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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 37, Number 5. 3rd April 1974

Handmaiden of the status quo

page 6

Handmaiden of the status quo

The classical manifestos of the purpose of a university tinkle unrealistically against the institution we knew. The great Newman, for instance, saw it as a kind of temple of pure knowledge dedicated to "the sovereignty of Truth", embracing "the loftiest subject of human thought and the richest fields of human inquiry", "pledged to admit, without fear, without prejudice, without compromise, all comers, if they come in the name of Truth....(and) to give full play to thought and erudition in their most original form, and their most intense expressions, and in their most ample circuit...."

Looming through the flowery prose there are some attractive ideals. Their deficiency lies in their utter detachment from the world outside the ivory walls. A rather more realistic restatement came five years ago from F.R. Leavis:

"The real university is a centre of consciousness and human responsibility for the civilised world; it is a creative centre of civilisation—for the living heritage on which meaning and humane intelligence depend can't, in our time, be maintained without a concentrated creativity somewhere."

The claim Leavis makes for the university may sound as enormous as Newman's but it is at once less verbally diffuse and more sensible of the pressures of the society in which the institution has to exist. At the high-flown level, it asserts the university's transcendant commitment to that awkward abstraction "civilisation", and suggests that this commitment is as much to the past and the future (between which it has certain values to transmit) as it is to the present. But it is clear-eyed in its implicit recognition that "in our time" society and civilisation are two different things.

The pressures which society has exerted on the university have been many and various, but overwhelmingly they have distorted the rich Newan-Leavis vision. "One might perhaps count on the fingers of one hand," says Theodore Roszak, "the eras in which the university has been anything better than the handmaiden of official society: the social club of ruling elites, the training school of whatever functionaries the status quo required."

The "temple of Truth" ideal blinked the tremendous social fact that the entrance ticket to the temple was an unacceptable index of social privilege. The ideal has been slowly modified by a more democratic tradition of New World origin that demanded from the university a "social responsibility", both to serve society in the sense of returning the benefits of its research, and to maintain a sturdy independence from society which (in the words of Jefferson, outlining his plans for the University of Virginia) imposed an obligation to "unmask...... monopolies of honours, wealth, and power".

The latter role has fallen too often into the hands of shriller student groups, while the "service" bit seems frequently to have degenerated into a combination of vocationally orientated utilitarianism and Muldoonish prescriptions for university expenditure to be proportional to a discipline's relevance to the current problems of the national economy.

When the academic world seems to us "irrelevant" to society, we should consider whether perhaps the trouble is not rather that the current ethos of society is deplorably "irrelevant" to more humane values of the academic world. Academic values are (or should be) without fear or favour, whereas society is frequently governed by gangsters and charlatans with particular vested interests. The tension between the two has been continually apparent: why was Socrates put to death? or Galileo imprisoned? In our cottonwool society, the tension tends to be muffled, but we could fruitfully ponder in this context the turbulent history of "town-gown" relations in this city.

Our university has some healthy traditions. In the Parliamentary debate on the Act that established this institution in 1897, Premier Seddon talked about 'a university college for the sons and daughters of poor men". Figures in the 1974 Student Handbook may make this faintly ironical, but the intention is on record. Since then, despite being wholly dependent on public funds, Victoria has often stood up forthrightly for its political independence from the establishment. Beaglehole's history of the College's first fifty years relates several such incidents—the disgraceful Von Zedlitz affair of 1916, the enlivening business of the graduate lady who sold seditious literature in 1921, the censoring of student publications in 1933... there are lots more, never adequately recounted. One recalls senior staff (as well as students) who were prepared to raise their voices effectively on public issues when it was politically important for them to do so, in 1939, in 1951, and in 1965, to name a few significant dates—which has given the university about the same popularity rating in respectable suburbia as that enjoyed by the waterfront.

The independence of the university is not merely a matter of politics in this narrower sense. It goes also to the stance of teachers in relation to their subjects. J.C. Beaglehole said elsewhere that "The social conscience of the university teacher will be chiefly evident when his attitude to learning is at once disinterested, sceptical and devout."

It sounds paradoxical to be simultaneously sceptical and devout. In fact it is (I think) dialectical. The devotion must be to the discipline (Eng. Lit., maths, the law of torts, or whatever), but as part of that, also to the tradition of questioning that goes back to Socrates and beyond. It shows no partiality in the kind of questions it asks, and demands the same rigour in confronting each. This is what Flaubert meant when he defined the scientific mind as "without hate, without fear, without pity, without love, and without God". The last two requirements may seem unduly harsh, but less so if one sees the commitment to academic impartiality as an aspect of one's commitment to humanity. And of course, one has permanently to attend to Camillo Torre's warning against "cowardice disguised as objectivity" which he found in such profusion in the universities of Europe and America.

A university where at least a substantial leavening of students and teachers keep such insights firmly in focus should be able to give a worthwhile account of its social role.

—Conrad Bollinger English Department

Open Day Symposium

Open Day Symposium

As part of Open Day we planned a supplement of views on the social role and objectives of the university. Letters to the heads of departments produced several contributions—notices and verbal requests none. It is not possible to print all the views received—for which we are very grateful—but we hope that those printed here will inspire discussion and more viewpoints which can be included in future issues, along with some we already have.