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The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, September 1923

Big Business and the Universities

Big Business and the Universities

"The commercialisation of our daily life proceeds apace. Where the last age regarded men like Mill and Huxley as its leaders, our own is being taught that the fountains of wisdom are the Protagonists of business enterprise. University societies compete for speeches from Lord Kidded and Lord Leverhulme; they are being made a Marcus Aurelius for the undergraduate. Presently, doubtless, we shall have Sir Eric Geddes as a University Chancellor. Yet as guides to the art of living there is something lacking in these prophets. They speak as descendants of Samuel Smiles. They scatter their little maxims about the glory of private enterprise, the duty of early rising, the folly of altruism in a civilisation built upon competition. They exalt the volume of trade without ever looking beyond the scale of living into its substance. They assume that the making of a great fortune is equivalent to the conference of benefit' upon the public. They lack all sense of the State. Literature for them is some tag clapped on to a peroration. Knowledge means page 46 the amassing of information that can be expressed in terms of increased profits. Of that passionate inquiry into truth for which the university exists they neither know nor care. The professor they regard as an amiable dilettante, unrelated to the serious business of life. Research they judge in terms of the improved industrial process to which it gives rise. The universities will do well to remember that it is better to be poor than cheap. If they look up to the business superman for their endowment or their ideals, there will be an end to their freedom. They will become institutions controlled in their teaching and deprived of their spontaneity. Their students will seek not the discipline of mind but the professional technique. They will be judged not as they serve truth but as they enrich commerce. America has already paid a high price. for assuming that business talent is the same thing as intellectual ability. We should profit, before it is too late, by her example.

"It cannot, indeed, be too often emphasised that it is not the function of universities to teach that practical success in life of which men such as these are illustrations. There will always be a plethora of people to worship their type of solid and tangible eminence and their useful knowledge. Universities are concerned partly with teaching the discipline of mind and partly with the great art of discovering and imparting "useless" knowledge. They invoke as their only true goddess a passionate curiosity in the face of a mysterious universe. To satisfy that impulse is not less truly an end in itself than self-preservation. The justification of science and philosophy does not lie in better machinery and greater wealth. It lies in themselves as ends necessary to the fulfilment of life. The acolytes of science are those who realise that thoughts are weightier than things. As they preach that faith, so they guard a fortress loss accessible, perhaps, but ultimately greater than fortune. And by so guarding it, they keep alive the yearning which is the ultimate motive-power of civilisation. For the increase of civilisation comes not when a contract goes to England rather than to Germany, but when, as with Einstein or Darwin, some dark hinterland of science is brought within the range of human understanding. What the university must seek is the men who will devote themselves to that search. It can promise them no reward save the zest of inquiry; it cannot even proffer the joy of discovery. But by insisting upon the value of impalpable and incommensurate ideas, it more surely hands on the torch of conscious life than when it trains accountants and lawyers and men skilled in the bastard art of salesmanship. The preservation of that unpractical austerity is the more urgent now when things of the mind are asked to justify themselves in terms of a cash return. If the universities yield to that Philistinism they will have surrendered the keystone in the arch of knowledge."

—H. J. Laski.