The University and the Impending Crisis

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Head, Department of English
University of British Columbia

Thursday, March 2nd, 1961

Fredericton, N.B

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


May I express at the outset my appreciation of the honour you do me, and my University, in permitting me to address you on this occasion. It is a very great pleasure to be with you, and especially to see some old friends, now pillars of state. This institution of Founders' Day has the effect of recalling each year the whole history of your University. A hundred and seventy-five years have passed since the lamp of learning was lighted here and its light has shone more widely with each succeeding generation. Your academic story is a long one, compared with the time span of education west of the Rockies and it is replete with events of historic and cultural interest. It is only on this side of Canada that such a ceremony as the rendering Quit Rent to the Crown reminds us that the British monarchy played a direct role in the founding of Canadian education. One brought up in the far West grasps with some difficulty the fact that the province of New Brunswick grasps with some difficulty the fact that the province of New Brunswick enjoyed for over eighty years an independent existence. He realizes only gradually the implications of the history of the Loyalists, of the men and women who, in spite of the severities of pioneer labour and the hardship of re-establishing lives disrupted by the American rebellion, found the will and the means to erect their plans for education into enduring institutional form. Much that is to be admired in the history of New Brunswick - in particular the strong and abiding loyalty to the family tradition - will seem strange, and no less admirable for being unfamiliar, to dwellers on the Pacific slope.

Now I hesitate to believe that I can tell you or remind you of anything you need to know. With this doubt in mind, I approached the president of my University, who was once the president of your University and be assured me that the inhabitants of this campus and this city are kindly and tolerant people, willing like the Athenians, to listen to strangers. In this confidence I venture to pass on to you a few thoughts, concerning your past and your possible future as an institution of learning, which our critical times suggest.

It is customary to regard education as a perpetuation of tradition. It passes on the knowledge and the beliefs, the habits and the skills, of one generation to the next and the curriculum in Canadian universities broadens slowly down from president to president. We need to know, as Matthew Arnold said, the best that has been thought and known.

That there is a body of knowledge, a heritage of belief and a set of skills which the rising generation must be taught if they are to survive in society and which society requires them to be taught if society itself is to survive, - this seems self-evident and its sufficiency as an educational ideal may seem self-evident too. As Auden has said, "The purpose of all educational institutions, public or private, is utilitarian and can never be anything else; their duty is to prepare young persons for that station in life to which it shall please society to call them". Every new generation must learn what previous generations have found it necessary to remember: how to read and write and calculate; how to organize research and criticism, and armies and factories and transport and the getting of meals. How to do one's hair so beautifully that some young man will build a roof and walls to protect it from the elements.

But the more closely we look at this web of continuity, the more we shall discover the inequalities of its weaving. It is interesting to reflect that if, about the turn of the eighteenth century, Julius Caesar had been able by some telescoping of time to talk to Napoleon, he would have found little to surprise him. He would have seen the Gauls invading Italy, horse and foot; the infantry would be carrying their swords on the end of gun barrels and the catapults would be replaced by cannon, but the armies would be marching on the old roads, the haymakers would be pausing to watch them pass, the Mediterranean waters would be dotted with white sails, and Napoleon explaining his strategy to Caesar in bad Latin would find a knowledgeable listener.

It was at the turn of that century that King's College was established in Fredericton. The Loyalists had been here for upwards of fifteen years and their efforts and struggles may well have seemed to them, as to historians later on, to be struggles to re-establish themselves, efforts to achieve continuity. And this is in a very real sense true.

But if we are not careful, this truth can turn into a half-truth, can be a basis for quite wrong conclusions. We can easily slip into regarding education as adjustment to society. And this is in a sense true but we must at once ask, What society? Let us take the case of the martyr. (We tend now to regard martyrdom in the cause of truth as exceptional, unpredictable and most regrettable. In some other times and places it has been regarded as normal, forseeable and glorious). When we consider a Roman convert to Christianity, or a Jesuit going out to old Japan or a Plymouth Brother taking off for central Brazil, let us ask to what society is he adjusting himself? Surely the societies that Milton sees in heaven receiving his lost friend Lycidas:

There entertain him all the Saints above,
In solemn troops, the sweet Societies
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.

