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Victoria University College an Essay towards a History

X — The Clay and the Flower

page 257

The Clay and the Flower

So, we may consider, our college is alive, in one way or another. It has survived, grown, burst out continually in new places, found shapeliness impossible, refused a narrow and nicely calculated refinement, maintained a capacity for violent or astringent self-criticism, collided fiercely with the properties, insisted on standards, fallen away from them, gathered itself in a complexity of new effort, It has, in fact, never been perfect, but it has not existed in a frozen imperfection. Somehow, at the end of its first fifty years, at the end of a history of those fifty years, one should be able to summarize, to weigh and balance, to appraise, with a just and precise delicacy, the life that has been lived, the work that has been done, the values that have been asserted. Has not the historian the duty-solemn, ineluctable, tremendous-of passing moral judgments? Lord Acton, who said he had, has not lain unread on our library shelves; and that monitory finger should carry a large compulsion. Granted, it is difficult; circumstance is multifold, one knows at once too little and too much. one has lived with the agglomeration. The pen is poised to write the word that will damn, that will exalt; and then one finds, after all, that one must hesitate, one must be imprecise.

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And there are so many loose ends. The period is not closed, the lid of the box will not remain shut; the loose ends stray out in all directions, each pointing one's incapacity to compose the finished, final, monumental work which should have been one's aim. But again, life is not finished or monumental. It strays. It is, as the most reverend authorities have pointed out, quite deplorably loose-ended. Or is it, as others have said, a wine, a liquid poured into some more or less handsome, more or less transparent, glass? It bubbles, brims, tumbles over, sparkles in the sun, dribbles aimlessly on the floor. We cannot, then, confronted with all the difficulties of summarizing our college, of drawing the sharp and tidy line that demarcates, blame it too much. If it were more tidy, it might be less interesting.


But something must be attempted. Increased size, then, physiccal expansion, may be contemplated, for what it is worth. In itself it is worth nothing; for obviously, it is a certain quality of intellectual functioning by which the college must, in the end, be number of students in 1906, when the red-brick building was opened; there were as many bachelors of arts then as there were undergraduates in the first month of all. That as well as anything summarizes the complications which have been already indicated. What would have been a large college by the standards of Australia, moderate by those of provincial Britain, minute by the gargantuan assemblages of America, but it still presents no inconsiderable administrative problem. There would be no problem if a university were merely the thing envisaged by Seddon-a place where so many professors, picked up as cheaply as possible, gave so many lectures to as many students as possible, at the lowest possible fees; if it page 259 were merely a place for listening, learning by rote, and examining. But the university is more than that, and we may feel pleased that in the first week of our college's existence Easterfield insisted on the importance of what he called experimenting, and of what we, with a reverence which was all too infrequent fifty years ago, now call research A university, that is, or a college which shares in the nature of a university, has as its bounden duty not merely to teach answers but to ask questions. If it asks them assiduously enough and ingeniously enough it may extract new answers of some importance; but above all, it is important that it should not be satisfied with the old answers. It may be said that, from Easterfield on, whatever the size of the college, there have been men in it who have not been satisfied with the old answers, and who have transmitted their dissatisfaction to their students, In ‘science’, of course, this has frequently been held to be unorthodox, and it has been one of those things which have made society feel uneasy about the college. For the practitioners of fringe of passionate youth, of those who wear their intellect with an air, who cultivate, in their assaults on received truth, a certain panache.

Perhaps one is straying here from research, properly considered. To estimate the sum total of the college's contribution to Knowledge is impossible. No full bibliography has ever been compiled; but from what partial lists there are it is clear that a full one would be surprising in its length and variety; beginning with the chemistry of 1900,1 and coming down to the latest piece of work on biology or history or econo- page 260 mics. In early publication of course Easterfield and his students—Aston, Robertson, Bee—are prominent; then Maclaurin with his brilliant papers on light, then Kirk and Kirk's students; Cotton, Laby and the notable Laby-Burbidge combination, Picken with his fundamental mathematics: up to 1914 it is all work in the natural sciences, with Salmond's Jurisprudence and Torts standing up like a pair of giant monoliths in the midst—but the college can hardly claim more than adoptive interest in those. After the first world was the scope widened; there was no slackening off in scientific work, but the young psychologist, historians, economists, educationists were coming on, and the spate of honours theses was in full flow. By the 1930's old students were on the staff who as postgraduate scholoars had been trained overseas, and returened disciples of Graham Wallas and Hobhouse, Laski and Tawney —they had published or were about to publish, or were bursting with critical acumen where the publications of others were concerned. The list of books and articles began to lengthen, in anthropology and history and English and law and political science. Cotton's geomorphological, and sommerville's mathematical, volumes entered the lists of ‘standard works’; Salmond's Contracts became Salmond and Williams; if one wished the college well, it was increasingly possible to get a little glow of satisfaction when one considered the number of pages, printed and bound, which were respectfully regarded by quite eminent judges beyond the seas. Might one not consider also as a ‘standard work’ (true, the classification can become rather dubious), in its slim, modest way, the first book ever published by the college?—the group of lectures entitled New Zealand and the Statute of Westminster, of 1944, which did something to enlighten public opinion on that great constitutional measure. It was published by the college as one of the first-fruits of the Publication Fund created by the Council in 1943; from which also came a small sheaf of pamphlets page 261 and subsidies to scientific work published elsewhere, and which has a continuing usefulness. The little glow of satisfaction may grow, not illegitimately, when one contemplates the fundamental work done, at so may far removes, by those who were once students among us—the work, to name but at random, of Diamond Jenness on Eskimo ethnology, of Ronald Syme on Roman history, of Fraser Mackenzie (the son of Hugh) on linguistics, of H. L. Richardson on the soils of China.


