Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Idea of a University - Walter Pollard

As I write these lines the tragi-comedy of the Godfrey affair still lingers on in our minds, and it seems to me that the whole farcical business has in some way set the tone for any subsequent investigations into the role of the university. I shall accordingly pitch this sketch in the same key of low comedy.

But the subject is too vast, and I would like to confine myself to a few considerations on the role of the 'Humanities.'

The first consideration that comes to mind is the inescapable conclusion that we have failed most lamentably. There was a time when the university revolved around the Queen of Sciences — Theology. Yet men remained obdurately vicious. Then it was handed over to the Humanities, but man still remained incorrigibly barbaric. Now the scientist is in the ascendant and, since he cannot possibly make a worse mess of it than we have, let us bow ourselves out gracefully.

The second consideration is the amazing pliancy displayed by the Universities in their career through successive forms of society. They started as technical schools within the Mediaeval cities. They became theologically orientated institutions for the production of literate administrators. They became Training Colleges for the formation of a governing elite. The University can be all things to all societies. Now it is again a mixture of Technical School and Training College ... da capo.

But somewhere along the line the Universities assimilated a very noble ideal. The idea of a University as existing for the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, as opposed to the imparting of technical competence in some professional sphere. The University existing for the student as opposed to existing for society.

This tendency can equally well be expressed as a perverse preference for teaching subjects which have absolutely no social utility whatsoever. The Arts as opposed to the Crafts. Architecture as opposed to Construction Engineering. Literature as opposed to Journalism. Classics as opposed to Commercial Japanese, and so forth.

Of course if these useless subjects are taught there has to be a reason — especially in a society like this one which has no parasite class exonerated from the burdensome business of earning a living and consequently able to devote a few years to the acquisition of a purely personal culture.

There has to be a reason — but what can it be?

The first reason is probably prestige. Apart from the national paraphernalia like a Flag, a National Bank and a Government, a country nowadays, in order to present an image of itself as a civilising force, has to possess the external and visible signs of a culture: Chamber Music, Security Police, Ballet and a University. These things look good, and in the ultimate analysis, that is why they are maintained at the public expense. Not to do things, but just to be there in case someone were looking. Let us take a few samples. Take a look at Auckland. Then meditate upon the fact that there is in existence a Department of Town Planning. Does it not seem that the original idea was that there should be a Department of Town Planning free to advise, and City Fathers free to ignore the advice? Thus the business men are free to get the most commercial city, the rate-payers the cheapest city, New Zealand the ugliest city, and everyone is happy. And we have a Department of Town Planning just to prove that we really do care.

Look at what happened when the Fine Arts gave an opinion on a piece of Engineering Construction ... and it is the same with the Department of Political Studies. If only the educated end-product were in every way indistinguishable from the uneducated raw material fed in, there would never have been all this fuss.

If every Department could only prove that it did absolutely nothing, that education had absolutely no effect on any student, then how happy everyone would be! But when the University starts to produce educated people who are not in every way identical with the uneducated, then things have to be looked into!

For the really awful problem facing the present society is: what to do with the waste product.

That is, the Graduates. For the University has one terrible defect — it produces graduates in large numbers. And what on earth is Society to do with them? Just by looking at a daily newspaper one can see the frantic enthusiasm shown by this society to obtain the services of the educated — the advertisement columns filled with demands for 'Graduates, preferably those possessing First Class Honours.' Look at the way the Business World eagerly seeks to employ the educated; look at the scores of jobs in Administration thrown open by the Government every year to First Class graduates.

Seriously ask yourself of what earthly use is education to the student in his future career? If at only one point at least in this society there were a demand for the educated, then there would be some point in producing them. But as it is one is engaged in the production of something no one will even look at. How fortunate New Zealand is to possess such perfection in Business, Public Service and Administration, to the extent that the infusion of graduates would merely prove to be a drag upon their efficiency.

