The Spike or Victoria College Review 1937
It has been stated that criticism of the education system had become one of the nation's favourite indoor sports and with memories of the recent New Education Fellowship gatherings (at one of which the remark was made) it would seem that the observation was a correct one. That such is the case is a matter of doubly sad reflection; it is regrettable that the education system should be so open to criticism, but more regrettable still is the fact that with criticism the matter seems to end. Any attempt to alter the status quo immediately arouses the most acrimonious opposition. Just how long this state of affairs has existed, more especially in relation to University reform, can be learned from Dr. J. C. Beaglehole's latest book, The University of New Zealand, An Historical Study, and the knowledge once acquired makes for sober and even despairing reflection.
This book has been written at the invitation of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research as part of its programme of providing historical surveys of our educational system. On first reading the book, one cannot but wonder, in the light of past events, whether the hopes of achieving reforms by the method of research and exposing the faults of the system is not foredoomed to failure. A more careful consideration of the question shows however, that faulty as the present system is, its shortcomings would be infinitely greater if it had not been for the efforts of reformers in the past; and the knowledge that in spite of all efforts the reforms were imperfectly realised does not alter that conclusion.
To many connected with the university, and particularly students, it might appear that though there exist many anomalies—as in all democratic systems—the present working of the university is efficient. Such an attitude arises from being too closely connected with the system and blindly accepting the status quo. In other words they consider that the present function of the university in merely supervising examinations and conferring degrees (with the colleges and special schools prescribing the text books and giving tuition) is all that is required of a university. That such a state of affairs is highly undesirable is convincingly explained in this book. Of the evils from which the present system suffers and to which Dr. Beaglehole draws attention, the following are the more important:—lack of co-ordination between colleges with the consequent unnecessary duplication and imperfect teaching of courses; almost total lack of specialisation and resulting neglect of serious research; the system of granting extramural degrees due to inadequate bursary distribution; the vested interest of examinations; the faulty system of professorial appointments; the peculiar system of appointments to the University Senate and the college councils whereby efficiency is sacrificed to mistaken principles of democracy; the unsuitable model upon which the whole system is founded; and finally the ramifications and dangers of political control.
With all these evils Dr. Beaglehole deals at length and in describing the manner in which they have arisen traces the evolution of the present system. In particular does he draw attention to the futility and stupidity of provincial jealousies which surrounded the foundation of each college, and how these senseless struggles are largely responsible for the present chaotic conditions. From the historical viewpoint however, they are of the greatest interest since they epitomize the whole of New Zealand's political history.
Of great interest to Victoria's students is the pecular manner in which the college arose. At first unsuccessfully sponsored by Sir Robert Stout, the college finally and ironically owed its foundation to that despiser of intellectualism, R. J. Seddon. With his usual disregard of authoritative advice he drew up his Victoria College Bill and bludgeoned Parliament into passing it. That the bill needed reforming before many years had elapsed was not therefore surprising.
Of greater interest still is the debt that the University as a whole owes to the staff of Victoria College. In May 1910 there was formed in Wellington the University Reform Association which owed its origin to a majority of the Victoria professors. For years this group of which the leading spirits were Professors Hunter, von Zedlitz, Laby and Kirk endeavoured to awaken public opinion to a realisation of the need for reform. Their efforts were met with all the resistance that is customary when attempts are made to demolish the innate conservatism of authorities, and in particular did page 37 they incur the wrath of Sir Robert Stout, then Chancellor of the University of New Zealand. Stout's attitude was a peculiar one; genuinely interested in the welfare of the University he was extremely jealous of the Senate's powers—the Senate being to his mind ideally democratic—and he would brook no external advice or assistance. In order to frustrate the Reform Association's activities he indulged in every kind of political subterfuge and emotional irony. Eventually the Reformers had the satisfaction, not unalloyed it is true, of seeing the New Zealand University Amendment Act 1914 containing portions of the reform for which they had laboured so strenuously pass through both Houses.
To try to draw conclusions from Dr. Beagle-hole's book is largely superfluous for in the concluding chapter is an admirable summation of the policies and ideals that have shaped, and still govern, the University in New Zealand. It should not be imagined however that by reading the final chapter one will be saved the necessity of reading the book itself, for the full understanding of the one is not possible without a good knowledge of the other.
In considering this book apart from its message its most outstanding feature is the manner in which it is documenetd. Such wealth of references points to the most painstaking research and an unrelenting desire for absolute accuracy. Yet by presenting the material in this manner, the book becomes limited in its appeal for with constant quotation and reference a readable style cannot be maintained. It is necessary therefore to regard the work as an outstanding example of exhaustive research rather than as a popular history. On the other hand it calls forth the great admiration for its conspicuous balance, for the impartiality of its statements, and for the manner in which all the cross threads of the historical back-cloth are successfully unravelled.