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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1942

Democracy and the University

page 23

Democracy and the University

In Some Ways i am disappointed with the University. Perhaps I had expected too much. Perhaps I did not realise that the University is a part of society and that the disinterested pursuit of truth so nobly advocated by Mr de la Mare was only another idealist's dream. The reasons for my disappointment varied. In the first place it is not a very democratic institution, that is from the point of view of the students that attend. Its government is vested in the hands of College Councils and Professorial Boards, in the former case an odd assortment of individuals whose actual relationship to the University is small, while the latter body is a group of experts in their own particular spheres, whose main function is teaching. The bulk of the University, the Students, is comprised of young men and women whose primary purpose is to study set books, write set essays, and record what knowledge they have obtained once a year. As a result of the latter they obtain certificates in science, in commerce, in law and so on. Proficient in the theories of those who write the set books, mark the set essays, and grant the certificates, they may be likened to the plumber or electrician who passes his examinations and may be competent at plumbing and electrical work, but whose view of society is distorted by ignorance, prejudice and superstition.

The makeup of our social organisations has demanded that the individual shall be disintegrated yet integrated into a form of action that is beneficial to those who control the economic life of the community. Few scientists are politicians and too few politicians are scientists. University courses are so arranged that a Bachelor of Medicine may be an ignoramus as far as politics or economics are concerned, and on the other hand a Bachelor of Commerce may be equally ignorant of evolution or biology. You therefore find economists and lawyers who believe in the innate superiority of the Anglo Saxons and chemists and physicians in the "survival of the fittest."

To remove this disintegration it seems that we have to do two things. First of all to make the University democratic and secondly to have some plan of action to give the undergraduate a coordinated basis for his studies.

To extend democracy we have to make our institutions democratic not only in the economic but also in the educational sphere. How can we practise democracy when even the more intelligent section of the community does not know what it is or how it operates? Our Universities at present are not places of education for democrats: instead there is remote specialisation and control and each cog turns away without knowing what the machine is doing as a whole.

To-day a great deal of emphasis is being placed on the task ahead of youth to build the New Order. But little is being done in higher educational circles to facilitate this. Although in New Zealand production councils have made little headway, in Great Britain they have done much to increase output. This new democracy in industry has made working people feel that they are part of industry and not isolated cogs turning with dreary routine. In the University at present there is this same routine and cog-like precision. What if the production council scheme was applied to the University?

Adequate self government of a University could be composed of faculty councils, an all-University Council, and a Principal with his or her administrative assistants. Each faculty council would comprise the dean of the faculty, the lecturers and the elected representatives of the students, and this council would discuss the running of courses, methods of teaching, new kinds of practical work and other similar questions. The principal would be assisted by the All University Council composed of representatives of each faculty council and of the students. By this method the gap between the government of the University and the student could be bridged. The student would then feel that he is a member of an organisation of which he is a working part and not merely an automaton attending lectures and reading set books.

The general discontent with University organisation of both graduates and undergraduates has cry page 24 stallised into collective demands for curricular reform, and the investigation committees convened at the various University centres have drawn up comprehensive reports. But apart from publicity in college newspapers, little notice has been taken and to all intents and purposes the recommendations have fallen on stony ground. With active student participation in University government such a result could not have been the case.

One of the basic reasons for the lack of democracy in our highest centres of learning seems to be that as they are at present organised they are training grounds for the specialist. And the specialist, however adept at his specialty, may be as I have already said, an ignoramus when confronted with other problems of society. Indeed the most ardent and vocal advocates of democracy, and keenest students of politics and economics are more often not University educated but self-educated. My personal experience from observation and contact is that while graduates may labour under the title of a Bachelor of so and so or Professor of such and such, in fact quite often their understanding of the forces of society is limited by what they have read in the daily newspaper.

So I would pose this question "Should the University continue to turn out mechanically certificated teachers, lawyers, accountants, and scientists, or should it endeavour to make the members first of all socially conscious?"

It is an urgent question because in its answer lies our future. Failure in the past for individuals to have some social consciousness has lead us into the quagmire of the present. Reconstruction is on the lips of all but who can reconstruct without first knowing the whys and wherefores of society. The special facilities of a University make it an admirable organisation for the study of society and a source of action for reconstruction.

The best method would be to introduce a compulsory general course for all students during the first year or two on the lines of the Orientation classes such as the larger Universities in the U.S.A. have instituted. Similar general courses are also a feature of an undergraduate's earlier years at University in the U.S.S.R. These studies, which are accompanied by seminars and discussion groups, deal broadly with
(1)General Science. A study of the major findings and work of all sciences and their practical applications in industry, medicine, etc.
(2)Sociology. (a) A study of the major social problems and other effects of technological advances on social structures. (b) A study of the problems of government and administration. (c) A study of the economics of society.
(3)Culture. A study of the fine arts, music, literature, and drama—broad historical surveys which do not neglect recent developments.

All these subjects are treated in an interesting manner and are related to the general social background. With a general course such as this as a basis the dangers of specialisation would be obviated and the student would be fitted to take his or her place as a responsible citizen on the completion of studies.

The present conflict has brought forth many changes in the field of industry. It has made people realise that only by co-ordinated action and thinking can fascism be defeated. The University can and should play a vital part in building the 'New Order" by reorganising its government and by making adequate provision for every student to become in some degree socially conscious.