The college will profit from the financial provision for research now made through the University; and with increased provision for research, and the modern aids to research, if may expect in due time, when the post-war competition for staff has lapsed to more normal proportions, to attract to its teaching-posts an increased number of men with a gift for original work. For the best teaching, we should do well to remember, can not above a certain level be separated from the best original work. Meanwhile, the provision for ‘refresher leave’ lately instituted for members of the staff has made a beginning of what must became a larger and more liberal sabbatical system if the teachers of the college are to retain, with accumulated experience, the freshness of their youth. No college can do without enthusiasm; no college can afford to have its students the witnesses of a slow erosion of enthusiasm among their teachers for the subjects they profess. Growing up in poverty, Victoria might, one have expected, have suffered from this malady very much more than it has done. Yet it has been fortunate, on the whole, in its teachers; its downright failures have been a very small minority. Over the whole fifty years, too, it has been fortunate in those internal relations which may make a college a happy or a most unhappy place for teachers and students to work in. The early years were exceptionally fortunate; the years of real strain may be quickly page 262 numbered. There has been in the college no departmental jealousy; there has been, one may truthfully record, no split in the hierarchy of professors and lecturers, remarkably little of the vertical or horizontal tensions that have been not unknown in some other seats of learning.2 The staff common room, to which the main room of the old library was converted, was from the start a great success. One knows that it is possible for teachers, with age, to become rather remote from the ordinary student; one knows, with regret, how difficult it is to break down the awful barrier of respect for teachers with which new students come to college from their schools. But our teaching staff has never grown uniformly old; at the end of fifty years, indeed, it was as a whole remarkably young. And it has not, on the whole, encouraged undue respect. It has not been often that students have nerved themselves to cry out, in the middle of a lecture, ‘But that's nonsense!’, yet it has happened. It may be said, therefore, that the relations of teachers with their students have had their successful moments, their peaks; and that positive enmity has been notably absent.

Nor can one find, of late years, much quarrel between teachers and Council. There was the old feud between Mr Charles Wilson, who wished to run the Library (which under the Act was committed to the management of the Professorial Board), and some of the professors; there were the unhappy days of the great Slump; fifty years could not go by without some odd times of irritation. Yet—again on the whole—we have the spectacle of a body which might seem on paper to be chosen in the most efficient way possible to run a college inefficiently, acting at least with a good deal of common sense, and with a general liberalism that has helped to give the page 263 college what distinction it possesses. No doubt the Council is too big—reform of its constitution has consisted in adding representatives (as further representatives of the teaching staff were added in 1948) and not in changing the pattern of representation. No doubt it has been split from time to time by dissensions. But nobody could argue that it has impeded the growth of the college; and whether it has skillfully managed the Professorial Board, or the Board has skillfully managed it, the result has been a pretty satisfactory measure of co-operation. An index of the co-operation was the ceremony in 1946 when Hunter was presented with the festschrift, the volume of essays written in his honour by his colleagues, The University and the Community—in which, in honouring one man, they also tried to show the community what part the university could play in its service, as that man had already served it.

In the constitutional history of the college, a note should be devoted to the Court of convocation. That body of graduates, created by statute for the purpose of electing members of the Council, and so, presumably, of controlling them and thus affecting college administration, did at times exert some weight. It did, when graduates were still of moderate number and not too widely spread, manage to meet and to give enthusiastic support to the University Reformers. As late as the mid-thirties it met more than once under the impetus of ardent liberals, to uphold academic freedom or to plead for student representation on the council, though by then such meetings gathered the merest fraction of its membership. For the last ten years it does not seem to have met; nor, in any real form, could the Court of Convocation now meet. Its electoral function remains valuable. The Graduate' and past Students' Association, begun with such affectionate concern for the college, and into which ‘past students’, as distinct from graduates, had almost to force their way, has long passed out of existence. There should, it seems, be some scope for an page 264 organization of friends of the college, which might naturally be built on graduates and past students, which might exercise some benevolent function—if only of presenting the institution, from time to time, with things of which it stands in need.


Things of which it stands in need: how unfortunate, in some ways, has been out college! Not in the sense in which some universities have been unfortunate, certainly; its buildings have never been razed to the ground, its library burnt, its students shot; there is hardly scope for self-pity. It has grown, however, in an unfortunate time, when the energies of mankind, at their most impassioned and highly organized, have been devoted to the wrecking and not the cultivation of civilized life, or to mere survival. One may pass lightly, perhaps, over the war in South Africa that began in the year the college began, and certainly cost the country more; and reflect that our young academic society has had to cope with the effects of two world wars and a major depression. What may not bulk large in the deep-rooted temporal life of an Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard here has had a primary importance in affecting the attitude of society at large to the small society. Wealth expended on war will not build libraries and laboratories; but even more important, the emotional attitude of the great society towards war and depression will deeply affect its emotional attitude towards anything so fundamental as university education. For whatever the duty of the university may be, it is not to acquiesce easily in accepted standards and current emotions, but rather to obey the injunction put forward by those two widely dissimilar thinkers, St Paul and Socrates, and try all things. Now both St Paul and Socrates suffered death; and modern societies, in times of stress, remain rather intolerant of too much dissent.

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Apart from that deep consideration, the college has had its disappointments. Stout would always refer, in dark and sorrowful tones, to the endowments which had been lost through the tactless behaviour of students; but the most impeccable capping ceremonies would not have secured the money which in authentic fact was missed. The withholding of the Taranaki land endowment; the sum that waited on that Manson codicil, over which Mackenzie forever grieved; the Buchanan endowment of an agricultural chair which so obviously was misplaced in the capital city; the Sarah Anne Rhodes £10,000 for the education of women, turned over to the instruction of farmers wives in diet and dressmaking—which, however admirable in itself, had no real connection with the work of university; above all, the refusal of government to honour the obligation of subsidy to the Weir bequest—such things were damping to the spirit; for the sums involved, though small by the standards of overseas princes of commerce and industry, were by New Zealand standards large, and to a poor college, wealth abounding. On the other hand, it would be not merely a poor college, but a poor spirit indeed, that did not remember with gratitude the men and women who have endowed scholarships and prizes and research, enriched the Library with books and laboratories with apparatus, from the year of foundation onwards; who have given indeed that measure of friendship which is beyond narrow calculation, because it is free. The college has had its benefactors


