The Principle of Unity in the University

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By C. W. Crawley
Trinity Hall, Cambridge




This is one in a series of addresses given at the University of New Brunswick and published by by University.

I can find no excuses for being honoured by an invitation to speak to you on your Founders' Day, for I cannot claim any close links with Canada in general or with New Brunswick in particular; nothing closer than the link which binds all the universities of the Commonwealth together, and one personal link to which I owe the happy accident of being here today. I found, on my arrival at Princeton, New Jersey, during a leave of absence from Cambridge, England, a letter which made me feel at once that no Englishman should visit the United States for the first time without crossing the border into Canada.

About a year ago, I had the privilege of being a guest in my own College at a dinner, arranged by Robert McGowan, a postgraduate student from this University, who must be well known to some of you. The party consisted of New Brunswickers who were then studying in England (some 35, including wives). We were addressed by Sir David Lindsay Keir, the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, who spoke with such enthusiasm of his visits to Fredericton that I could not help feeling envious of his good fortune. I did not think then that I should ever be within two or three thousand miles of New Brunswick.

The Masterof Balliol, in addressing New Brunswickers, here or in England, had several advantages, one of these being that be is a Scotsman. I am sorry to say that, although I am not "mere English", but about a quarter English, another quarter Welsh, and half Anglo-Irish, with just a dash of French further back, I have no Scottish blood; but this queer mixture forces a man to look for some unity in his diversity. Having had two homes as a boy, one on the Welsh border, on the frontier between the farmlands and the coal fields, and the other in the west of Ireland, both two or three miles from the nearest village shop and seven or eight miles from the nearest market town, I am not really a lover of great cities; and 30 years of life and work at Cambridge, on the edge of the fenland, have never quite reconciled me to its flat horizons. For a holiday, I like to go, if I can, to hills, and to water which does not just glide but flows and even tumbles. Ever since, as a schoolboy, I helped cut pitprops in a Scottish lumber camp for a few weeks during the First World War, I have always thought that the cleanest and healthiest of industries must be that of cutting trees, and the most satisfying too if one knows that more will grow in their place.

I am told, that in four years' time, you may be celebrating a major landmark in your history, the centenary of your existence under the name of the University of New Brunswick, having already had a long and honourable history as a University College before that; also that you have here the oldest University building in Canada, and the oldest Observatory too. Age is in itself no title to honour, but age may add something to honours fairly won, and age may give a certain unconscious unity to the personality of a man or an institution or even a nation, a kind of unity which may have grown in diversity meanwhile.

And that brings me to my subject today. I chose this title before deciding exactly what to say. My remarks will be very general, without much reference to the special conditions of Canadian universities, because I do not know enough about them, and I hope I shall not say anything that might cause offence to anyone. My title is not intended to suggest a new or punning derivation of the venerable name university. The word contains, of course, no positive suggestion of diversity, and it does contain a strong suggestion of unity; but it in no way excludes diversity, and it certainly does not imply uniformity. It had a technical sense, that of a corporate body, with a seal and the right to own property, whose members were linked together by the purpose defined in its charter. In a more general sense, the word came, I think, to suggest, above all, wholeness or comprehensiveness.

Medieval men gradually evolved these remarkable and more or less novel institutions, whose purpose has been variously defined. If I may use the fourfold definition of the current Statutes of my own University, the university is a place of religion, learning, education and research. It is interesting to note that the first of these words, religion, has survived a recent revision of our Statutes, in spite of doubt in some quarters about its relevance or its implications. It does not mean that Cambridge is the home of the Inquisition. It does mean, at least, that members of a university cannot be indifferent to the question: what is the highest loyalty, the link which binds a man together as a personality, and binds him to his fellows, the factor which cannot well be classified on a punched card giving his name, nationality, denomination (if any) and particular subject of study? (I am assuming, you see, that "self-expression" alone does not make a complete personality, but that a binding link is needed). This word, religion, may mean, for most, something much less vague; and, when it does so, it must be respected, provided it is honestly come by, often by a hard way.

