The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, October 1918
The University and Social Reconstruction — Notes from the Address of the president (Prof. T. A. Hunter) to the Debating Society
The University and Social Reconstruction
Notes from the Address of the president (Prof. T. A. Hunter) to the Debating Society
The history of human development appears to show short periods of rapid change followed by long years of stagnation. After an advance, civilisation, like a modern army, must wait for the more slowly-moving forces at its command before it is ready to strike again. Transitional periods, such as the one in which we are now living, are those that bear within themselves great possibilities of good or evil, advance or retrogression. The great bar to progress in every sphere of life is custom; men come to adopt the accepted view of things as if it were the eternal nature of the world; and so in all aspects of life, social, political, economic, knowledge has to fight prejudice, reform has to struggle with custom. This is the everlasting struggle between those who are satisfied with things as they are and those who are not.
To-day, however, amid all the discords of opinion, there is clearly discernible to the listening ear a common note: some amendment or recasting of our social system is necessary. Even those who, in the page 23 piping times of peace, thought that the social machine ran smoothly, now realize that there are grave evils and defects in the mechanism. Nationally our main disadvantage in the international conflict is that we are compelled to make patch-work reorganizations in our methods and at the same time maintain our part in the titanic struggle. Not only so; but such alterations as have been made have been controlled by politicians, untrained for the work and freed from even the criticism of public opinion. It is true that in some cases men of training and experience have been called in but they have been thwarted by obstacles and bound by chains in the interests not of the nation but of party and of greed. When we find Lord Milner writing an introduction to a series of essays on social reconstruction by Mr. H. G. Wells we may surely take it as a sign that all is not as it should be. Mr. Wells writes: "We are going about the business of our national future like a family that is acquiring an automobile by sending father out to get some sort of good engine, it doesn't matter what, Frankie to get acetylene head-lights, Bertie to by wheels, and Georgie to buy tires, regardless of each other and of the weight and size of the whole, leaving the rest of the equipage to happen somehow, wile sister Beatrice sits at home inquiring into the respective merits of the petrol and the steam engine, and Caroline looks into the accounts to find out whether the family can afford to set up a car of any sort at all." Lord Milner, too, describes the system as based on the principles of the "Go As You please" and the "General Scramble."
My purpose to-night is to indicate briefly the problems that await solution and to suggest the part that the University can play therein. The fundamental change required is, in the language of Nietzsche, "a transformation of all values." The modern philosophy of life is all wrong. One of the pregnant lessons of Bergson's philosophy is that life is not to be valued for some end outside of itself but for the experiences and possibilities involved in living. The aim of life is to be found not in its results but in its living. Not what a man has but what he is represents his true social worth. This transformation of values is necessary in the economic, political and educational spheres.
Consider for a moment the economic organisaton which is supposed to be the achievement of modern civilisation. The characteristic of our economic system is capitalism. The history of economic development is the history of the growth of capitalism, meaning by that term the system of economic relations that rests on the use of the products of the past for the purpose of making profits for individuals. This has not always been the dominating force in economic relations and it is only within the last century that it has become the overwhelming power in society. The change of methods of production in the 18th century—the invention of machines driven by steam power—and the accompanying ideas of social relations have combined to produce the present. The governing idea of that time was that if each individual did the best for himself the best for society would result—the go-as-you-please and the general scramble. The result is a revaluation of life; no longer is life valued for its living and its possibilities. Business is the centre round which life moves. Commerce has come to set the ideals for most of our people; buying price, selling price, profits form the new trinity.
With the dominance of this spirit our social system has shown ugly features: the class struggle, the gulf between the rich and the poor, anarchy in production and waste in distribution, the reserve page 24 army of labour, unemployment and poverty. Men and women have become part of the machinery of profit-making. Work should be a part of life and not merely a method of earning a living. We should work to live and not live to work. Surely it is snot beyond human thought and endeavour to devise a system, suitable to the times, which shall provide for this. If we cannot, we shall pass from international strife to civil war; if we can, we shall make a beginning of a new social era.
If we turn to our political system, it simply reflects the meanness and injustice of our social methods. Questions of national policy, affecting the welfare of the people, are decided on purely party ground; personal or class interests are allowed to determine the course of the future of the country. The very term "politician" has acquired a sinister meaning. In this political sphere the Press plays its inglorious part, deceiving the people and stirring up class hate to achieve its party and financial ends. Money, by the power of advertisement, has captured the voice of the Press on which so many people have come to rely for direction. One of the most urgent needs of the immediate future is to awaken the people to the fact that the Press is purely a commercial undertaking—it sells news as the grocer sells sugar, only with no penalty for adulteration. After this war there is hope that the pamphlet as a means of counteracting the harmful social and international influences of the Press will become a power in the land.
It is obvious that the problem of social reconstruction and that of national education are inseparable. What part is the University going to play in this great work? It ought to be sending out into the world men and women competent and willing to take the lead in directing society into higher and better paths. What is the value of education? What particularly is the use of university education if it does not put its peculiar mark on a man? What does university education mean if you cannot distinguish the university man except by the mystic letters after his name? This same question has been asked of the older universities. Speaking of Harvard, Prof. James says:
"What was reason given to man for, some satirist has said, except to invent reasons for what he wants to do. We might say the same of education. We see college graduates on every side of every public question. Some of Tammany's staunchest supporters are Harvard men. Harvard men defend our treatment of our Filipino allies as a masterpiece of policy and morals. Harvard men as journalists pride themselves on producing copy for any side that advocate may not be found."