The college grew. On the ridge of the hill behind the army huts a bulldozer stood up against the sky, like dramatic machinery in a Russian film, slewed round with hammering engine, and moved slowly downwards. The clay heaped up in front of it, fell, heaped again, and cascaded over the cliff left by the last-excavation-but-one. The trucks shuttled between Kelburn page 266 Parade and the gully below Salamanca Road. Really, one thought, it was a mistake to make the arms of the college those three crowns or, that canton azure charged with four estoilles argent; a bulldozer on a field of clay would have been the thing. And now the hillside was being gashed again; another block of temporary class-rooms was in prospect, to be shared between college students and teachers in training. We were coming to the limit of the original site, the six and a half acres to its highest; now further negotiations were in progress, the college, the government, the City Council were again in consultation; the southern two-thirds of the ridge, sloping down to the Te Aro school, eleven acres of it, was now in prospect as additional college ground, to be hacked, bitten, shoved, torn, rammed into terraced flatness—whereon, in some golden far-off future, permanent buildings, designed on a general plan never before possible, would rise round grassy quadrangles. So the vision. Was ever site like it? But fifty years ago the battle for Mount Cook was lost, and the unhappy Council turned their eyes vaguely here and there till Mr Pharazyn's glittering reward rivetted them on the heights; and about the heights Victoria, snowy-breasted and devoted maid, as pure as she was fair, had clambered ever since, and would clamber. Well, there was always the view. And now the Council, at the end of fifty years, released still further by new legislation3 from the shackles of the Seddonian system, found that it could mortgage the whole college, if necessary, to raise money to spend; and visions arose of houses to be bought, hostels to be built or adapted—of a second fifty years which would make it seem as if in the first men had merely trifled with their problems.

Physical expansion, accomplished or in prospect, indicated that the college had long outgrown its ‘night—school’ phase. page 267 when that opprobrious term was flung by snobs outside or by indignant reformers within. Indeed that it was never merely a ‘night-school’ its history should make plain—though it is true that a night-school may equal in respectability and scholarship many a day-school. From very early years there had been pressure to remove lectures from the days and hours of congestion; it may almost be said that the history of the college as a teaching institution is the history of its time-table –of the attempt, that is, to swing the weight of teaching from evening to day-time. The process has been slow, starting with abolition of classes after 8 p.m., then the reduction of classes after 7, then the introduction of morning classes in arts subjects in alternate years; complicated by the vested interest in the services of law-clerks by lawyers, of government clerks by public service, of young teachers by schools; but pushed forward gradually as the proportion of full-time students has risen, as public service and other employers have adopted a more liberal attitude, and as bursaries have increased in number and scope. By 1926 the science classes were virtually all day classes, that is, over by 6 p.m., except for periods of laboratory work; but in arts the huge mass of lectures, with competition for rooms, still banked up between 4 and 7. By no stroke of practical policy could that problem be immediately resolved; the only equitable solution perhaps lay in the repetition of classes, so that morning and afternoon hours could be properly utilized, and a sensible lecture-room economy introduced—but that involved a still larger staff; and a larger staff, when it could be got, involved still greater expenditure. The faint echo of Stout's pleading, over sixty years ago, for a Wellington University College run by Dr Hector of the Geological Survey. Begins to have a curious ring. ‘You will have men working during the day, clerks in offices perhaps, perhaps mechanics, going to the evening classes, and thereby obtaining a university education.’ Even in Wellington that difficult, that page 268 exiguous, pursuit of knowledge was no longer regarded as being synonymous with a university education. At this point, nevertheless, let one remember with gratitude the service to our college community of so many part-time students, whose measureless capacity for work, unexhausted by the city and their classes, has been given also to Students' Association and to clubs. Nor let it be forgotten that the part-time student has sometimes had a quality denied to most of his brethren, conventionally regarded as more fortunate—he has often been older, more sophisticated, has had some knowledge of the world and of men, even perhaps of the wholeness of things, he has had some ability to co-ordinate, which the youth straight from school may learn with more difficulty, as he adds experience to the abstract. There were always men and women enough, of an intellectual ability considerable enough, to make the college a most remarkable ‘night-school’.


The college grew. It grew not merely in size, but, as we have seen, in complexity. At the end of fifty years the old University of New Zealand lay in ruins. It was with Ozymandias, King of Kings, and for students and the great majority of teaching staff the memory of its empire had gone almost as utterly. Who now thought of English examiners, or taught to a Senate-created syllabus, who now among professors scrutinized Virgil for purple patches to memorize? The teacher was left to agree, if he could, with his colleagues in the other colleges; to an increasing extent he was, in his teaching, his own master. If he clutched the remnants of outworn bonds he did it of his own imperfection; against the cold perils of individuality he found some warmth in those vestigial rags. But the new and the young were bold; they took up from the point that the Reformers had reached; they stood with no tremors on the past, as they set their own examination papers, and experi- page 269 mented with teaching methods, breathing into receptive students the spirit of the seminar, pining for the tutorial method, baffling the callow and unhappy product of the secondary school with an almost fierce divergence from the traditional procedure of text-book lecture and text-book learning. For what, after all, was a university?–What, after all, was the college in its best moments of achievement? Was it not (to repeat) an abode of intellectual discipline, where the converse of mind with mind was in the nature of a strenuous exercise, not a process of giving and receiving, with the one almost as passive as the other, but a sort of struggle? Hard words, ideal words; but from some such words, so far as they were clothed with fact, the responsible college, the constitutionally increasingly autonomous college, got its real excitement.

