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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 18, No. 12. September 6, 1954

Towards a Realistic University of New Zealand

Towards a Realistic University of New Zealand

A Resume of portion of Sir David Smith's address to Senate is included this week, not because it gives any solutions to the anomalies of the present educational system, but because of the criticism which it contains. It is for the readers to draw their conclusions, not for an Editor to interpret these for them. Sir David says:"... we might pay more specific attention from time to time to the real quality of the University education that we provide . . ."

It is obvious that at present the Universities are endeavouring to perform two functions at once, they are endeavouring to cater for those students who regard a university course as a means of acquiring the necessary qualifications for a career in a "learned" profession, and they are also catering to a lessor extent for those students who are concerned primarily with the search for truth and breadth of view as well as depth of knowledge. Today the vocational aspect of a University education is regarded as being by far the most important.' But surely the place for this super-high-school is not the University, but rather a separate institution? The Technical University of Melbourne is one illustration of what I envisage to cater for the demand for persons with technical knowledge (Science, Engineering, Architecture, Fine Arts). The Senate in 1951 began to suspect that somewhere the University was failing in its search for the truth. Criticism of the University by Cardinal Newman, and in recent years by such men as Sir Walter Moberly, Bruce Truscott, Sir Richard Livingstone, Dr. C. E. M. Joad, suggests that the primary purpose of a University is a cultural one, to give a man a sense of values and a philosophy of life, and a thirst for truth. Only Dr. Joad mentions the vocational aspect, and he rates it least in importance.

By and large the majority of New Zealanders appear to think of the Universities as being merely another sort of school, and particularly as institutions for professional training.

We may admit that our universities do contain men who think of them in another way as communities devoted to scholarship, and to detached' and disinterested thought and research, and, as such, necesarily somewhat detached front the quite different way of life of the larger, commercial community. But that is a conception of the nature of a university which few New Zealanders can understand, or would interest them much if they could understand it. It is perhaps the intellectual and moral shallowness of our society that the absence of any strong cultural movement, which is the main reason why New Zealand universities do not at the present possess the staff, the buildings, the conditions of work, which are necessary for the fulfilment of these higher functions.

The conviction which we hinted at in our first editorial, that entrance qualifications might with advantage be raised, is growing. A large proportion of New Zealand students matriculate with little initiative, without having formed the habit of reading or enquiry, with a poor capacity for studying a subject for themselves, mentally conditioned to accept their lecturer as an oracle and their prescribed text-book as a sacred writing. They believe that they have come to the university, as they have gone to school, to be "taught," and it must be admitted that, for the large pass classes, some of the Colleges at any rate are able to provide little but teaching of a rather mechanical sort.

". . . . The broader purposes of a University education were never more important than they are today. Society requires of the university graduate much more than his degree or his export knowledge of a particular field. It also requires the breadth of outlook necessary for those who are to fill positions of responsibility . . ." But does it get it? Deway's system of positivist education, assuming as it does that scientific knowledge is truth and the rest mere opinion, has corrupted education both in the United States of America (witness the uneducated people with all the degrees) and in this country. Modern education by the glorified and so-called "welfare state" suffers also from a lack of discipline—both physical and mental discipline. The error of progressive education is that it assumes that mere change is of necessity progress. What is important is to provide children and young people with the means by which to live, both in the materialist and in the cultural sense, to create in them an interest in everything, and to encourage their enthusiasm along the lines of their special inclinations.

The world is a stimulating and fascinating place, and the mind which does not operate clearly, logically and with force is to be scorned. Yet modern secular education pretends that it is performing a highly successful function—that it is producing more and more persons in the higher forms of secondary schools who can think clearly, impassionately and logically on all matters—and the university appears to think that also, although with loss conviction.

It is not trite to say that the difficulties and shortcomings of the universities reflect the shortcomings of the community itself. New Zealand society is not favourable to the growth of great universities. The university of New Zealand has had little influence on New Zealand cultural life, or on the development of social and political thought. Politically and socially it has been rather barren, despite Victoria's radical traditions. In this country the community does not contain any highly cultured minority of size and influence: there is no influential minority which either appreciates or respects learning. New Zealanders are unusually devoted to money-making and politics; they are apt to be intolerant of criticism, contemptuous of difference, of superiority and intellectual refinement. There is no substantial part of New Zealand society into which the scholarship and the disinterested thought which universities seek to cultivate can send their roots.

Thus it would appear that University education is in fact merely a vocational prerequisite for 90 per cent of students, that the social and economic changes in recent years have contributed to this state of affairs, that more and more people are graduating with a degree but without an education, that the primary and secondary systems of education contribute to a large degree to this state of affairs by removing responsibility from the individual; that the university at the present has the majority of its time token up in doing what should be done by technical universities. It is, however, no longer permitted to be mediocre. If the Universities do not believe that such a thing as truth exists, then let us say so and forget the platitudes and the righteous cant. Forever afterwards our intellectual apathy will be consistent with our intellectual confusion and there will be no need to reconcile our declared purposes with our mercenary results.

——B. C. Shaw.