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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

The Life and Work of the University

page 53

The Life and Work of the University

Eight Hundred Years Ago the position of Christianity in the University was clear and sure. To the schoolmen, at their best, theology was the 'Queen of the Sciences', synthesizing the discoveries of subordinate disciplines to form a world-view in harmony with revealed religion. The Universities aimed to turn out learned Christians.

From this point almost up to the present, Christians have been fighting a defensive action, all too often on the wrong side of truth and humanity, thoroughly discrediting the idea of a Church-or State-controlled, and finally of a Christian, University.

New conceptions of a University have partially filled the vacuum. The one most of us respect, with a touch of nostalgia, is the aristocratic-liberal tradition — a society training men to love knowledge for its own sake, opposing to fanaticism, intolerance and short-sightedness the broad understanding and lofty values gleaned from living and working among an intellectual elite in a tradition dedicated to pure scholarship. The prerequisites are leisure, breadth of interest and a corporate life of sufficient maturity to form an adequate focus. The number of students at Victoria to whom such a conception is really relevant can only be a handful.

More realistic in this utilitarian country is the idea of a higher technical school — asking no fundamental questions but seeking to better man's lot by improving our knowledge of how to produce, distribute, teach, administrate. We have limited time, limited concern outside our chosen field, and perhaps an over-healthy scepticism of ideas not empirically demonstrable.

Our Universities have of course tried to maintain a neutral attitude to all ideologies, religious and political, tolerating individual Christians or Communists but remaining as a body uncommitted. The question 'how shall a man live ?' has come to seem irrelevant or embarrassing to the academic world per se. 'Some think God exists, some think not, some think it is impossible to tell, and the opinion grows that it does not matter.' Neutralism on these issues is not possible. Victoria reflects the spiritual indifference of New Zealand society as accurately as the Schoolmen reflected the Christianity of theirs.

Nor can we claim that the University succeeds in imparting its own 'culture', standards and traditions to its sons to serve as a strong centre of affections and standard of conduct in after life. Corporate life is growing, but still comparatively weak and shallow.

To return to older conceptions of a University is neither possible nor desirable in New Zealand. Today's Christians may work to undo some of the violent reaction against the obscurantism of their powerful seventeenth century predecessors. We may hope to see theology tolerated at Victoria as a junior department if only as a basis of much of our culture. Little more can be expected.

What we must keep firmly in mind is the huge responsibility which has passed to students voluntarily organizing themselves. What was once considered the important part of a University's task has gone by default. If students are to gain a coherent world-view, synthesizing and giving moral purpose to the proliferating page 54 branches of specialized knowledge, they must gain it for themselves, forming to a large extent their own corporate traditions. That this should be on a religious basis will not appeal to everybody. Yet only the religious societies at Victoria are seriously attempting the task. Having almost on their own a positive world-picture as focus, they must rise to be a University within a University', T. S. Eliot's 'creative minority'. That this task is too big for the little Student Christian Movement and the others, lacking staff inspiration as they generally are, goes without saying. But the temptation for these groups to accept the caricature of themselves as one-sided escapists, fanatics, simpletons or visionaries must be resisted. The task is too serious-helping students to live integrated lives in God's world.

Tony Reid