There was also, besides the intellectual problem, the admininstrative problem. It was a problem both of size and of constitutional status; one dealt not only with its quantity but with its quality. The Professorial Board had worked well enough, long after it had ceased to be merely four friendly persons talking in Mr Powles's back room until it was time to go and talk in the Blue Platter; but the Professorial Board, in fifty years, had become too big to be an efficient administrative organ. Nor, even if it had been much smaller, could it have dealt effectively with the quantitatively and qualitatively different college. The faculties were there, but even the faculties, in arts and science, were too big to do anything but offer advice. The deans were presiding officers, with administrative duties severely limited. The Council, no more than the Board, was the body for day to day decisions. These Upper and Lower Houses needed a ministry, and the ministry they got in the Principal. Then was seen the spectacle of Hunter, the ex-revolutionary, devoting to the college those talents of strategy and tactics which had done so much to destroy the old University, and which had made him, as Vice-Chancellor, so able an page 270 administrator of the queer compromise of 1926. It was an interesting spectacle, for if in a sense Hunter was the last of the Old Guard, at least he was that one of them who had found a field-marshal's baton, as well as a prime minister's portfolio, in his knapsack. A generation, forty years, before, the University had been at once the enemy and the battlefield; now the college must be the scene of gentler campaigns. Beyond the college, there were the three nodal points of Senate, Academic Board, and Government to be considered in any far-reaching move; within the college, apart from Professorial Board and faculties, were the Students' Association and the Lecturers' Association. There were new young men, restive, reformers, apt with motions and amendments and outrageous demands, whom Sir Robert Stout would have found hard to convince that, in human affairs, the ideal is ever in the distance; but that agility of mind, that immense and seasoned resource of the Principal, could not be ignored. There might be other plans of advance, the lieutenants might hatch up a more sonorous proclamation of academic rights, Hunter might be jostled from behind; but he was still at the head of his troops. And was he quite so much the ex-revolutionary? It is never wise to write off the effective leaders thus. No longer a teacher, there were still lessons he could dispense, of tact, of patience, of the wise judgment of men. The perennial master of indirection, the enemy of hasty solutions, he had always distrusted the too-simple; and the college that had long ceased to be ‘affiliated’, that was a ‘constituent’ part of a University subject to ever greater and faster change, in a world that was once again somewhat desperately overhauling its philosophies of education, found that it could not yet do without him. And if he had done nothing else, he would still, in this difficult post-war time, in his capacity of Minister, have kept the two Houses together. Between the Council and teachers, and old, the too inadequate, conception of master page 271 and servant had gone, and to Hunter, more than to anyone else, was due the steady level of understanding that marked the forties. For he remained a disinterested man.


The college grew. But in fact, was there ever simply one college? Perhaps, in the very earliest days of all; yet in the very earliest days of Spike there is reproof of those students who showed no ‘college spirit’, who refused to debate, or play hockey, or sing, or go to picnics; the misguided, the regrettable persons who would do nothing but ‘cram’. That strain of reproof has never been absent—even when it has been impossible to accuse the misguided and regrettable ones, with verisimilitude, of overmuch cram. For the college has been like most societies; its corporate feeling has waxed and waned, and the suggestion that at any particular time every one of its students had felt himself, with vividness, to be a ‘member’, would be an improbable one. A history of the present sort inevitably stresses those things that are done, inevitably conveys something of a false impression, converts minorities into majorities, ‘tendencies’ into ‘movements’, shades into colours. But it is important, even in celebrating an institution, not to be sentimental about it—to remember, indeed, that affection can do without sentimentality. We may remember, with every justification, Absent Friends; we may not forget what one Absent Friend has called ‘the great dull flood that sweeps up the hill and back again with its ticket to a better job.’ That flood has been real enough, though its reasons for being dull as well as a flood may be real enough also, if they could be found, and looked into. There does not seem to have been a year when students have not had able leaders of some sort— often they have been extremely able; nor a year when there has not been in some group an intense intellectual excitement of some sort of other; nor a year when the dullness of inertia page 272 has not existed, or been prodded into a less dull state only with immense and exasperating labour. Victoria, the bewitching mistress, the delightful and star-crowned Lady of the Hill, has seemed often enough quite unromantic, a poor sort of female, rather shabby and unkempt, and she has extorted no worship, no throb of tender sentiment. One should not be shocked or surprised. The surprising thing, rather, to those with a large experience, is that she has made so many conquests; that her brows have been crowned with quite so many flowers, which later generations, who have lost the habit of tendering wreaths, do not find totally absurd. Nevertheless the energetic, the socially-conscious people, will always deplore the lax behaviour of the others, and the others will not bear visibly the marks of a university-cultivated spirit. And it will be remembered that though Athens obtained some note as a city-state in ancient Greece, Plato found too many reasons for disapproving of the Athenians.

Our question remains, was there ever simply one college? Every student, it is more probable, has had his own college, for we are individuals; and beyond the individual, there have been groups, clubs, subjects of study, professors or lecturers, who have been the centre of life when it has been most intensely a university life. The college has been the excitement of a literary periodical, met for the first time in the Library, or one of the big books in its subject, wrestled with and found miraculously revealing, or it has been the dissecting bench or the physics laboratory at some quiet hour of the night, or the pervasive smell of chemicals; it has been, for some, Kirk, for others Easterfield or Hunter or Brown or von Zedlitz; there has been the college of the Executive or of the Free Discussions Club, the Debating Society, the Armadillan Absolutists, the Christian Union and the S.C.M. or the Biological Society; the football college, the Haeremai Club college, the basketball college, the B. Com. College, the college that is the Art room page 273 and the Steinway grand, even the college of the young women who used to take the ‘social course’. There has been the college of the hostels, and the grim boarding-houses of the Terrace. The different colleges combine, break up and recombine from half-decade to half-decade, perhaps from year to year. The over-all college of the forties is different from that of the thirties or the twenties or of the first decade, the prevailing combinations are different, the outside world casts its terrific shadow, the colour of its passions or its amusements, and dyes a whole generation of students. No, that is not quite true; for the outside world is not really ‘outside’; our college has never been situated in an academic remoteness, even of the spirit; no college ever lived more fully en plein air; it has gone with the world, or fought with the world, as it has known the world, but it has never timidly secreted itself and brooded over the abstract. For it, the abstract, though not unknown, has always had some connection with the concrete. ‘It’? How easy to collapse into fallacy, to revert to generalization! ‘It’ after all is unreal, the number of colleges is not one. But even that paradox may be pushed too far. There is an outside view as well as an inside view, and the very thing the lack of which has periodically been bemoaned from the inside—coherency, the corporate life of men and women—has been the thing which has struck, forcibly, observers coming new to the scene—observers whose experience has lain in the vast universities of larger countries. Let us not, therefore, push our paradox too far. The multiple may after all be one; the one admits of the multiple.

