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle conducted something like one-man universities, and towards the end of the Roman Republic the sons of well-to-do Romans like Cicero were sent to pursue their studies at Athens or Rhodes, just as the sons of well-to-do Englishmen used to be sent to Oxford and Cambridge and are still, I have no doubt, though those ancient places of learning have considerably changed their character in these democratic days. In more modern time the torch which was kindled at the earliest universities proper, Salerno, Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, has now been carried round the world and is burning with no feeble light in these remote antipodes.
I ask you graduates to remember, therefore, you are the inheritors of great traditions and ask you to prove yourselves not unworthy of them.
There are many sides to a University and it exercises its influence on its students in many ways. It is essentially a place for the exercise of the intellect and University graduates have no right to any distinctive place in a community unless they have earned, a right to take it by intellectual achievement. If a University is a place for distinction at all, it must be distinguished by the conquests of the mind.
We hear a good deal about the cultivation of character page 5 among students, and that character is cultivated at a University I have no desire to deny. But character must be cultivated more or less unconsciously. A man who sets himself consciously to make a fine fellow of himself as a rule ends by making himself intolerable to his fellowmen. Character is a by-product. It comes as a consequence of a life devoted to the performance of the nearest duty, and the place in which character is successfully cultivated, if it be a place of study, is a place where study is the object and character the result.
In fact, it seems to me that for the average student the by-products of University life are the most important. It is true that the possession of a University degree is a passport to most of the professions—Law, Medicine, Teaching, and so on—and helps a man to make a living for himself. But there is a very sage remark of the Roman poet Lucretius that has been one of my guides through life. He speakes of a class of ambitious men who, "for the sake of livelihood lose or sacrifice the motive for living"— propter vitam vivendi perdere causas. Life is far more than earning a living, and it is because I consider that what I have called the by-products of University life are so important for the proper conduct of life that I wish to dwell upon them for a little.
It is true that one of the chief aims of a University is the dissemination of knowledge. But the pursuit of knowledge has only produced its richest fruit if it has produced a conviction of ignorance: the true University man or woman is not so much proud of the little he knows as ashamed of the great amount that he does not know. Intellectual humility is ore of the most valuable lessons a student can and ought to learn. The teaching of Socrates is as true to-day as it was more than twenty-three hundred years ago. True knowledge is "not fancying that you know what you do not know." The want of insight of the narrow mind is the main reason why so many apparently well-laid plans come to grief. University training cannot by itself supply capacity; but it can stimulate talent and, above all, it can rescue a man from the dangers of a narrow and contracted view of life.
Another by-product which a student ought to take away with him as the result of his University career is the paramount importance of truth. I am referring at present to intellectual truth—the attainment of as correct views as are accessible to a man on all matters with which he is concerned. This conception a student does not acquire by actual teaching; it is in most cases the outcome of the attitude of his professor to his subject and the manner in which he presents it. Like most classical scholars I have derived my own views in the matter from Plato. No words are more common in that great seeker after truth than "let us follow the argument wherever it leads us," and it is as certain to-day as it was in the days of Greece when Socrates made it his text that in intellectual sincerity lies the chief hope of the human race. The Platonic or Socratic method of philosophical exposition involves the presence of an opponent, who states and argues for his view in opposition to the formidable Socrates. Often enough this opponent is a man of straw, who brings forward arguments merely that Socrates may demolish them, but the lesson is there, that before you can be said to have formulated a sound conclusion on any question you must have argued all round it and considered the arguments against as well as for a particu- page 6 lar view. I believe that a good deal of the loose thinking and dissatisfaction of modern times is due to the fact that a large number of people adopt certain views about certain matters, very often without due consideration, and, ignoring the other side, read and study only the books which favour their own point of view. Such men are often strong men and influence the world. The man who sees both sides of a question is often unwilling to take up a decided attitude in any direction, but normally the type of character to which I am referring is essentially an ignorant propagandist and that is not the type of character that a University should produce.
Another lesson that University life ought to teach is that concentration is the secret, I do not say of success, for that word is apt to be misinterpreted, but of achievement. The life of a student must be a life of self-sacrifice; there are many things that he would like to do—most of them perfectly proper things in their own place and for others—that he must abandon. He must have singleness of purpose, and if you study the lives of all great men you will find that singleness of purpose has dominated them throughout. The wise Horace has said: "Each man should measure himself by his own foot rule." Put in more general language this piece of homely advice amounts to this: that the first duty of life is to seek to understand clearly what our strength will let us accomplish and then to do it with all our might. This may not to the spectator appear the greatest of possible careers, but the greatest career for each of us is the one in which we can be greatest according to the limits of our capacity.
