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Victoria University College an Essay towards a History


page vii


No one, truly, could be more conscious of the defects of this book than its author. To write history is always to receive fresh instruction in the inadequacies of one's own knowledge, the shortcomings of one's own research and imagination; and to write the history of a college is, in this way, no less instructive then to write the history of an empire. The book is larger then it was meant to be; it was begun only after prolonged thought (I can say that) over the best method of solving the problem which it presented, and in the end, I freely confess, it took charge of me. Our college is a difficult, an intransigent institution for the historical analyst; inconsiderable as it may seem to gods on Olympus, its history is pretty nearly as complex as theirs, and can be written only in a mixture of generalization and detail that can hardly fail to cause some dissatisfaction. No doubt if I had another twelve months I could make it shorter, generalize more lucidly, choose, perhaps, more illuminating detail (for some detail one must have— ‘ce superflu, si nécessaire’), give it a form somewhat more elegant, round it off. But I suspect, nevertheless, that the college is not very susceptible to rounding off. I also suspect that no person who has had anything to do with college life will regard the book as very satisfactory for his own period. Other persons page viii may feel like Virginia Woolf, who remarks, writing on Addison in The Common Reader, that perceptive, enchanting book, ‘Any historian will explain; but it is always a misfortune to have to call in the services of any historian.’

I have tried to write a history of a college, not of individuals, and have even deliberately refrained from mentioning names except when they arose inevitably out of the narrative. Young as it is, the college has been exceedingly rich in character, and once that sort of description was embarked upon, beyond the strictly necessary, it would both have been never-ending and have landed me in strange quandaries of tact. So the critical, once again, may find what seem like important omissions. I have also tried to see the college not in isolation, living a life merely its own (which would be manifestly untrue) but as part of the community, conditioned by the world, a particular manifestation of New Zealand, bound to it by obvious ties, but also by innumerable more subtle filaments, one side of a process of continuous action and reaction; a reflection, as it were, in a particular mirror of our general uneasy and complicated twentieth century life. I can only hope I have not too much misjudged, over-simplified, distorted the relation. I have omitted any consideration of Adult Education in the Wellington district, though that has been managed through the college; for it is really an autonomous subject, and though many professors and lectures have devoted a good deal of time to it, and been nearly concerned in its fortunes, it has impinged little on the life of the college proper.

Nor have I said much (I find with a sense of sudden horror— have I indeed said anything?) about courses of study, ‘stages’, options, syllabuses, set-books and text-books, and all those other invaluable, inevitable, indispensable adjuncts of the learned life, which form so large a part, properly, of the life of any serious and well-intentioned college. I have no doubt I should have thought even longer, been more careful to give page ix a just proportion of attention to important things. But somehow the college seems to have consisted of human beings, men and women, whose relations to their fellows have been so interesting as to divert me from those other, grave matters; in the end I seem to have said more about students than about anything else. I acknowledge the emphasis and the lack of emphasis; and it may be that in the end the men and women have, too, a real importance.

One cannot finish a study of the history of the college without forming fairly decided views as to how its future development should be guided—as to where, for example, administrative bodies might be profitably revised, or departments profitably strengthened. But I have not regarded the elabortation of such views as part of my duty as historian, though here I cannot resist saying that the college has by no means yet outgrown the prescription given by Stout in 1886, while it has done no more than take one or two of the first necessary steps in the arts (not the ‘arts-subjects’) which now its duty is, I think, to cultivate.

The documentation of the book will seem to some readers otiose, and to others (principally perhaps those advanced students of the History Department who may do me the honour to read it) shamefully inadequate. In fact I set out to do away with footnotes altogether, as unnecessary in a sort of celebratory memoir; but they kept breaking in, There is a good deal of quotation untethered formally and specifically to a source; here, however, I think it will be obvious from the context that college records, or Spike, or Salient, or some other organ of opinion and enlightenment is being quoted; and I have done my best to verify all such extracts.

The illustrations form a somewhat random selection. Most of them are from the early days. Adequately to portray these fifty years would mean the presentation of an enormous heap of photographs—a whole album, or rather a series of albums. page x Nevertheless those that are given will, I hope, illuminate some facets of the college life, even though the originals do not uniformly allow of first-rate reproduction. The names of individual persons in most of the groups are deliberately not given. They are typical of their generation of students; those who knew them will need no printed list, and to later generations in the quick succession mere names would mean but little.

After a good deal of hesitation, I have refrained from giving a formal bibliography. The history of the college is very much bound up with the history of the University in general, and on that there are two bibliographies already in existence; that in my book on The University of New Zealand (Wellington, New Zealand Council of Educational Research, 1937) and the other in the well-known Bibliography of New Zealand Education by Mary Mules and A. G. Butchers, the second edition revised by H. C. McQueen (Wellington, New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1947). This has a separate section on the college. In addition to the sources listed therein the college archives have of course been indispensable; and I have to thank the Council for giving me free access both to its own Minutes and to any other papers I wished to consult. The student publications, Spike, Smad, Salient, have been indispensable also; and nothing could have been more admirable than the long-suffering patience displayed by the Library staff under the unscrupulous demands I made upon their resources. The New Zealand Parliamentary Debates have yielded their usual sad fruits of eloquence, and some revealing details.

I am indebted for information, beyond the printed word, to many persons, my seniors, contemporaries, or juniors, who have read my drafts, or submitted cheerfully to cross-questioning on their memories or observations; who have given me ideas and hints, and altogether enlarged my comprehension of the college beyond my early expectations, They have never attempted to determine my judgment. I am especially grateful page xi to Sir Thomas and Lady Hunter and to Professor von Zedlitz; to Professor Kirk, who in the last months of his life wrote for me notes that shone with an undimmed spirit; to my history colleagues Professor F. L. Wood and Mary Boyd; to Denise Dettmann, who shored up the ruins of my Latin; and to certain students of my own who have not merely helped me with a general criticism but have also done their best to improve my prose style. I must record, also, a particular gratitude to Nancy Taylor and to Frances Fyfe for proof-reading, and for making the index.

I should add that nothing would have been possible had not the college Council freed me for a year from the load of lecturing; and I hope that its members will not now think that I could have been better employed.


January, 1949.
page xii