How various have been the students of this multiplicity of colleges, over its fifty years, what astonishing diversities of character they have displayed! Should not one list all the notabilities, he eccentrics, the worthy, the workers, the disinterested ones, the Presidents, the Secretaries, with all their distinctions, their battles won or lost, the Captains and Vice- page 274 Captains and Editors, the Plunket Medallists, Producers and Business Managers and Controllers, the Senior scholars and Rhodes scholars and Post-graduate Travelling scholars, the brilliant and coruscating ones, the argumentative and ingenious ones, who have stood about the hall and notice-boards or the Gym, exercising their wit or plotting the overthrow of Established Institutions? Should not one say, This man always got first-class terms; or This woman decorated the Town Hall, tramped ninety miles in two days, and as a zoological investigator was the leading authority on the domestic habits of the New Zealand weta? That this one got double first class honours with marks never equaled before or since, actually thought in French or Greek, that that one composed comic songs? Should one not call over—it may be a grave dereliction of duty not to do so—the long roll or eminency, and name those numerous judges and archdeacons and heads of departments and soldiers, members of parliament and ministers and secretaries of legations and administrators of this and that, and school-teachers and professors and wives and mothers who once were students; who, also, stood in the hall and read notices, debated, played football or hockey, turned pale in November, or flushed with triumph, before a printed page of questions? Should one not add to these eminences a remarkable swindler, and one of the most accomplished burglars in the history of our country? But how to select from such richness, how to assert particulars, without ignoring, as of less account, a thousand other particulars that make for glory? And let it be remembered that this is the history of a college, not a biographical dictionary; let it be remembered, furthermore, that this college, thought it has maintained a becoming reverence for things true and beautiful, and for the triumphs of the mind, has never worshipped the ‘bitch-goddess, Success’.

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So one need not particularize, though one may remember those who were honoured in their generations and were the glory of their times, or gave counsel by their understanding. One may generalize about change, but can one say that students have even essentially changed? The laughter-provoking superficial changes are there, of course, obvious, staring one in the face; it is a far cry indeed from the tennis garb of 1899, on the parliamentary courts, to the young men, stripped to the waist and in shorts, in 1948, to the young bare-legged women, leaping in white blouse and blue rompers. Perhaps that baring, that freeing of muscles, indicates a certain unconscious liberation of the spirit? That voluminous hockey uniform is gone, those superbly high collars are gone, it is the age of corduroys, of young women in slacks, of young men in tweed hats. The line of development towards this easy anarchy was, as we have seen, punctuated with outbursts of indignation, but who now berates the college women because their hair is long or short, surmounted or unsurmounted by a hat, their legs in trousers, shorts, or skirt? The straw boater is gone, the college tie is gone. Yes: with the departure of things stiff and constricting, a good deal that was stiff and constricting in manners, in ways of thought has gone too. The student of the thirties and forties tended to be a good deal franker and more open in his or her views, in approach to life, to the other sex, than had been common in earlier years. These were the decades of the Christian name. Where now, at college dances, was the row of patient, faithful, smiling chaperons? It was becoming increasingly impossible to administer visible shocks in conversation—a condition of affairs which older generations, even if they struggled to be tolerant, found in itself rather shocking. Others gave thanks; for freedom—the freedom of the limbs or the freedom of the mind, searched out and bathed by air and light—is a thing of excellent goodness and beauty. On the other hand, a close observer of the college in the page 276 forties might see aspects of the mind and of behaviour which were more immediately and obviously among the trailing effects of war than those other changes. There were students who, though happily circumstanced in comparison with their contemporaries of Europe or Asia, had grown up in an atomsphere to which peace and security were quite strange, who had never known a day in their thinking lives in which depression and war, or talk of those things, had not been the background of all news and all discussion, to whom ‘normality’ would have been completely abnormal. Fifty years ago there had been standards—standards of behaviour, standards by which truth was accepted; but these standards were difficult to take seriously now. What standards indeed had the war left beyond technical ones? It was very difficult to believe anything one read, and so much had happened, apparently so uncontrollably, that to look for reasons seemed a waste of time. Did anything have any particular significance in college or outside it? How deep was the significance for the majority of students of such an incident as that of the ‘Gottwald telegram’, with all its noise and fury, it is impossible to say. Talk was distrusted; the good, the calm, the disinterested were objects of suspicion, as if such qualities could never really be valid; a general uncertainty led to a general impatience— an impatience to grasp out of life what could be grasped before life came to an end. It was not a particular end that was envisaged, as in the thirties; but rather, one thinks, a particular accentuation of the inability which youth has always had to accept for itself the notion of old age. So, sometimes with a rather gauche determination, young men and women settled down to eat, drink and be merry. It was a blundering way of finding something to live by; and with it all, they could never get rid, entirely, of ‘values’—goodness, calmness, disinterestedness would, every now and again, take them unaware; they might even, paradoxically, find themselves upholding page 277 some ‘absolute’, some use of reason, some uncalculated generosity, some final phrase of music as it came from the gramophone. With this background of natural confusion, in a day when entrance to the university was easy, and the rigours of thought might seem to bring little illumination or reward, the way was open to a peculiar side-shoot of freedom, a sort of ‘cult of the pseudo-’—the pseudo-student, the pseudo-Bohemian, the pseudo-cynic, to a pseudo-romanticism of beer and bad language, late nights, and certainly not very well tested ideas. The young men wore their tweed hats, the young women flicked their ash, with an air—or pseudo-thoughness, perhaps?4 Within the large body of students, this ill-defined group may still have counted for relatively little; but as a social phenomenon, reflecting like so much else the life of the general community, and in such odd contrast with the days—shall one call the naive?—of Odes, and sonnets addressed to Victoria, it should not escape notice. There is more than one sort of naivety.

