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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1937

Town and Gown

page 5

Town and Gown

Man and symmetric design

Throughout her short history Victoria College seems at no time to have enjoyed the full approval and co-operation of the citizens of Wellington. This has been apparent in many small incidents, in themselves insignificant and soon forgotten, but by a cumulative effect building up almost a tradition of mutual resentment. Such larger events as the successful agitation against a respected professor in the early war years, the long hostility to opinions savouring of anything other than the orthodox and conventional, the communist purge by the Welfare League and a Minister of Education, and the purity campaign sponsored by Canon James in 1933 have intensified the conflict many fold. The banning of Spike itself that year (allegedly on a suspicion of sedition) while not instigated by outside influence, was at least weakly pandering to popular opinion. Inasmuch as they have effected some curtailment of individual liberties they have aroused the antagonism of almost all students at the time; their deeper results have been too often a serious blow at the ideal of academic freedom which is the foundation of university institutions. An ideal which the University of New Zealand, from its very origin and nature, has never attained, but must yet strive for. More recently the banning of the capping procession and the censure of Cappicade by the Professorial Board has resulted from an outburst of civic indignation.

Now the fault for this conflict as usual, seems to lie in part with both sides. Where the town has been intolerant, the gown has too frequently reacted with impertinence. The capping procession for example—no great loss perhaps since it was an imitation and never a natural growth—had degenerated from an attempt to amuse the public into an opportunity to offend and insult them. Buffoonery redeemed by wit, had become lampoonery without it; and when the students failed to realise this, it may be that the citizens served page 6 a justifiable end by their protest. Again, while it has usually been those of radical opinions who have attracted the hostility of the townspeople, the equally irresponsible conservatives gave greater cause for offence to a different class by their strike-breaking activities of 1933. The citizens for their part have always failed to realise and share the ideals of academic freedom and progressiveness which are the embodiment of a university education. The conflict is in no small part one between age and youth, between the self-security of fixed ideas, and the doubts and intellectual restiveness of active minds encountering much personal adversity. It is significant that in times of peace and easy living the student has been always more moderate in his views, the citizen more lenient in his attitude. In harder days where personal liberties and comforts are affected, fundamental principles of conduct are more rigidly examined. To some extent also there exists a class struggle, for .wherever a community shows such obvious flaws as our civilisation presents, it should be for the student, privileged in knowledge if not always in experience, to rebel against them, seeking their cause and striving for their remedy. Equally, the escape provided by merely being rebellious dissipates energy that should serve a more constructive purpose. More than anything else this tendency on the part of the students leads to resentment and misunderstanding and hinders co-operation with the community of which the college should be a functioning part.

"The University is not an abstraction; it is an institution and institutions are part of the social system," writes Dr. J. C. Beaglehole, in his history of the University of New Zealand. The university therefore deserves from the community its support and its confidence, and must return to it the results of its learning and research. Victoria College has long suffered from a lack of financial resources, is dependent still on a few private endowments and an annual grant from the Government. An institution such as Dr. Beaglehole has defined merits more than casual endowments by private persons, it should (ideally) be mainly supported by the community which it serves. At the same time this involves an obligation to the social system, often wrongly construed as a justification for demanding from the university only those beliefs to which the system itself subscribes. Here lurks a danger of repression and intellectual atrophy which negatives the whole purpose of the university. "A college supported by public funds should be known as a school of sound learning, not a snare for immature minds," said Canon James in 1933. Actually the sum received by Victoria from its annual grant in that year amounted to less than sixpence per head if paid only by the population of Wellington. But for this small public subscription the college suffered considerable strictures upon its freedom of expression and discussion, and submitted to the control of external influences.

In all discussion of the relation between Victoria College and the town in which it has its seat, the close proximity of the two must be borne in mind. Unlike most European and American institutions, secluded often in small "university towns" apart from the turmoil of commercial and political life, this college is crammed into a corner of a city concerned primarily with business rather than with any art or philosophy. Under such conditions statements and actions of the students, whether the exuberance of youth, or the inspired idealism of quickened minds, disturb the ordered complacency of the civilian. To seek the restraint of such "youthful irresponsibility" is his inevitable reaction, as long as neither faction makes any real attempt to understand the other's point of view.

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Again, unlike colleges abroad, Victoria has always been noted for its large body of part-time students living permanently and working in the city. For this reason it is impossible to make any rigid distinction between the student and the citizen. Even for the mass of townspeople who have little direct contact with the students and no sympathy of ideas with them, the interests of the two classes are closely mingled. It cannot be denied however, that the distractions which part-time students find through their work or their homes interferes greatly with that corporate life which is an essential aspect of the university.

Nevertheless while the proximity of town and college has in the past led to friction, it actually offers great opportunity for co-operation. In Wellington, the administrative capital, there is available for research and reference a wealth of material not to be found in the other centres. The Turnbull, General Assembly, and Royal Society Libraries, as well as smaller more specialised collections connected with the various scientific, economic and educational departments are at the command of students and research workers. Too much of our research is still in a sphere remote from public utility at a time when more urgent matters clamour for attention. For while a concern with first principles in science and art may be the primary function of the university, it is charged also with the responsibility of seeing that these principles are related to public life, and the fruits of intellectual labour turned to practical purposes. The world is awakening now to a realisation that a great development of the social studies—economics, psychology, political science, education—is essential before the forced growth of the physical sciences can profitably be applied to human service. This is no less necessary in New Zealand than elsewhere; and the task can best be taken up by Victoria College, since we are capable of close contact not only with the local community, but also with the rest of the country through the administrative services centred here.

Should the time ever come when a system of specialisation of studies is established in the four colleges, Victoria may yet be a School for Social Studies, and the future history of New Zealand be moulded in no small part within its walls. Never was the time more propitious than now, when a new alignment in politics has accelerated the development of a party not only possessing the understanding of the mass, but concerned also with some knowledge of the science of government which the politicians of our early history had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to acquire.

At all events whether or not such co-operation of university and state is achieved it is still imperative that the College, more particularly the student body, settle its own problem and attain a better relationship with the community. The initiative must lie with the students rather than with the town. It is of no use to sigh "the world is too much with us." Our very claim to distinction, as a College, may yet lie in the proper working out of the relations between town and gown.