But if one really lends one's mind to it one can put almost anything to some use. So even a White Elephant like a University can be made into something practical by turning the Humanities into an extension of Teachers' Training College.

Thus all subjects which are not of immediate use to society can be made indirectly useful as a training for teachers who will teach these subjects. The only trouble with this idea is that it is a closed circuit. Like the Nitrogen Cycle, in at one end and out at the other for all eternity. The University produces teachers who produce students who become teachers and so on ad infinitum. But this is idiotic. One can make a case either for teaching a subject which is of use to society, or an equally good one for teaching a subject which is of use to the student. But no possible case can be made for teaching a subject solely in order to produce other people to teach it to other people to . . .

Take the study of History as an example. Only those students with a vocation will become Historians, say about 2%. That justifies the teaching of the subject to that 2%. The teaching of the subject to the remaining 98% can be justified in either of two ways: either that, in these days, a Democracy cannot hope to survive as a Democracy with an uneducated electorate, and that no task is of more immediate urgency than the production of that indispensable educated electorate; or it can be justified on the grounds that it is an excellent exercise for the intellect and that no man can be considered educated who has not a knowledge of History. But no case can be made for History if it produces neither intelligent individuals nor an educated electorate, but only teachers of History whose sole function is to produce more and more teachers of History.

To teach someone to teach is one thing, but it has nothing to do with teaching someone to think.

It is not that these two functions are incompatible- it is just that there is no necessary connection.

The 'socially useless subjects' can only be justified by their use to the student as an individual.

The Humanities are to the mind as the gymnasium is to the body. Either they are that or they are nothing. The production of teachers, as we have shown, justifies nothing. The studies of Greek, Music, Literature, the Fine Arts (to name but a few), are activities without which society can survive perfectly well. They exist solely for the personal culture of the student, they exist solely as a gymnasium for his mind. And for this reason it matters very much (is a Bad Thing) that the Final Year of University study is not so much the culminating point in the education of the student as the ante-chamber to the Teachers' Training College.

But this leads us back to the dilemma already posed — if the graduate did not disappear into the teaching profession, where would he go? New Zealand after all has no Foreign Legion. It seems a pity that a degree could not be conferred in strict anonymity so that the poor graduate could avoid the stigma attached to it and pass as a perfectly normal man or woman. . . .

The answer would seem to be 'Abolish the Humanities!' And I would be all for it if I did not see the most appalling social consequences. For basically New Zealand Society is organised for the pursuit and worship of wealth. With money, motor bike and moll as the goal held up for our strivings.

Where will one find the unsung heroes who have put these ideals into practise? In prison, I suppose.

And where are to be found all the unfortunates, all the pitiful maladjusted who, through congenital inferiority or sheer absence of talent in rat-racing, cannot accept this society as perfect? In mental hospitals is my guess. If the University does not take these people in charge, the prisons will overflow, the mental hospitals will come apart at the seams. For we alone can canalise their critical and misdirected energies into socially innocuous patterns of behaviour. We can make them teachers. And they can be taxed upon their earnings. So it is cheaper (invincible argument!) to have a University which can turn a thousand misfits into taxable material than to have more prisons and hospitals which are not economically viable institutions; and so the University must continue to exist.

But is this enough? For in the final analysis the University is not to produce governing elites, nor competent professionals, nor even sheep-like taxable citizens. It is to produce thinking human beings. And this it can do. But not so long as Society resolutely ignores its products. For the crux of the matter is that the University is not an institution for producing or disseminating ideas, it is merely an institution where the young mind becomes tough enough to produce its own. One thing we do know: each generation has ideas differing from those of the preceding generation. And whatever ideas the students may finally adopt, they will be their own ideas, not ours! And if Society rejects the educated, it is not rejecting the University (which would be fair enough), but it is rejecting the educated section of New Zealand's rising generation.

Walter Pollard
[Published in The Kiwi, 1966.]

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