One may nevertheless answer the question that began the last paragraph with the probable guess that our students have not essentially changed. There are more of them, there are more of a particular type. There are more notices fighting for room on the notice-board. There are more week-end and vacation retreats of various sorts. Individuality has not vanished, or good humour, or humanity, or the capacity to wrestle with angels of one sort or another. The student mind has always had to fight against its own confusion. In some ways the college has become more serious. The Glee Club no longer sings gless, but Purcell and Vaughan Williams. One does not know what piano solos were rendered at those first concerts of all; but they could hardly have been extracted from the works of page 278 J. S. Bach. Musical composition, once devoted to comic songs and extravaganza choruses, has now become a matter of grave, even esoteric, striving. Drama is no longer the Victorian farce, but plays that extend both performers and audience, and there is talk of a Little Theatre. The visual arts have come to have some importance; even in the staff common room pictures have given rise to animated, if puzzled, discussion. Films are dissected with expertness and learning. With the widening in scope of ideas about education, it may be argued, tentatively, that the college is becoming more civilized. But still one would not argue that there has been essential change. There has been the dull flood, there have been the inert, but there have always been the alive; there has always been the interest in life, the social conscience. The impulse has been the same, the outlet has varied. What have our students read —the deliberate readers? What books have joined with the great mass of unconsciously assimilated impressions to form their intellectual climate? How difficult again it is to generalize! Set books, of course; but a good deal can be instanced beyond those classics of imagination or elucidation. There were fashions, New Zealand has been a province. In 1900, perhaps W. S. Gilbert, Kipling, Matthew Arnold, Browning. In 1910, Kipling, Shaw, Nietzsche (Nietzsche had his English edition, his English boom). In the twenties Katherine Mansfield, Shaw, Wells, Bertrand Russell, perhaps Conrad, the Athenaeum. In the thirties, Marx, Lenin, and their popularizers; John Dos Passos and the practitioners of that dubious are-form, the ‘proletarian novel’; Auden, Katherine Mansfield. In the forties, Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, Havelock Ellis, the radical New Zealand poets, James Joyce, Horizon, New Masses, the New Statesman, Studs Lonigan, Thomas Wolfe, Koestler, Burnham, Steinbeck, E. M. Forster. It is a very rough, a very incomplete index. What does it argue? Some sort of liberal tradition, no doubt; some confusion; not very much of the Ivory Tower, certainly.

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There was reading; and there was discussion. Again we must take account of the dull flood, whose discussions need set no dove-cotes fluttering, disturb no Parent or Guardian or League or solid citizen, lay or clerical. But the discussion has been important, at least for the discussers. We need, except in one respect, particularize it no more—though we may note that, by the late forties, certain great issues of the past were dead; missionaries, to the S.C.M., were dead (well… medical missionaries?); birth-control was dead; Salient, in 1947, showed signs of wearying of the anti-fascist onslaught, to which for ten years it had given such signal service, and offered a prize ‘to anybody submitting for the next issue an article which does not include the letter “f” (or “F”), as this letter on our typewriter has had it’. The one issue that never grew dead was the Idea of a University. In writing, in talk, in exhortation, in the perennial expression of discontent, the thing was canvassed. ‘We be wayfarers together, O Students,’ said that first Spike, in the days when the exciting conviction was yet new, that fellowship was life, and lack of fellowship was death. John Ball, preaching that doctrine, has never been far away, though his language has varied a good deal from time to time—sometimes couched in a Christian phraseology, sometimes in terms of the pork pies and saveloys of the Haeremai Club, of the ‘militant forward policy’ of the Executive in the dark days of the second war, or of all the planning for the ideal Union building; sometimes in the persuasion of the gentlemen from Weir House that theirs was the true, the saving way of life. There was, however, also the conviction of the Reformers and their followers, and of the new reformers of the forties, that the university existed for the sake of intellectual integrity, for the stripped and athletic pursuit of Truth, wherever that elusive lady might lead. Was she in a well, was she on a hill? (There was a sentimental persuasion, on the part of some, that her particular residence might be on a Kelburn hill.)

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On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will
Reach her, about must, and about must goe;
And what the hills suddenness resists, winne so;

they would climb anything, if the University could only be so organized as not to get in their way. Under the impact of depression and war, with the familiar spirits of Marx and Lenin brooding over the land, there was a different emphasis. Spike again, in 1941, is the summary: ‘We are students at a university. A university is an institution designed primarily towards the propagation of knowledge. Knowledge is a guide and condition of action. To ensure correct action should be the aim of a university education.… The tone of student thought at the present time is decidedly encouraging. More and more students are at last learning that their task is not merely to interpret the world but to change it’. After the end of the war, with the release of that formidable pressure, there was, as we have seen, a spreading of interest. Certainly the Socialist Club wanted to change the world, and thought the university's duty was to do something about it; but there were other voices. Fellowship was up and about again with the renewed campaign for the Building Fund; the latest Spike, if it pleaded for anything from the elevation of what would undoubtedly have been called, a few years before, an Ivory Tower, pleaded for an ‘intellectual magnanimity’ of which it could see very little evidence around it; and the Philosophical Society, knowing that philosophy was the heart of the matter, proclaimed, ‘As a club we exist only to nourish the question “Why?”’