Many of those who attend a University College in New Zealand are the beneficiaries of the State, in the sense that the expense of their education has to some extent been paid for out of the public purse. This is true of all University education, for fees alone, even when paid by the individual out of his own pocket, go a very small way towards running a University. Now the State is not entirely altruistic or unselfish in this matter. It does not contribute large sums of money for primary, secondary and University education merely that the individual may be enabled to make a living or, it may be, a fortune. The sole justification of this expenditure from the point of view of the State is the production of good citizens—of men and women who realise that above and beyond the duty that they owe to themselves they owe a larger and wider duty to the community in which they live. This duty they will discharge not necessarily by becoming public servants or by entering Parliament, but by a consistent life and conversation, by practising what I cannot better describe than in the old and hackneyed phrase, "the Christian virtues." This is a duty incumbent on all members of a civilised community. It is especially incumbent on University students from whom the community will naturally expect a greater return in proportion to the greater benefits it has conferred on them.
I may go further and say that if it is the function of the University to produce men of the widest minds, then the State must look to the University to produce its leaders—I do not mean in politics alone, but in all the various spheres of life. This truth is becoming yearly more and more perceived that the State must see to the well-being and equipment of its Universities if page 7 it is to be furnished with the best quality in its citizens and its servants. Things are in our time too complicated and too difficult to be practicable without the best equipment, and this is true of private affairs and of ordinary business as it is of the management of the State. As is well known, America has for long been aware of this fact, and year by year finds avenues of employment for University-trained men and women, not merely as technical specialists, as chemists, electricians or engineers, but in connection with ordinary business management. I do not mean men who have taken a Commerce Degree; I mean men who have taken an ordinary Arts course, and even a man who has specialised in classics or mathematics. England has for some time been moving in the same direction. Has the business world of New Zealand so far shown any conception of this generally recognised fact—that the properly trained University man, no matter what his main subjects may have been, has probably developed certain qualities of mind that fit him to excel in almost any sphere of business life?
You may think that I have made unduly high claims for University teaching and the University trained man. It is quite certain that many students pass through a University without being influenced in the manner I have outlined. But I believe strongly that something like what I have said—and had I time I could say a great deal more—is the ideal towards which a University looks, and you can only judge an institution fairly if you consider its essence or its ideal. Many University men, like many professed Christians, are lamentable failures; but the failure of the individual does not impair the soundness of the ideal.
Are we carrying out these ideals in New Zealand? Well, I think we are doing our best; but we are hampered by many disadvantages. I have intentionally avoided all controversial questions. I have my views on University matters, but this is not the occasion on which to air them. This, I think, I may say without giving offence to anyone. I have a great respect for the various New Zealand Governments, which on the whole, have dealt generously with the University Colleges. I have a still greater respect for the four University Colleges which, in spite of the present situation are doing their best for their students. I have an even greater respect for the students themselves, who, in very many cases, are able to combine making a livelihood with attendance at University classes. But at the same time there is no use ignoring the fact that the present system which is so common in New Zealand of combining an ordinary avocation with attendance at a University College—of devoting the fag-end of an exhausting day to what in other countries takes up the entire time of a student—is unsound in principle, productive of little result, and in many cases a waste of public funds. The essence of University life is absorption in it for a certain number of years; its most important result is a spirit, an atmosphere; and this can, in very few cases, be attained by part-timers.
The time is approaching when in its own interest and in order to get adequate value for its expenditure the State, or private munificence, must see to it that those at least who are prepared to devote the time to it will have provided for them page 8 adequate courses of instruction and full opportunities for University life, and not be subjected to the restrictions of a time-table and the meagre doses of instruction and mental discipline necessitated by evening classes.
One last word suggested by an event which has happened during the last few weeks. I would be the last person speaking from a University platform, and before conferring University degrees, to undervalue knowledge and intellect. But the more one sees of life the truer seem the words of the old sage: "Out of the heart are the issues of life." It is those qualities which, for want of a better definition, we ascribe to the heart, that really make life worth living, that make a man a useful member of society, that most commend him to his fellow-men and earn for him a lasting memorial in their recollection. I do not think it can be said that our late Premier was an intellectual man; he was certainly an able man, for no man without unusual ability could maintain the high position he had held so long in the affairs of this country, and which he had earned for himself in the councils of the Empire. But what called out the striking manifestation of universal respect so visible on the day of his funeral was not his intellectual pre-eminence, or even his great ability, but the fact that the people of New Zealand saw in him a man of honesty of purpose, sincerity, simplicity of character, absence of affectation, and devotion to duty.