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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 15, No. 3. March 20, 1952

Sacred Cow At Curious Cove — A Theme Walked in

Sacred Cow At Curious Cove

A Theme Walked in

"And, when each man had milked her dry
The old cow died of roaring, O
At three o'clock, at four o'clock
At five o'clock in the morning, O."

Some time about January 25, 1952, a strange but much rumoured quadruped of considerable intellectual capacity and a bovine exterior made its appearance at Curious Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound for the fourth N.Z.U.S.A. Congress. Never did a taboo raise such a hullaballoo as during the next ten days, when this animal was baited, teased, flogged and cursed, not to say drained of its lactic fluid, only to exhibit such a tenacity for life that, in the words of the minstrel Jacobus Baxterius (blaed wide sprang)

"... as they were lamenting all
The cow got up and made reply:
You're a set of bloody suckers, mates
A Sacred Cow can never die!"

That, in a buttercup, is the story of Congress '52. The very high standard set by the three previous gatherings made us somewhat sceptical about this novelty, a Congress without a theme, and with even a V.U.C. lecturer on the programme, but long before the end we were one and all congratulating the Controller, Duncan Stewart, on having equalled the best previous record for organising a set of brilliant talks and a social programme that left little to be desired.

If discussion was slow to warm up, the hut parties, with their open doors and open throats, were by no means so, especially when forty or fifty songsters crowded into one four-man hut, chanting seditious ditities from the S.L.F. Song-book, without any particular idea of a tune, until the grey hours. With the cheery help of Theo Allen, of the Department of Internal Affairs, indoor and outdoor sports, notably volley-ball, got under way, and, if the weather had not washed out the inter-college competition, the contests might have entered world class, at least for hilarity.

The "fishing" expedition to Ship Cove and vicissitudes on the return journey, which provided an exemplary manifestation of the verse "I'm washed out like a dish-rag!" also supplied the daily Press with some exultation Over the damping of "the intellectuals," the glow from which had penetrated even its blinkered myopia. Although fishing was knocked off this day's programme by the falling barometer, Dun carts very sensible plan of having every afternoon free left the enthusiasts plenty of opportunities to stock up for fish-fries at night. It also allowed more time for the less hardy to improve their minds. Under the very able guidance of Don Anderson (O.U.) a group met on several afternoons to listen to poetry, from Dante to Pat Wilson, read by Jim Baxter, Philip Smithells, Bob Chapman and Don himself. Music rather lagged until Owen Jensen arrived, but thereafter he struggled manfully against the piano (or rather the forte) each siesta, while all and sundry enjoyed both his playing and his wit.

Apart from meals, we got down to serious business at least twice daily, in the mornings and evenings we assembled to hear series of penetrating lectures, each by a specialist in his own subject. These were followed by discussion in groups' under group leaders, and/or open discussion from the floor. There was no apparent pattern in the titles of these talks, but, and this was in our opinion the most amazing feature of the Congress, these disjointed specialities integrated into a pattern more coherent than that provided by a set theme, and helped at least some to find order in the academic fungus with which they had become encrusted during the previous year. No doubt this was largely due to the ability of the speakers, which was on a uniformly high plane, but it might perhaps be interpreted also as an illustration of the fact that the title "University" is not altogether a misnomer. Because we found this integration so striking we shall dispense with the chronological order of talks and fit them into the scheme as we saw it, in the hope of showing how they can draw together one's thoughts and ideals, and of eliciting dialectically the corresponding reactions of others present.

The Cloven Hoof

As the chorus from Jim Baxter's song quoted above indicates, what came to be the central theme of the discussions was the attitude attacked by Dr. H. N. Parton (Chem. C.U.C.), in his talk, "Is Science a Sacred Cow?" He took to task the Pharasaism of some of his fellow scientists and their followers, attacking their adherence to what he called "Scientism," the idea that scientists as such have a monopoly of objectivity, independence of mind and tolerance, and hence are especially qualified to right the world's wrongs. For, as he showed by an analysis of the history of Dalton's Law of Constant Composition it cannot be said that Science has ever arrived at a final truth. The most that can ever be justly claimed is that a certain hypothesis has been proved wrong, and it is thus, by the elimination of error and not by approach to any ultimate truth, that science progresses. Why then do scientists, but more especially laymen, set up science as an idol, a sacred cow," whose pronouncements on any subject whatsoever are to be taken for Gospel truth? Because, in the first place, there is an objectivity about science (guaranteed in its own field by publication, experiment and free criticism) which, however, appertains to results and not to scientists themselves. They are often characterised, not by such a virtue, but, like Dalton, by an obstinate faith in a hypothesis for which they have little empirical verification. Furthermore, from the very extent of science, a great deal must be taken on faith, so that its claim to be completely unauthoritarian is unfounded. But the main reason for the Sacred Cow attitude is mental laziness, a reluctance, to take moral judgments for ourselves, which prepared us to hand over responsibility to certain people because they can obviously help us in the material things of life. Science, concluded Dr. Parton, is not a body of knowledge but a way of going about things; "one of man's major spiritual ventures." It must be applied by all of us to our own thinking, no matter what the field.