That question ‘why?’—does it lie there, fundamentally, the inability of the college, at various times, to get along amicably with the community in which it has been set? A tactful his- page 281 torian would perhaps seeks to smother the question. That would be both false and stupid; for the differences, the denunciation, the resentment, have been marked.5 Obviously, however respectable Council and Professorial Board have been, as official entities, thorough respectability has somehow eluded the college. Partly, but probably, one fancies, to only a small extent, this has been due to the crudity, the brute noise, the undeniably immoderate vulgarity of a fairly constant minority of students whose high spirits have led to low behaviour. In the community at large that does not seem to have made the college really unpopular: riotous and unseemly conduct, if without any particular point; dubious humour, if its only point was to make money, seem to have been regarded with tolerance by the great body of average sensual men in the street. True, certain citizens have registered annoyance. That is the sort of behaviour, however, of which the average sensual man himself has been always capable, and he has a basis for comprehension. It is unusual behaviour which has a point, which contravenes the accepted on a reasoned or doctrinal basis, and therefore cannot be laughed off or put down, which has been so disturbing. Constant criticism of the conventional commonplaces of government or empire, argument about peace treaties. Sunday tennis before Sunday tennis became universal, a leaning towards the Left Wing in times of depression and social disturbance, socialist processions—such things could always be argued for on a reasonable basis, whatever the final truth might be; and our students have been unwearied, and sometimes disrespectful, in argument. They have kept on asking why?—with its equally irritating variant why not?—and they have been inclined to give their own answers. Add to that the capacity of some of their teachers to ask equally awk- page 282 ward questions, and to argue the point; to upset established institutions like the University, with a Reform movement, or the Bible, with their hostility to the Bible-in-Schools League; and one can see why they, like Socrates, were so often accused of upsetting the minds of the youth, and the youth were accused of upsetting all the most sacred traditions of the race.

Curiously enough, when the critics were in full cry, it did little good to point out that the mass of students were quite conventional and inoffensive, or that a majority had risen in wrath and thrown out the Executive, or that there were professors and lecturers who were church-going Christians, or even defenders of the capitalist system. They, like the other multitudinous seas, were somehow incarnadined. One must reflect again upon the difficult age in which the college has lived its brief life. It has been an age of dissatisfaction, dissent, destruction, dismay. For fifty years the world has been shifting beneath the feet of western culture—or so the cultured, or at least the comfortable, have left; and, they have felt, it would not shift so fast or so uncomfortably if people with half-baked ideas, like university students, did not help to push it. This is an inadequate diagnosis of the moving forces of history, even in New Zealand, but it is not unnatural. The two world wars and the major depression have not been entirely disposed of yet by the social analysts. Wellington, the commercial capital city that in the nineteenth century could not found a university college for itself, even at £4000 a year, was unlikely in the twentieth century to view with understanding or tolerance a university college that showed so many signs of unorthodox thought. The town rested on a heritage of social assumption that should have had universal and permanent validity, and the youth were putting that validity to question. The youth, indeed, seemed to have lost all sense of values. They no longer respected authority. Their scrutiny page 283 of the world, indeed, led them to deride rather than to respect. Civil servants in the native home of the civil service, they prided themselves on knowing how the machine worked; they had no respect for the state as such. Law clerks, they were on terms of offensive familiarity with the law—which was not necessarily identical with knowing all about it. They inclined to be skeptical about religion—though that could not be put down to any extensive acquaintance with theology. In matters of economic and social organization they were apt to find evidence of injustice and oppression that was not at all obvious to managing directors and accountants and company secretaries, all honest and conscientious men. They were apt to read books from overseas that might be clever, might even be true of some less happy society—say of Chicago, or the Russian steppes, or Germany, or even of parts of England, because everybody knew that England had slums; but that sort of thing was manifestly untrue of New Zealand, of Wellington. They invited members of the Labour party to the college to preach socialism; they talked altogether too much of following Truth wherever it might lead. Learning to use their heads, they were, like other people undergoing that process, frequently muddle-headed; and they would, when under reproof, indulge in further rather flamboyant argument and insult.

All this was true. Most of it has always been true of young men undergoing a university education; but this was Wellington's first experience of a university. Young men had been noisy, and revolutionary, and over-clever in institutions of higher learning ever since the thirteenth century; our city was founded in a time, and by classes of society, in which such behaviour was esteemed as neither normal nor praiseworthy. It is the duty of a university to transcend its time and its environment, to be pertinacious in asking why, to be forever critical in the use of the mind, with no sense of responsibility towards established institutions merely because they are estab- page 284 lished. The argument does not call, necessarily, for admiration of a willful and childish irresponsibility. Certainly the university should guard a tradition—but the tradition should be one that is open for re-examination. It cannot with advantage avoid the imperatives of its own academic freedom. It should have respect for values, but its values—truth, and honesty, and human dignity and decency, and toleration for intellectual dissent—may vary in degree from those held by some very worthy people. To demand that the environment—the society in which the university has its being—should transcend itself, in patient submission to analysis and criticism, to the disrespectful gibes of sons and daughters with a fatal gift for appearing cocksure, is to demand, it must be conceded, a great deal. Wellington, which loves, when it is not working, to take its ease in the sun, has suffered a good deal from spring winds; and it feels no better to be told they are but winds of doctrine. There is an uneasy suspicion that the garden may be laid waste, that something may be blown off the house. The problem is not, except possibly by implication, to be solved in a work of history.


