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The Spike or Victoria University College Review Silver Jubilee 1924

Freedom of Speech

page 42

Freedom of Speech

Twenty-five years is not a long span in the life of a college, for quite otherwise than with our human kind, the ultimate dissolution of such a corporate institution as a college is not, as a rule, a subject of contemplation; but when we think of what has been accomplished in this mere handful of years, we find much cause for high hopes for future achievements. These hopes, however, can be realised only upon one condition—the maintenance of our college as a place where all opinions may be discussed, and all viewpoints held with impunity.

I have been reading a good deal lately of the foundation of university education in America. Within a few years of the arrival of the first English settlers at what is now known as Boston, there had arrived in New England a company of over twenty thousand refugees from the civil and religious policies of Charles I. and his advisers; and although we must always reserve our fullest measure of admiration for men such as Pym, Hampden, and Cromwell who stayed at home and won the battle there, still, these men were of no mean moral or intellectual calibre, counting in their ranks, in a day when higher education was a rare privilege, over two hundred graduates of universities in the old England they had left. They had not been established a decade in their new home before they had founded a college to be known in future years as the world-famous Harvard University. The first impetus was given by the bequest of a few hundred pounds and the whole of his library by a young clergyman named John Harvard. The colonists lacked money, but public and private gifts in fish and farm produce flowed in liberally, with the result that in a few years, under able presidents, the College attained a high standard, and it is even recorded that some youths of good family went thither from England for their education.

Unfortunately, however, the development of Harvard College was hindered by the narrow ideals of its founders. New England was a theocracy of the straitest kind, and the maintenance of a supply of learned ministers to rule the church was the highest ideal to which, in the view of its rulers, the college could attain. Although the college produced men of erudition, it exercised no mellowing or illuminating influence on the country, and it had its full share of responsibility for the Quaker and Witchcraft persecutions that disfigure the history of New England during the seventeenth century, whilst some very observant Dutch travellers remarked in their diary, written almost half a century from its foundation, upon its unhappy lack of most of the attributes of a University. It was only when the development of commerce, and the increasing friction with France and, later, England herself, had widened men's minds that the College was at all in a position to assume its rightful function as a moulder, whether directly or indirectly, of the public mind. In fact, the University had itself to be transformed by public opinion before it could lead public opinion—a lamentable reversal of function. The result was that the intellectual history of that part of America during the colonial period was a record, not of achievement and creation, but of stagnation and imitation.

In our country, or at any rate in our college, there is, perhaps little fear of ecclesiastical domination, but judging by some modern page 43 tendencies, there is a danger that forces may arise calculated to thwart that attitude of strict impartiality which is a fundamental basis of all intellectual progress.

People who. like ourselves, inherit Anglo-Saxon civilization, are apt, though unthinkingly, to pride themselves upon the possession of the maximum degree of personal, intellectual and social freedom, but recent tendencies seem to indicate that perhaps, after all, the only country in which these advantages are preserved intact is England herself. We know that in the United States intellectual intolerance is rife. Many of the Colleges impose theological tests detrimental to free and unbiassed inquiry and destructive of the independence of professors. But in a country where even Biblical exegesis can be bent to the exigencies of high finance, the influence of wealthy patrons is felt even more seriously than theological pressure.

This disease is not confined to America. It can scarcely be a source of pride to New Zealanders to know that their country is pointed to by one of the most brilliant of modern thinkers as a country where mere opinion is a ground for legal penalties and disabilities. There is no need to give instances, but in the sphere of higher education, we have had attempts on the side both of capital and of labour, to influence, or even to silence, teachers holding opposed views—views which, in either case, might alike enlist the support of reasonable men. Now, if there is any place where questions which touch social and political welfare should be examined on all sides, surely that place is the university, and all attempts whether by societies of men, educational authorities, or the civil government to prejudice the matter, are detrimental to all true progress in knowledge.

It is a matter which, as we know, concerns undergraduates as well as teachers and professors. If students are to speak only on lines approved by leaders of the political party in power, it is time, surely, to cease prattling of British freedom of speech. Some of us have heard things said at student gatherings which we can characterise only as regrettable, but such statements are not nearly so dangerous in the long run as the attempts of those in authority to stifle them. It is impossible to imagine such a foolish attitude being adopted in England by those in authority towards the statements of college students—it is too far removed from the traditional British policy. One can only hope that if an occasion arises again, where it is even suggested that debates should be controlled by authority, our graduates will not be influenced by the precise statements made, but will go deeper, and insist on freedom of speech with no uncertain voice, and, if necessary, will by their loyal support counterbalance a possible loss of the patronage of the lordly ones. It is not only in the sphere of religion that the epigram applies—"If the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?" And now, just as much as at any period in history, it must be insisted that no truth can be evolved where teachers, investigators and students can think with impunity only along lines which however wide, are narrower than thought itself.

W. J. McEldowney