Why must this confession be made? Partly no doubt because the university has very different kinds of materials to deal with, but partly, I believe, because we have gone astray in dealing with some of the fundamentals of education. Mr. Bertrand Russell has put his finger on the weak spot.
"Education is as a rule the strongest force on the side of what exist and against fundamental change: threatened institutions, while they are still powerful, possess themselves of the educational machine, and instill a respect for their own excellence into the malleable minds of the young. Reformers retort by trying to oust their opponents from their position of advantage. The children themselves are not considered by either party; they are merely so much material, to be recruited into one army or the other. If the children were page 25 considered, education would not aim at making them belong to this party or that, but at enabling them to choose intelligently between the parities; it would aim at making them able to think, not at making them think what their teachers think. Education as a political weapon could not exist if we respected the rights of children. If we respected the rights of children, we should educate them so as to give them the knowledge and the mental habits required for forming independent opinions; but education as a political institution endeavours to form habits and to circumscribe knowledge so as to make one set of opinions inevitable.'
Educational institutions, especially under the examination discipline, aim at teaching a doctrine merely—intelligently if that be possible, but if not by cram. What an education institution ought to convey is not merely information but a spirit. It is not mere knowledge that should be aimed at but the training of a personality. The past in not to be studied simply because it has happened; this permits all sorts of nonsense and trivialities to appear in courses. The past is to be studied that it may imbue the present with high ideals of the future. Education should not bind us to the past but free us for the future. Education ought to foster the search for the truth not the conviction that some particular creed is the truth. The absence of this spirit has blighted much of our education. Writing some years ago Schiller said: "In point of fact. . . . liberal education in England at the present day rests on the twin pillars of commercialism and competition buttressed perhaps in some few cases by the additional support of snobbishness." Russell knows well the type of education that aims merely at "good form." Of it he says: "As a political weapon for preserving the privileges of the rich in a snobbish democracy it is unsurpassable. As the means of producing an agreeable milieu for those who have money with no strong beliefs or unusual desires it has some merit. In every other respect it is abominable." I do not believe that this is a danger that we need fear; I think, however, that we could easily put up with an additional allowance of good manners for, in times of temporary excitement, some students mistake noise for humour and substitute vulgar buffoonery for brains. But on the whole the College record in this respect is admirable, due in no small measure to the character and efforts of a small band of our early students. It is from the blight of commercialism that we have suffered in the past, from which we are suffering now, and from which, unless we save ourselves, we shall suffer much more heavily in the immediate future. Education is fast coming to take its place as an annex of commercialism and to be imbued with its spirit. What meaning of the pregnant saying: "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" is being lost. If education is thus finally perverted the hope of democracy is gone. Are we not among the culprits? We write up our College motto Sapientia magis auro desideranda and, having made this homage to the spirit of education, we turn to profit making. I venture to say that it would be difficult to find in the University Colleges, classes in which both the syllabus of study and the method of treatment are those which would be adopted by enlightened instructors if our educational system aimed at raining and character and not at examination results. The sciences are probably in the best position because and the practical classes allow a certain amount of initiative and freedom in work that is, however, not tested page 26 in the examination. When the authorities are not busy justifying the system they admit it. At the last meeting of the Senate it was proposed to establish a diploma in social science to stimulate interest in these studies among working men and women. That is the limit of the power of an examining university—to prescribe course and examinations. English, History, Philosophy and Economics were to be the principal subjects. Fellow after Fellow of the University arose to say that he agreed with the idea but—English, History, Philosophy and Economics as defined for the B.A. Degree would not do at all, for now they wished to teach citizenship. What a confession in the second decade of the 20th century! What a striking condemnation of our system! The worst of it is that it is true. Would it not be better to alter the whole system so that the real spirit of citizenship—intelligence, sympathy and co-operation—might pervade the study of these subjects for all students?
Can we account for the attitude of authority to education? If we remember that all people, but especially those acting under strong feeling and in groups, have their actions determined by subconscious motives, I think we shall find a lot of truth in Russell's explanation—
"But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back-fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be. 'Should the working man think freely about property? Then what will become of us the rich? Should young men and women think freely about sex? Then what will become of morality? Should soldiers think freely about war? Then what will become of military discipline? Away with thought! Back into the shades of prejudice, lest property, morals and war should be endangered. Better men should be stupid, slothful, and oppressive then that their thoughts should be free. For if their thoughts were free they might not think as we do. And at all costs this disaster must be averted.' So the opponents argue in the unconscious depths of their souls. And so they act in their churches, their schools and their universities."
This is a real danger at present. In war censorship is necessary; but the purpose of censorship ought to be to hide things from the enemy; when it is used to hide the truth from our own people it ultimately spells disaster. Verily we do need education.
The whole attitude to education must be altered. Its object must be altered: the students must become the center. The University will be judged not by the number on its graduate roll but by the type of thinker and actor it lets loose upon the world. Its spirit must be altered: not justification but inquiry must become its watchword. Its aim must be altered: it must endeavour to produce intelligent and honest citizens and not merely successful business and professional men and women.
At this great crisis in our history, if we are not to make shipwreck, the work of reconstruction will demand the best brains, the greatest sympathy, the hardest work and the most honest purpose that the community can provide. All will be called upon to play their respective parts; the future is with the people who can co-operate in this great task. I believe that the best immediate aid that the University of New Zealand can give in this important national work is to reform itself.