Can one, then, say in what particular characteristic, what attitude to life, what shade of feeling the spirit of the college has resided? May not the question itself be ridiculous where so young an institution is concerned? It is probably not ridiculous; for accusations are not made, or virtues asserted, of bodies that have no character at all. Certainly our college has not the settled air of belonging in a special order of nature, like its sister of Otago, with a sense of the whole duty of man still hanging, rather heavily though indefinably, on the air; it owes nothing to church establishment. Nor was it in any way determined by the high-toned, upper-class Anglicanism, social as much as ecclesiastical, which made its other sister, of Can- page 285 terbury, so much an inherent and secure part of its own community, even as its trees and lawns merged in the consciously created, carefully tended Anglican parks nearby. It has never shared with its province anything like the proud and effortless Auckland feeling that after all, this, Auckland, is New Zealand, this has a special existence not quite subject to the laws that bind the lesser ranks of being. It has, clearly, always been rather untidy, has always had a rather half-finished look, like its cuttings in the clay. It has been excavating to find a broad and stable basis for thought, and the clay keeps slipping, occasionally staving in the side of a temporary building. It has shown, that is, a sense of the transitory nature of a good many human convictions. It has, as we have seen, always been anti-authoritarian; even its orthodox members have often had some twist, some singularity of character, that has made them do unexpected things, offer unexpected arguments, refuse to be merely ordinary. It has, on the whole, been secular in feeling, possibly rather gracelessly secular, taking more from the colour of the community than it has realized or the community guessed. It has, over most of its existence, eschewed, quite unconsciously, the aesthetic, has sought for efficiency, rather than for beauty, in the things of the mind. It has harboured no wide romantic movement, beyond its own early romance, though, heaven knows, its students have been romantics in innumerable ways.

All this is negative, though negations say something. Like most negations, they fall short of truth. To deny all aesthetic interest is to deny the strong strain of composition in verse which has distinguished the college with a curious regularity. The other arts have begun to wield their influence, still not strongly, but recognizably; and this influence will quite certainly be deeper in the future. But for the past and the present the main influence is other. Positively, there is the ‘social conscience’; with the conviction that discussion is socially page 286 good, is a mode of enlightening the social conscience. There is the emphasis once slight but unmistakable, and vastly increasing, given to those social which Stout foresaw as the peculiar mission of the college, beyond the basic humanities. There is—and one seems here to come close to what one is seeking—a sort of general sense of the Utilitarian inheritance, the rational, humane Utilitarianism of Stout himself when in his eager maturity; a feeling that without any necessary metaphysic one may get somewhere in the effort to understand the life of man, and understanding it, make something of it. Whom—this further question also may help to summarize—would one choose for a patrom saint for the college, if that improbable task were delegated to one? Going on its name, one might, truly, feel a measure of obligation towards the Queen. But that would be so obviously wrong—and no one yet, it seems, has claimed sanctity for that regal wife and mother, that imperious rocker of the constitution, that Person so respectable and so remote in her devotions from the colonial foundation that was given her name. Whom, then? Not any of the apostles or martyrs or fathers of the early Church, certainly, or fabulous dragon-slayers, or angelic doctors of the great mediaeval systems of thought, no Cyril or Jerome or Aquinas; not any of the great mystics, and no master of ingenious heresy. Perhaps, putting aside absolute sanctity, we might share, with London, old Jeremy Bentham? But perhaps he was too systematic, too uncompromising, perhaps his sensibilities were a little too much under control (though he did play the organ)? Perhaps—the thought is hard to put away—we might have, if not Victoria, at least a Victorian; our man might be that other, gentler thinker, the Utilitarian with a difference, determined to comprehend in his system the emotions as well as the rigours of the mind, a little confused with the adaptability of his own logic; certainly quite unflippant; now inevitably seeming somewhat out-of-date, but page 287 the man called in his day ‘the saint of rationalism’, John Stuart Mill. In Victoria College at its best, our provincial and struggling institution, is one deceived in seeing something of the wise, luminous and compassionate spirit of Mill?


Of course the college, however high it puts the claims of wisdom above those of gold, has not by any means always been pre-eminently wise, or luminous, or compassionate. For we are back at the difficulty of generalizing, back at the conviction that a college is not a single entity, to be exalted or condemned as one and not many. It is teachers and students, in the end, and in their relations is the truth, teacher with student, student with student. For every student the college has been this or that thing, this or that association—some— thing, possibly, quite nul; possibly something fructifying permanently, in ways rarely thought of or guessed at, an assimilated secret. It may, at last, even for those who were most intensely aware of its virtues when they were students themselves, thin down to a series of fragmentary, rather faded snippets of vision, a few echoes of sound—a hall full of jostling people (with not much fresh air), dissipated at a peremptory finger-snap; the long double-tiered line of notices blowing all at once confusedly in the wind, as the back door pushes open; motion, amendment, and counter-amendment in the Gym; black-capped Horace Ward on his dais, his Greek Testament out; the front steps on a night of full moon, the still harbour, the still far hills; a question from Adamson, the bushy-browed, the remorseless, coming nearer and nearer; the prick of a pin in the psych lab; Kirk's light late at night, visible; Mackenzie reaching for his spectacles as his voice goes up, and that other light, that never was on sea or land, is advanced once more for measured consideration; Strawbridge standing page 288 on a platform in a physics lecture, with electricity coursing through him; words—Aedem colimus Minervae… cover her face… purpureus veluti cum flos succisus aratro… in a somer seson… oh Eastern Star; a few faces, out of the innumerable faces, of the living or the dead. But while it lasted, it was life, it was experience. It cannot quite be blotted out.

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1 The first two pieces of published work were printed in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, Vol. xxxiii (1901): T. H. Easterfield and B. C. Aston, ‘Studies in the Chemistry of the New Zealand Flora’. Part I (pp. 345–55); and Douglas Hector, ‘Note on the Vapour Density of Mercury’ (p. 382).

2 As one inelegant senior member of the staff tersely put it, on hearing of dissension elsewhere, ‘Well, we may have some bloody fools on our staff, but thank God, we get on well together’.

3 The Education Amendment Act, 1948, Section 20.

4 I hasten to add that I am far from asserting that every young man who wore a tweed hat, or young woman who smoked a cigarette, was pseudo-anything.

5 One of the most wise and temperate statements on this theme known to me is that of a student, in the editorial article entitled. ‘Town and Gown’, in Spike, 1937.