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The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, June 1910

University Reform

page 13

University Reform

"This is the function of the University in the State: First, to rear men and women who will dare to follow the truth if they know it. Second, to train in them the powers of thought, by which they may arrive at knowledge of the truth they are to follow."—Professor Picken, in his presidential address to the Victoria College Debating Society, 1908.

The subject of University reform has been frequently before the public, particularly the University public, and has been elaborately discussed and considered, new factors continually presenting themselves at every step. Fresh impetus has been given to the movement by the descent of the Victoria College Professorial Board into the arena, who in this important matter are taking no half-hearted or equivocal steps.

There is a tradition in our College as to Reform. Professor Picken signalised his first year with us by delivering before the Debating Society a brilliant address, in which he indicated many glaring defects of our present University life, an address which found its way into the press, and attracted widespread attention. Professor Laby, immediately on his arrival in Wellington, was struck with the totally inadequate facilities for higher education which existed in our own Colleges, as compared with those of the Common wealth, and proceeded to arouse public interest in the subject by contributing several interesting letters and articles to The Times, severely criticising the curriculum of our University. Professor Zedlitz also entered into the fray, and encountered numerous critics under varied nom de plumes, who suggested as many novel remedies, one apparently serious individual suggesting "hiring a few ex-Rhodes scholars" to set our house in order. Professor Hunter, in a series of articles, advocated the abolition of the English examinations for degrees, whilst Professor J. R. Brown, with characteristic caution, contented himself with putting some pertinent questions to his colleagues. As a result of all this discussion, a well-attended public meeting was held in the Concert Hall of the Town Hall on Tuesday, the 31st of May, page 14 to consider the advisability of forming a University Reform Association. His Worship the Mayor presided, and there were Many speakers, among them being two of our Professors. Professor Zedlitz made an excellent speech, admirably delivered, and seasoned with mild sarcasm and good-natured humour. Seldom, indeed, have we heard so excellent a case put with such convincing force. He said that it was an old reproach that Universities taught a great amount of useless and merely academic knowledge, but he desired to impress upon the audience that during the last thirty years strenuous attempts had been made all over the world to remove such grounds as there might be for the reproach. The undoubted progress that had been made was visible, not so much in the curriculum, but in the methods and ideals of teaching. But despite this movement, and despite its own great commercial, industrial and legislative progress, New Zealand has clung tenaciously to its antiquated University ideals and methods. The evil effects of these are felt most severely by the student, and are most apparent in future generations—it is this that makes the public so apathetic. The Professors were doing valuable work, and students were intelligent and active, and it was these who prevented him from being absolutely hopeless. (Great applause from students.) When he first came to New Zealand, he did not expect much. He saw the pompous curriculum, which it would take a great University to carry out, and he was not disappointed in his expectations. He soon, discovered that he was not required to inspire and interest the student in his subject, or to lead him to an intelligent study of it, but merely to give a concise summary of the subject, such as one might find in any elementary text-book. He pointed out the folly of being expected to teach mere facts about books and literature unless the students had first hand acquaintance with the authors. If a Professor did actually interest his student in the study of a particular subject, without a view to the examinations, the almost inevitable result was that the student was "ploughed" in the exams. But, after all, his experience was not solitary; his case was the case of all his colleagues. The chief ground of complaint lay in the fact that each branch of knowledge is considered as a perfect entity in itself, and, in particular, no account is taken of the interrelation of different sciences and arts. The present heterogeneous course is supposed to be an improvement on the homogeneous curriculum, according to which all the subjects are made page 15 subservient to one predominant subject: but such a system is efficient and justifiable only when the work of teaching is not divorced from I he work of examining. In 1908 Dr. Starr Jordan, who was visiting the Dominion, was asked to submit suggestions for reform to the Senate. In his reply he recommended the "major-professor" system, as it obtained in the United States, according to which each student on entry had to devote his attention to the study of or main subject. In addition to this it was stated that the University Colleges should devote themselves to the primary needs of New Zealand. What did the Senate do? It set up a Committee of "Reform," which did not suggest homogeneous courses, but recommended tinkering with the present obsolescent system. The Victoria College Professorial Board sent in a protest: What else could they do? University Professors, he admitted, are particularly liable to get into grooves, and, accordingly, need to be checked by some controlling body. But owing to our "outside examination" system, that control which is possible elsewhere is impossible here. In every other University in the world, the Professorial Body as a whole is responsible for the passes, and it has been proved that the influence which is exerted by professorial colleagues was a salutary, and the only proper control. Where the work is mere routine, there is no real control, and also, no encouragement—nobody knows, and nobody cares whether the work is well done or ill done. One can always point to the imposing examination results granted by eminent gentlemen at Home.

The typical University constitution consisted of (a) a lay governing body, (b) a professorial body, which prepares academic legislation, which is referred to the lay body for refusal or acceptance. In New Zealand, the functions are reversed. Here, the lay body prepares the academic legislation! It is, of course, unreasonable that a lay body should be expected to keep a University curriculum up to date. True, the professorial element is sometimes consulted, but as there is no machinery for enabling the Professors to meet and discuss proposed legislation, such a course is, under present circumstances, more likely to lead to harmful than beneficial results.

Professor Easterfield, speaking mainly from the standpoint of science, then made an earnest appeal on behalf of the students themselves. He often had complaints from page 16 headmasters of secondary schools that their assistant masters had told them that they had learned (?) six subjects at the University, but that they had no "favourite" subject. How, then, was there any possibility of such a person who had no "favourite" subject, to engender enthusiasm in his pupils in any one subject? All this is done in the supposed interests of "general culture." but it destroys enthusiasm. The method which is adopted in Cambridge University is quite different. There specialisation is encouraged. and the value of the training obtained is recognised all over the Continent of Europe. His view was that the Professor should get the student to see that the study of science was of little worth, unless conducted with a view to original investigation. But the University itself set a far lower ideal than that; in his opinion, it was as criminal an act as it would be for a father to put a low ideal before his children. If a student were taught only with a view to the examinations, he might graduate indeed, but at the same time it was as likely as not, that he could not even read the language of science. Under the present system, there was, owing to the discouragement of specialization, little left for the science student, but school mastering . Thus the low ideal filters through and damages every factor in the education of the nation; for the primary school teacher is mainly the product of the secondary school.

But not only can science not be taught in a natural way under the present regulations; it is impossible to give the students the latest ideas in science. There are in Chemistry alone, many thousands of pages of original matter published every year. Some of this should certainly be given to the student, but under present circumstances it cannot: he is not trained to understand it, and even if he were, it would not "pay" from the degree point of view.

The meeting carried almost unanimously a resolution to the effect that a University Reform Association be established, and at a subsequent meeting a Committee was set up to draft a constitution.