Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 15, No. 4. March 27, 1952
Our Thanks to Mr. Benda in Defence — Staff Letter
Our Thanks to Mr. Benda in Defence
Sir, Now that the academic year is again in full swing, allow me to write a few words in connection with your article in last year's final issue of Salient, entitled, "Dear Staff." Your readers will, I trust, realise that I can only speak for myself; that, furthermore, I am among the youngest members on our staff.
I do not intend to examine your argument point by point, for lack of time and space. But I think that you should realise that, at the time when "it was a truth, and... needed no searching, that the University was a corporate body," society consisted of several such corporate bodies; that, in fact, society was then built on a corporate form of organisation. Is it reasonable to expect one such corporation to exist, when the surrounding framework has ceased to continue? The University, I would suggest, may be falling short of some ideal, but it can hardly be measured against the ideal of another epoch in societal development. It may be that a return to a corporative form of society should appear desirable to some of your readers, and to some people outside the university. But this hardly lends your specific critisisism additional weight. More than that, you have failed to make this assumption explicit.
"Perhaps the University does not believe that truth exists," you continue. The University, if I may say so, cannot believe in the existence or non-existence of truth; in this respect, there is no such thing as The University, there are only people, students and teachers, who may hold their own beliefs concerning truth. You may regret this state of affairs, but, again, it only reflects—as needs it must—a society in which truth may mean different things to different people. Personally I do not see any cause for alarm in this state of our society. I am even inclined to believe that it lies at the root of our democracy, which simply refuses to assert that truth must be the same for all of its citizens. What, then, are "the platitudes and righteous cant" to which you so scornfully refer? is it a platitude and righteous cant if university teachers abstain from impressing their students with their own brand of truth (which you might perhaps reject into the bargain)? But you are quite wrong in thinking that this abstention is tantamount to "fence sitting." We do not even avoid "absolutes, values and personal theories like the plague." One of our personal pet theories—if I may for once be bold to speak of us, instead of myself only—is that we cannot inculcate others with our own absolute values, which we all have, like everyone else.
If we do fail somewhere, then perhaps in the direction of not making our choice more explicit to our students. To abstain from absolutes is no less a value judgment than to indulge in teaching such absolutes. What is needed is the justification for our choice. Far from giving up our right to be as impartial as is humanly possible, we should perhaps explain to you that only on this basis can a democratic university function properly. It demands from a student that he should recognise the difficulty of reconciling opposite conceptions about truth, that he should become aware of the fact that only the free play of such opposing value judgments can maintain truly free inquiry. And that, to conclude, there is no short cut through the university to realisation of the individual's necessity of choice. The answer to the Fear of Freedom is not the decreed absolute truth. It is, rather, the burdensome task of individual self-emancipation. That the Staff may fall short of this task, you may assert, I am not competent to judge. It is quite a big task—but it has little to do with what you call "the attitude of neutralism and objectivity, carried so far in our lecture rooms."
Harry J. Benda.Political Science Department.
[This controversy arose from an open letter—"Dear Staff"—In our last issue for 1951. Copies of that issue (8 page) are on sale, price 2d.]