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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

Fifty Years

Fifty Years

"When the Golden Jubilee arrives with its added laurels few indeed who shared the high hopes of the foundation will join in the songs of praise. This Silver Jubilee is the last of those great anniversaries at which the generations of Victoria College may expect to mingle with the very founders ..."

The Spike, Easter 1924.

At the silver jubilee an attempt was made to put into words, and to assess, the contribution of our College in its first "Twenty-five years" to the story of our times. The contribution of the Professors to the cause of University Reform; of the students first to their own community life and then to the fuller life, national and international of the community; and, finally, of the Council to the cause of University Government when, assailed by all the dogs of war, it fought the good fight for patriotism, loyalty, justice and academic freedom; these things were recorded as evidence of service done and as proof of a not unworthy tradition.

The contribution of those first years stands, of course, to the credit of the fifty, but the retrospect has widened, the world has changed, all our institutions have had to face new tests. If we have indeed survived the tests, how have we borne ourselves in the fight, have we surrendered at vital points, and for what?

"Look back and see if in those walls
You helped to build and cherish,
Truth walks with courage, sword by sword,
Or both before some overlord
Fall down and weakly perish."

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But first let us look at the casualties. Of the first four professors, one alone survives, and he cannot be with us. With Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, John Rankine Brown and Hugh Mackenzie, Sir Thomas Easterfield shared all the privations with all the honour of the pioneers and to him we give thanks and greeting. Of the first students certainly there are some few amongst us, mostly septuagenarians, who will take their part in the celebrations. Of those who voted in the momentous division in the House of Representatives—the story is told by Sir Robert Stout in the Silver Jubilee number—not one survives; and of the original council, all are gone. Sir Robert Stout has passed, the oldest and the greatest of the pioneers of Victoria College, and his passing marked the end of an epoch in the history of the University itself. We salute all who fought so well—not always with success—in the battles of fifty years ago and we give them thanks.

In passing from one age to another it is not merely time which counts. It is difficult to imagine a period more fraught with difficulty than that through which we have just passed. Oxford and Cambridge seem to have had centuries of fairly even development, centuries during which there was general agreement as to the cultural basis of education and as to educational methods—with a command of great scholars adequate to the tutorial and professorial needs. Victoria University College has grown up in an atmosphere of change. Throughout its fifty years it has been struggling to reform an antiquated system, it has been crippled by an effete examination tradition and a Senate dependent for progress on some measure of agreement between four Colleges whose interests were too often conflicting. Two world wars have disorganized teaching and staff and, despite the efforts of authority, have tended to lower standards. The wars and their aftermaths left the College struggling with a plethora of students, with inadequate staffs, with inadequate accommodation and with inadequate finance. In 1899 we had 100 students, today the number exceeds 2,000. The tutorial system of the great English Universities had no counterpart in New Zealand, and, with mass lecturing, the bad old examination octopus even tightened its hold. Above all, the atmosphere and the very metabolism of our social life had undergone profound change. In 1899 we were still living in the Victorian Age. In 1949 the very virtues of that age are questioned if not derided, its stability shaken, its orderly progress discredited, its optimism replaced by disillusion. Student life not only reflects, it is part of, the community life of its country, its time and generation. It is, more particularly in New Zealand, closely bound to the education system, from infant school to university entrance, a system which has tended to standardization at a non-academic level.

On the other hand there are some more promising trends. The number of full-time students has been increasing, day-time lectures are more numerous and, in response to social needs, there is a much greater recognition of the place of research in a self-respecting University.

In attempting to assess the value of an institution to its time and place there is a tendency to measure it by specific incidents and specific doctrines. This is clearly not the best method of approach. If the institution is a University, it has to be recognized first that it is an integral part of a well-ordered community, because the progress of such a community depends upon knowledge, upon an objective search for truth, and experience has shown that such a search can be prosecuted only in an atmosphere of freedom. Where such an institution exists, its influences is not to be found in the hearts and minds of the people, its value is not to be expressed in terms of gold—nor fine gold—it is of the kind" hands cannot close upon." Fundamental research itself may give practical results, but its true value is above rubies, and is still impalpable. All knowledge, however, must be imparted in human tones by human beings and the story can best be gathered from the sound knowledge, the high ideals and character, the generosity and courage of men and women.

Victoria University College has made its mark upon our community because from the beginning and throughout its history it has not at any time lacked men of outstanding ability and character, men devoted to public good, willing to devote their ability and character to the public service. The first four Professors laid the foundations; and the names of T. H. Laby, D. K. Picken, G. W. von Zedlitz and Sir Thomas Hunter, who led the University Reform Movement, bear witness to the part played by our College in University leadership, as in many other departments of our social life.

It would be invidious to select from among the many who have served her the names of those who, like Harry Borrer Kirk, have been most loved, or of those who, like "Old Von," have brought to her service the most brilliant parts. It is not invidious, however, to mention some few who have attained international stature and reputation: Professor T. H. Laby, F.R.S. (in Physics), Professor C. A. Cotton (in Geology), Sir John Salmond (in Law)—men whose very names would bring distinction to any professoriate in the world; while Sir Carl Berendsen, our Ambassador in Washington, has maintained a high reputation before the United Nations. Among those who are serving or have served on the Supreme Court Bench, the names of the Rt. Hon. Sir Humphrey O'Leary, P.C., C.J., the Hons. Sir Archibald Blair, Sir Hubert Ostler, Sir David Smith, Sir Robert Kennedy are recorded on our roll of students, as is that of Sir Theodore Rigg, who four times won the University three miles and was knighted for his services to Agriculture. In the University itself Sir David Smith has become one of its most page 15 distinguished chancellors.