Living costs cartoon

Next Week (Duty Issues (2 and 3) Done) Back to Normal. Salient a Newspaper: Club News, Short Articles, More Variety

Dr. A. Crowther (Psych. C.U.C.) attacked psychology from a similar standpoint. Speaking on "Psychology and Industry," he noted that, in the first place, psychologists know a lot more about rats than about humans, and about coercible human beings (soldiers and schoolchildren) than about the Man in the Street. This means that applied psychology has very little relation as yet to pure theory. Research on industrial accidents, for instance, had no theoretical basis, though proceeding on an empirical line of approach it had been able to trace a great deal to emotional disturbance and point the way to the solution of some problems. But a further and much greater difficulty arises from the fact that many psychological problems involve crucial value judgments, and hence there is a tendency to concentrate on non-controversial fields such as accidents rather than upon the more important matters, like industrial relations. Where these fields are investigated, there is always a tendency to make a tacit moral choice for the status quo and attempt to patch it up rather than tackling the deeper problem of how much the system is at fault, in any case it must be recognised that in a value problem like those in industry the psychologist is not specially qualified to make the basic decisions and that he can only, and in some small degree, predict the consequences of a course of action. Responsibility, Dr. Crowther emphasised by implication, rests with us.

The Cowbail...

The need for responsible thinking on problema very close to us was brought out in the talks of Dr. H. R. Hulme (Rector, C.U.C.), and Mr. Fhillip Smithells (Phys. Ed., O.U.), who both discussed the situation of the University in New Zealand. From the administrative side, Dr. Hulme spoke first of the size and nature of the University. The choice between "elite" and "democratic" systems, he pointed out, was not likely to rest in our hands so much as in those of the community in general, and possibly had already been determined by the structure of our society in favour of the latter type. The demands of the professions, and in particular of teaching, make expansion imperative, and it might be better that a lesser degree or licentiate should be introduced, so that those not capable of completing an Honours course should yet have some of the benefits of a higher education. Discussion on this point after the lecture turned rather against Dr. Hulme on the ground that the licentiate would only be formalising an existing fact and pandering to the "Sacred Cow" attitude of New Zealanders to labels. However, the discussion groups agreed with his next point, the desirability of giving internal autonomy to the colleges in academic matters while preserving a united front against pressure from outside; and also in his comments on the system of examinations and rigid syllabi, which the N.Z.U. has inherited from the days of external examining. Exams, he believed, are only one method of teaching, which should be placed beside orals and written work in assessing a student's ability. The question of some sort of general education, especially for science students, was also mooted by Dr. Hulme, with illustrations from American Universities, and he suggested that, in the Humanities themselves, more integration was necessary, in order for example that a student might see the art, science and politics of a period as a coherent whole. Finally he asked why our university occupied such a minor and unrespected place in the community, but could only suggest that, until such time as we could prove our worth to society and hold the interest of alumni we could expect no improvement in our very poor financial and social position.

Mr. Smithells took up a number of practical problems of the N.Z.U. in the light of his experience in physical education and university life, beginning, as did many other speakers, by noting the good spirit of relationships between staff and students, and among both, at Congress. He suggested that it lay within our power to carry over much of this into our colleges, though he recognised the immense difficulties of the non-residential universities in holding its members together. The staff themselves he thought could do much to make contact with their students, though sometimes the responsibility rested with the latter in seeking staff co-operation, as for example in clubs. It would be an excellent thing if more staff could be brought to Congress, an ideal which everyone present heartily endorsed in view of the very friendly atmosphere which prevailed when staff members joined enthusiastically in every activity. Mr. Smithells' suggestion of the running of the games for fun (like volley ball) instead of for competition only, of a student health scheme, and of student counsellors in the colleges, were all strongly approved, but the groups were more sceptical about his comments on New Zealanders as "barbarians," and his professed inability to distinguish a University graduate here by his conversation as he could in Britain. A somewhat uncritical reverence for the residential university in this discussion and others led members of the V.U.C. contingent to suggest that a great deal depended upon the attitudes of students as well as on their material conditions.

Now to Page Two. Toss a Six First.