Of the other three words in my list of four, the next two, learning and education, are common to early and modern universities alike, though the subject matter is not much the same. The last, research, is a somewhat modern label, though by no means a new invention. It is well to look at these developments a little more closely.

Medieval scholars would have rejected the motto borrowed by Renaissance scholars from a Roman playwright: "I reckon nothing that concerns mankind to be off my beat"; they would have done so, not despising mankind but finding the definition incomplete. Their motto might have been: "I reckon nothing that concerns God's plan for mankind to be off my beat." And this, not merely because they were mostly Divines and therefore inclined, perhaps, like other men to magnify the importance of their own subject, but because Divinity was not just a subject like any other, but was the Queen of the Sciences and was acknowledged so to be, not only by the clergy but also by the nobles, who were occupied in fighting and in managing their lands and even (passively, no doubt) by the artisans and peasants. Though the material conditions of life were often very unstable, its accidents and calamities numerous and perhaps even more unpredictable than today, yet the general framework of living, the assumptions which gave men an anchor in the storm, were regarded as completely stable, and to some extent discernible in the light of ancient authority and historical revelation.

The business of a university was therefore, in theory, to understand and admire, in a spirit of wonder and worship, the whole of God's plan for mankind in all its aspects; and to exercise the reasoning faculty in classifying the subordinate branches of knowledge, in reconciling seeming contradictions, and in applying the general principles of conduct to some of the difficult borderline cases which occur in real life. (The word casuistry, before it became debased and confined to the misuse of this art, meant simply the process, necessary if you start with any working principles, of applying those principles to particular cases). The universities were also professional schools, for divinity, law and in come cases medicine. My own College was founded by a fourteenth century Bishop, just after the Black Death, for the study of civil and ecclesiastical law, in order to supply men so trained "for the advantage, rule and direction of the Commonwealth".

Of course medieval universities did not live up to their conception. Prayer might become vain repetition, reading was confined to pitifully few and crabbed texts, studied in what we should consider appalling physical discomfort, teaching was often unimaginative, and the sharpening of wits in debate might easily turn into mere disputatious quibbling. Theologians, like other men before and since, were often vain, arrogant, and quarrelsome, though probably not more so than the nobles who prayed less, read not at all, and settled their quarrels by the sword.

More important, the fields of study of early universities were limited, partly by ignorance, but chiefly by the very grandeur of their conception. With their eyes fixed on God's plan for men as rational and worshipping but wilful creatures, medieval scholars had little use for irrelevant investigations. The study of botany, zoology, or astronomy was harmless and might serve to illustrate the wonders of God's creation; but the precise details were trivials and might even divert a man's mind from the great business of salvation. Such subjects had value only in two ways: just their practical use for men, the search for medicinal herbs, the care of domestic animals, the fixing of time and direction by knowledge of the stars, and so on - and secondly (an idea strange to us) their value as symbols. Thus, plants, animals, stars were often supposed to have their special virtues or evil influences; since the lion symbolized fierce courage and majesty, men described his appearance and habits accordingly, instead of trying to observe him in the flesh or else admitting ignorance if observation was impossible. In the same treatise the writer might describe with equal confidence a purely symbolic creature such as the unicorn. It is as if a modern textbook were to describe the grizzly bear along with the "abominable snowman", each with reference to its supposed allegorical significance for man.

Thus, of the three factors, God, man and the rest of creation, medieval scholars put most stress on the first two. They were humanist in the limited sense that they judged all knowledge by its significance for man's convenience or his moral guidance under God. The purely humanist scholars who followed put all the emphasis on the middle term only, man; they wanted to establish knowledge independently of divinity (though not at all necessarily in opposition to it), but it was still knowledge about man. They were still apt to regard the study of nature for its own sake as harmless curiosity, an elegant but eccentric hobby.