With all the handicaps under which we have laboured we have, through the years, accumulated a not-unworthy record. A number, even of our earlier part-time men, have become distinguished lawyers, magistrates and judges, while from very early days the scientific departments have continued to produce men, who, when they have gone abroad, have taken an honourable place in the great world of science outside. In the humanities it is not so easy to gauge the standards. Beginning so often with ill-prepared matriculants, we may assume that our average entrance standard is not high, and it is all the more meritorious that our best students, who go abroad, have done so well. Of some we have every reason to be proud. We cannot expect that every year Canterbury will produce a Rutherford, or Victoria a Syme, a Robertson, a Jenness, or a MacDougall. The great and abiding contribution of a University, however, is the spirit and the inspiration which has made the achievement of the greater ones possible. If in the hearts and minds of the average student there has been implanted a love of truth for its own sake, a patient industry in the search for fact, a determination to understand and to follow wherever truth leads, the community will harvest a fitting and generous reward.

In the Silver Jubilee Number there was printed some "Stray Reflections" by John William Joynt, the Registrar of the New Zealand University when Victoria was young. In his day his was a name to conjure with and his interest in the new College was unbounded. "And what," he said, "of that first batch of students? . . . The faces and voices of many of them rise before me, across the distance of space and time . . . Few though they were, they have their place in academic history. They laid the foundations on which great things were to be erected . . . College patriotism and College fraternity sprang into existence as if by enchantment ..." Those who remember the Victoria of those days know how difficult it is to reproduce with 2,000 students the solidarity and enthusiasm which is so natural to 200, 200 working and playing against every possible handicap. It is only through the organisation of such numbers into different units—such as Weir House and the other Hostels—that the community life of fifty years ago can be recaptured, with its solidarity, its intensity and its sweetness. Today, the majority of students know nothing of our verses or our songs. Our "Sports Chorus" is almost forgotten, with "Absent Friends" and "The Final Chorus" and even The Old Clay Patch is less than a name. Nevertheless, the work of the College still pursues its quiet humanizing way.

The quiet, of course, as is the case wherever young men and women are gathered together in one place, is sometimes disturbed. Such is the nature of the young. After World War I, some students at the ancient University of Oxford passed a famous resolution indicating that they would never again fight for their country. Even then the newspapers and the megaphones found such exuberances good "copy." Even some greybeards of the period took such enthusiasm seriously, forgetting that it is better for immaturity to let off the steam of thought—even misguided thought—rather than not to think at all. It is well for intelligent people to remember that freedom itself must be bought at a price and that price often entails bearing-up in the face of the uninformed and the doctrinaire enthusiasms of the very young, as well as the conservative maunderings of the very old. What is more important and far more insidious is the inevitable entry into the stream of university thought of the pessimism, the disillusion and the vulgarity of modern life. Instead of the youth and vigour of the first Old Clay Patch we tend to achieve the lucubrations of a few stage-haunted exhibitionists who have no scruple in exploiting the lower instincts of the mob. It is always the excesses of an ignorant and stupid few which tend to undermine the great name a University bears and the great influence such a name should inspire. The excesses of generous human ideals may well be condoned, the excesses of low conduct can only be deplored.

The University claims for itself a freedom of expression and a freedom of government in a State which, as far as New Zealand is concerned, has provided the funds by which it exists. Such a state of affairs has implications. It implies the devotion of its members to its own ideals and, in the deepest sense, it implies the duty of consecration by its members to the highest good of the community. It is not without significance that, towards the end of its fifty years, in honour of Sir Thomas Hunter, the College published a volume of essays, and the volume was called The University and the Community. It is for service to the community that the right of freedom exists and by such service that its success can best be measured. The University holds "in trust" but its service may be greatest where it is least recognized.

Among the verses of our College which have fallen into oblivion are those by Seaforth Mackenzie in the Ode on the Laying of the Foundation Stone. It expressed some of the hopes and aspirations of those who were present on that day of days when the animosities of "The Battle of the Sites" were laid to rest:

"Here in the common clay,
Here in our strait demesne
Lay we a stone in trust
Waiting the fuller day:
Gladly for gift and gain
Rift the light from its shroud;
Sow the grain of desire
Down in the dark of the dust;
Raise for fellow to sun and cloud
Upward—yearn of a climbing spire!"

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As we pass this milestone we realize that we have travelled a long way since the Ode was written. One decade after another has passed back the torch and we may well and sincerely believe that the trust has not been betrayed. We have, without doubt, suffered from that "economic drive" which turns men from the pursuit of wisdom to the pursuit of a career, but the truth will never be without a witness so long as we remain true to the tradition of our first fifty years, ready to fight for decency and honour, to dedicate our lives and, in the last resort, to lay down our lives in the cause of freedom, truth and justice.

"For this is the burden of the World
Which it speaketh day by day;
Though many a worldly lip be curled
In a sneer that it does not pay:
In our ears is the voice of a Mammon Age,
In our hearts is a tale that's old,
The tale of our garnered heritage—
The wisdom that's more than gold!"

F. A. de la Mare.