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

An Imaginative Grasp on Living Knowledge.

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An Imaginative Grasp on Living Knowledge..

Why do people go to university?.....to qualify for a status occupation, for social prestige, because friends are going there, for want of something else to do, to discover, to explore the mind, to learn to think, to find personal meaning, to find a suitable husband?

It is seldom any one of these reasons alone but there will usually be a dominant motive. J.J. Small of Canterbury University has found that vocational attitudes are widespread among New Zealand students. However, Mr Small discovered that there are many students who are hoping that the University will be able to help them find some personal meaning.

More than any other institution of learning, a university permits you to choose—in fact, it forces you to do just that. Universities themselves are involved in a fairly anguished process of choosing, at least in the West, because they are not sure about their purposes, functions and methods. Dr Metcalfe of Canterbury, writing in 1965, claimed that the aim of a university was to encourage learning and to increase knowledge. However, additions of a fundamental kind to knowledge are rare. The more pressing problem is the encouragement of learning: with the what and the how. Much of the energy of the 'student revolt' throughout the world is related to this issue. But always beyond this is the why: the need for purpose above self.

In spite of ferment and criticism, there remains the overriding need to get a degree. A degree is a marketable commodity. While the pursuit of degrees and the process of learning are not mutually exclusive, it is significant that the market for degrees is buoyant and the market for knowledge is rather less so. Dr Metcalfe suggests that student clubs would be much better attended if every faculty included in its final examination such questions as "Compare and contrast the views frequently expressed in the EU, the SCM and the Newman Society" or "Give the essentials of both sides of the argument in a recent university debate".

It is not altogether surprising that Dr Metcalfe is opposed to the present competitive examination system. He thinks that it defeats the main purpose of a university because students tend to concentrate on ends rather than means and to pace their work to the examination rather than to the year. If a major function of a university is the encouragement of learning, the examination system ought to be that which best achieves this end. As the argument continues universities appear to be moving towards a system of cumulative assessment which places less emphasis on a final examination and more on a variety of assessments throughout the year. One of the problems they face is those students who have been conditioned in their earlier schooling to external examinations and who have some reluctance in accepting responsibility for their own learning. Too many students have sponge-mentalities, wanting to soak up pre-digested material and being less concerned with what they do with it and what it does to them.

Happily, some students have resisted this conditioning. In 1969, the World Student Christian Federation held a conference at Turku, Finland, on the purposes and means of university education. Amidst the many differing opinions, and attitudes represented, the following statement won general support:

"The academic community (is) a way of organising a set of personal relationships, of contriving an equilibrium of conflicts, so as to promote an imaginative grasp on living knowledge. Within such a community, learning is a joint and continuous process, ideally embodied in the tutorial or seminar group accompanied by individual study: and it presupposes the free-ranging and responsible play of intelligence, informed by passion, and moving always towards a critical comment Within such a community, assessment should emerge out of self assessment and conflict should be absorbed in a process of continuous evaluation and controlled change, which may not always be instant change."

This statement was supported by all sections and most strongly by radical students and most senior academics. Students who work in universities where conditions are inimical to this ideal often take direct action. When they don't take such action both students and universities are the losers. Such student action is part of a general search for a sense of commitment. This was what C. Wright Mills meant when he wrote of the need for commitment rather than objectivity in the face of the "noble but chilling ideal of the academic mind." This I take to be the significance of the "free-ranging and responsible play of intelligence informed by passion" of the Turku statement. It is also part of the motivation of the most radical and European and American students who see themselves as the sole remaining revolutionary element in their societies and go to the point of using University as a base for the transformation of society.

A further justification for radical action was stated at Turku:

"Universities today throughout much of the world have become, or are becoming, the agencies par excellence of Establishment...all present Establishments are bad they can only operate to drive the world farther and farther into violence in the last part of this century.....Universities are the lead-dogs of the new imperialism....."

Hard words. But spoken in the belief that it is possible to do better. To the extent that this derives from a search tor an ethical basis to public and international behaviour, it has much in common with the similar search for an ethical basis for education.

How to be committed to academic objectivity and also to worldly affairs is a nice problem. But if the universities are to avoid becoming part of the politics of destruction they must somehow shake themselves, or be shaken out of their present "postures to society". Universities will become either vital communities with a clear ethical purpose or mere factories in the productive chain. Yet, even at their worst, universities encourage and try to live by certain distinct values and qualities. To a greater or lesser degree, the following qualities and values infect those who spend time in a university:
  • the ability to think clearly;
  • the ability to grasp principles and concepts;
  • the capacity to assess evidence;
  • a certain intellectual curiosity;
  • a continuing scepticism;
  • a concern for accuracy;
  • a regard for imagination;
  • a sense of taste and discrimination.

Of these, the most important in my opinion are the ability to think clearly and to discriminate: in other words, the test is the degree to which a student learns to command his own mind—to know himself. A further test is the degree to which he uses his skills and learning for service rather than selfish purposes.

Should this be your wish you will no doubt find your way and also add to the quality of university and community life. If however, you are intent exclusively on a degree as a qualification, you must be on your guard less the dangerous viruses carried in a university campus infect you. Learn to protect yourselves from those members of the staff who treat you as sentient beings rather than as sponges; keep clear of student clubs and societies; don't go to political meetings on campus; stay away from demonstrations; avoid visiting speakers; read only the set text-books. The University is a dangerous place. You can, however, take comfort from the fact that many students have managed to graduate without becoming committed to anything but themselves.

They, having avoided the "action and passion of their times", may in the words of Olliver Wendell Holmes be "judged not to have lived".

—By Jack Shallcrass, Senior Lecturer in Education at Victoria