The scientific revolution of the late seventeenth century brought the exciting discovery that the laws governing the physical universe were few, simple and apparently invariable. But this did not mean the breaking up of all knowledge into separate departments. On the contrary, it seemed to reunite all the physical sciences under one roof, spanned by the simple laws of matter and motion—an idea finely expressed in Addison's famous hymn which begins, "The spacious firmament on high . . .". But soon the practical applications of these simple laws, combined with the urgent need to find new sources of power and new methods of saving labour, produced a great variety of what were called "mechanical arts" pursued almost entirely outside the universities and promoted in detail more by practical engineers and gifted artisans than by theoretical or laboratory scientists. (Not much theory was required to improve the steam pump or the locomotive, once the basic principle was known).

The biological sciences naturally lagged behind, because they contained elements not easily measured or reduced to simple laws. This had the odd result that, in the new enthusiasm for simple laws, the behaviour of men in society was often explained by analogies from the physical sciences instead of the less advanced biological ones. This sometimes led to ludicrous over-simplification - according to the elder Mirabeau, the age of gold might be restored if only a wise prince with an enlightened minister would follow twelve principles expressed in twelve lines - and sometimes to tragic results, suggested by the title of an eighteenth century work, "Man a Machine". Or else, in considering men, the idea of law was repudiated, and romantic sentiment about man confronted rigid laws about things, across an unbridgeable gulf.

But, overlapping with the physical and mechanical knowledge, the biological sciences, especially organic chemistry and medicine, began to catch up and to explain much of the functioning, though not the nature and origin of living things. These advances in turn produced a whole new range of practical applications, in which the laboratory played a much bigger part. This, and the still more recent discoveries in electricity and in the new physics, have linked practical utilities to fundamental theory much more closely than ever before. (You cannot harness atomic energy, or construct an electronic computor, without the aid, indeed the initiative of mathematical physicists. The same is true of agriculture in relation to chemistry, and so on).

All this has brought applied science right into the centre of university studies, and with it a special problem of departmental specialisms. It is not that scientists theoretical or applied, are more narrow than other people. The humanistic studies have tended to go the same road into separate compartments. At every level, from freshman to professor scientists may often be found more versatile, more wide-awake to human problems than the average historian or classic or linguist. It is simply that to discover the wholeness of knowledge is harder than it was (or than it seemed to be).

What then becomes of the conception of a Universitas? No one scientist can have a professional grasp of more than one corner of knowledge, and few artsmen can have even an informed amateur's grasp of natural sciences generally. Yet we cannot admit that a university should disintegrate into a collection of courses of study which are separately useful for various careers, a collection held together only by an administrative machine and by the natural good fellowship of young people. It is good to qualify for a career, and good to enjoy friends, but a university does not exist solely for these purposes. It is one of the advantages of the college system, especially in a large university, that members of the university are brought together in common life and business in a way which cuts right across Faculty compartments. This is perhaps even more valuable for the senior than for the junior members. Undergraduates, even without it, will not only make friendships without regard to Faculty, but will meet in all sorts of clubs and societies for discussion and debate as well as for other activities. But the senior members feel perhaps even more conscious of the value of college life, in constant dealings with colleagues and friends in all or most departments. There is also a problem for the intermediate class, the postgraduate students. Should an attempt be made to merge them in the general or college life of a university, or should there be totally separate institutions for research, with their own common life, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? In England, it has been decided on the whole to attempt the former and more difficult way.

In any case, we still have the problem about the wholeness of knowledge in relation to life. Some would ask: can Divinity again become the Queen of the Sciences - a queen, it is true with a much larger retinue of handmaidens than of old, and a much more dignified, well-equipped and powerful retinue - but still a queen? Some may doubt whether philosophy or psychology or any science of human behaviour can take her place, because she alone can command our allegiance instead of merely exciting our curiosity and challenging our skill. Whether or not we can find such a Queen, or fully unifying principle, we must at any rate look for a constitutional ruler or regulator in the vast tangle of specialized human knowledge. We must, for instance, keep an eye on the "advantage, rule and direction of the Commonwealth" and (if the British or any other commonwealth is to survive) on the potential Commonwealth of Nations.

