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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1935

Learning and the Library

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Learning and the Library


With what truth can it be said that the passing of each decade sees the University sinking lower into the mire of materialism? In the orthodox conception, a university is a cultural institution. It would seem, however, that if present tendencies continue, a reorientation of that view will be called for. It will then have to be understood that a graduate is not a cultured person, but merely one who has a specialised knowledge of one narrow branch of learning. As such he may be qualified for advancement in his profession, but in wider fields he remains ill-equipped and bears in no especial way the stamp of a University.

That such persons already exist we are reminded from time to time by the public utterances of graduates—utterances characterised by such intolerant views and emotional reasoning as reveal the hall-marks of uncultured individuals. Is this not largely the fault of the University itself? So long as it is merely concerned with the conferring of degrees students will regard it as having no other purpose. After several years' contact the student is aware of the collection of fees, the enforcement of terms, and the sitting of examinations as the only corporal manifestations of a University. He finds that compliance with these requirements ensures graduation, and so the idea arises that the University exists solely for the production of graduates.

At no time is this more apparent than when one considers the Library. Here the whole situation is epitomised. Not greatly patronised during the first two terms, the Library is feverishly overcrowded towards the exams and deserted during the long vacation. With its well-enforced silence the student finds this the perfect place for cramming. He hardly ever enters unless to acquire a little knowledge that will be useful at the end of the year—and then forgotten. In short, it admirably fulfils the role of the forcing house in the degree-raising garden. As the pivot of a cultural institution it is unknown.

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But that is how it should be known. It is a fact that cannot be stressed too often that, next to its staff, the greatest asset that a university college can possess is its library. Do the College authorities stress this? Reference to the College Calendar will elicit that three pages are devoted to the Library Regulations, and exactly four (4) lines to a description of the Library. For years past this has been the case, and even this year the announcement remains the same, in spite of the fret that the past year has seen the extension of the Library and the initial acquisition of books under the Carnegie grant. The effect on the mind of the new student can be well imagined. The awesome list of prohibitions is enough to prevent the use of the Library except in cases of extreme necessity, and the bare statement of the number of books the Library contains means nothing.

Little wonder, then, that a law student (for example), after an academic career of five years, should have a knowledge only of the legal section of the Library. Of the contents of the economic, sociological, or historical sections he remains in ignorance. He does not even find out what general literature the Library contains. Indeed, it is more likely that he will come to view the entire precincts with distaste. Its use becomes disagreeable since it is bound up with the laborious task of acquiring a degree. His energies in the Library, therefore, are confined solely to the quest for specialised knowledge—of great commercial use, but that is all. Its acquisition has obviously had a narrowing effect, for it has so pervaded the student's life that it has excluded the search for any other form of knowledge. Yet, because this specialised knowledge has been acquired, the tendency will be to feel that all that is needed of life is practical experience in the profession.

On the contrary, however, it is likely that the student still possesses the same immature prejudices with which he entered the College. At no time has he endeavoured or had the opportunity to obtain a broader understanding of humanity and its problems. On subjects outside his curriculum he will have no more exact ideas, no better understanding, than a labourer whose education finished at fourteen. He will be in no way more fit to expose popular fallacies or form independent judgment, or prevent himself from being stampeded by mob hysteria, than when he left his secondary school. It has been possible or him to pass through College "without once being reproached for a foolish generalisation, an unjustifiable inference, or an unsound conclusion." In short, though graduated, he is both uncultured and uneducated.

In other words, the graduate (and I speak not only of law graduates) has merely been moulded to the requirements of commercialised society. It has been said that the aim of the present educational system is "to make the student fit the system and not the system fit the student." By the process of successive examinations it succeeds all too well.

The logical outcome of this is easily visualised. The time may not be far distant when attendance at post-graduate colleges will be necessary in order that students may acquire that perception, and that intellectual disinterestedness, that are the attributes of an educated person. As yet, however, such colleges are non-existent; and there would be no need for them if the facilities of the present system were fully utilised. Of these facilities none can be used with such great ease and such great effect as the Library. Accessible to all, its benefits are boundless. With the inclination to use it, a student has page 5 at his hand limitless knowledge, and the work of the keenest minds of centuries. Not fettered by curricula, there is no subject into which he cannot enquire. A realisation of the lack of understanding of social problems, say, can be effectively remedied. The tendency to traditionalism, which greatly hampers the consideration of all contemporary problems, can be largely combatted by the use of periodicals, access to which only a library can adequately provide. In short, the disadvantages of having to acquire specialised knowledge can be overcome. A smuggish dilettantism is not advocated, but what is desired is a conscious attempt to acquire that depth of understanding of human problems that will preclude ill-balanced judgments and partisan outbursts.

For this result to be obtained the attitude of the whole College must be changed. Students must be freed from the restraints of specialisation, the trammels of examinations, and the superficiality of cramming. They must be no longer encouraged to view the Library's existence solely as a means of degree-getting. The task of the authorities is actively to discourage this view. But their responsibility does not end there, nor with the provision of an efficient staff and an annual grant. Too great an emphasis cannot be laid on the cultural advantages the Library offers. Every facility and every encouragement should be given for its use in that direction From this it is but a step to emphasizing the cultural advantages of the College as a whole. And these advantages are the greatest a University can offer.

If this is not done the University will have become so enmeshed in the web of commercialism that its proper position will have been irretrievably lost, and with it much that we cannot afford to lose