All of us, whatever our interests and intended careers, are supposed to be responsible citizens. None of us come very near to being so, and perhaps we may defeat the end in view by being too desperately serious about current political processes. Our highest allegiance should be a joyful allegiance, not an anxious and painful calculation. Sometimes it seems that not merely economics, but politics too, has become the "dismal science". But this is because we confuse ends with means. In current politics, it is seldom possible to choose a wholly satisfactory course of action - more often it is a matter of choosing the least harmful among several necessary evils. As a distinguished American diplomatist has lately said: "The process of government is a practical exercise . . . It is primarily a sorry chore devolving upon civilized society, as a result of man's irrational nature, his selfishness, his obstinacy and his tendency to violence." (And he will agree that those who carry out one's sorry chores are equally under the same handicaps - our rulers are not exempt from the human predicament) . . .

Nevertheless, some issues are relatively simple, and these concern the ends, not the processes, of government. In other words, the ends of government do raise questions of principle, while the work and processes of government is mostly the drabber business of applying principles to particular cases - in fact the art of casuistry. That is why we can in a university fairly take sides in politics at the highest level, not the level of most party debates and international conferences (which are a necessary process of bargaining and compromise between different principles or between the varying needs of people who accept the same principles), but at the level of the great political thinkers. We ought, with such help as we can find from them, first to make up our minds about the meaning of the terms we use (democracy, patriotism, capitalism, social justice, etc.) and secondly to decide which things we value most, for the sake of which some of the others may have to give way.

We must not be content with platitudes; we shall not get far with words used in a merely negative sense, for instance "toleration" as just not caring enough to disapprove of anything, or "peace" as just wanting to have a quiet time. Yet both these things are desirable and necessary in a more positive sense. I hope that we shall not decide to put uniformity first, and that we continue to welcome diversity and to tolerate eccentricity. But I hope that we shall also go on looking for a unity in the sea of diversity, that we shall not be eccentric merely in order to show off but only if we are just made that way, and above all that we shall not shut ourselves up in our specialisms, whether of technology or art or literature or sport.

That formidable man, Thomas Huxley, once said that "medieval universities looked to the past and were storehouses of old knowledge, while modern universities look to the future and are factories of new knowledge". There is a certain truth in this remark, but I think there is also a catch in it, as in most epigrams. It is true that early universities did not expect continual advances in the knowledge of things, but they did try to use what knowledge they had (mostly ok knowledge) not just for storage but for building up a comprehensive picture of the world, which would make sense and would satisfy men's desire to be parts, diverse parts of an intelligible whole. It is also true that modern universities are factories of new knowledge in all its technical aspects; but they may be in some danger of just storing and neatly filing this knowledge in compartments, drawing it out for practical uses but not shaping it into any whole. We are told in reply that the time has not yet come for any synthesis, for arranging the new knowledge in any pattern which has a bearing on the difficult business of civilized living. But meanwhile, if we do not attempt a working synthesis, we shall either live without any pattern at all and drift into anarchy; or else we shall find ourselves linked together, in our specialist compartments, by some very shoddy and second-rate kind of unity, perhaps merely that of sharing common amusements, or (much worse) of a totalitarian hatred. In an age when war cannot easily be conducted on the old principle of limited liability, it is not enough to say "Trust in God and keep your hydrogen bomb cocked".

The poet Dante, who combined a longing for unity with the rich diversity of a well stored mind, also wrote a treatise on universal monarchy, but he was no totalitarian. His quaint but vivid words may have some relevance, even when we have made allowance for the facts that Dante's dream was never even remotely realized in his own age and that his conception of an Emperor was too simple for a larger and more complicated world: "Nations, kingdoms and cities have individual conditions which must be governed by different laws. For law is the directive principle of life. The Scythians, suffering great inequality of days and nights, and oppressed by a degree of cold almost intolerable, need laws other than the Garamantes, who have their days always of equal length with their nights, and because of the unbearable heat of the air cannot endure the useless burden of clothing. But the human race will be governed by the Emperor in general matters pertaining to all peoples, and through him will be guided to peace by a government common to all."

"Unpractical and impossible!" we exclaim - but equally unpractical is the absence of law as the directive principle of life.