Or if we do not wish to be transcendal, then at least we can ask that the society which the student is preparing to serve and to which he must in some sense adjust be not simply the group of persons among whom be is to earn his living, but rather the successive generations, reaching far into the past and the future, which carry the long development of his history and! his culture. The long view, the view taken in depth, the contemplative view of totality, this we must achieve.

There can have been few societies in which the mere ability to cope with immediate problems, the mere possession of know-how to make one's way in the community, have been most palpably insufficient than in our society. For reasons which gather speed to assault us on every hand, repetition of familiar pattern is not enough. We are faced, not only with change but with an acceleration in the rate of change for which no historical parallel exists. The successive shifts, within the memory of the present generation, from horse traffic to internal combustion engines on road and rail, to airplanes and now to jet flight as a normal means of travel, - these are only straws in the wind, outward signals of profound inner changes in our thinking. Education must not only give us far more facts than our grandfathers needed, it must not only organize and package facts in more manageable containers, it must also have regard to the blueprint of the universe which hangs invisibly upon the wall of every classroom, - the assumptions, often unspoken, about the very nature of things, which determine the course taken by instruction or discussion. This blueprint is changing rapidly and no longer themselves provides us with concepts of stability like those which deduced so readily from the laws of Newton. And let us not suppose that the change from one tentative blueprint of the universe to another will leave our concept of the nature of man unchanged. On the contrary, as we develop our view of the great world, the macrocosm, so inevitably we develop our view of the microcosm, the small but complete world of man himself. If the Ptolemaic conception of the universe had persisted, what Christian would have ventured to emigrate to New Zealand?

It is now a commonplace that matter is inseparable from motion, that but for the electrical energy that keeps the particles within an atom in their orbits, matter would disappear. And man himself seems more and more a function of divine or cosmic energy moving toward its teleological goal. Classical man with fix attributes and immemorial rounds of action, fades into the past.

The course of human history now shows as a continuous series of superimposed developments and I would like to suggest to you - in all humility and with no pretentions of special insight - that all signs point to the approach of a crisis. From many latitudes these distant early warnings come to us and the nearest is perhaps the world of the newspaper whose little mirror, found each morning at our door, reflects back to us what we are thinking. Children bring it in and wisely go first for the comics, where fantasy moves a trifle faster than fact. The comics give us pictures of compulsive violence but also of worlds to conquer, great voyages in time or space and the foiling of cruel tyrants by intrepid heroes. The world we see reflected in the papers is a world that cannot be stabilized. The walls that at one time protected the citadels of various fields of knowledge are everywhere being breached. Space yields up secrets that Milton's angel Raphael warned Adam to regard as beyond his province. The nature of matter loses some of its mystery as the transmutations sought by the old alchemists prove perfectly possible. Dogma and doctrine of orthodox religion, looked at through the refracting media of myth and symbol, seem less like obiter dicta from another world and more like the pervasive wisdom of the universe, the cosmic secrets of regeneration.

As these shrines that housed the mysteries open to disclose that their mysteries are not many but one, and that one the nature of God, it becomes evident that we move toward some enormous and imminent crisis, some act of cosmic self realization, or divine revelation, or coming to birth of the psyche of mankind. It can be conceived, as a time of menace or one of promise, and never perhaps in the world's history has the visible iconography of these things been so manifest. Men are in possession of atomic power with the concomitant ability to annihilate mankind, and not only the latent power but the organized apparatus to do so. At the same moment and in the same hands there resides the power to explore space and perhaps soon to move at will through its vastness. The threat of total extinction and the promise of boundless expansion of the mind co-exist at this moment in our midst. And in the realm of values the contrasts are no less striking. We see a spirit of nihilism of which Hitler's implemented philosophy is a recent and overwhelming example. We see everywhere among students a profound and serious interest in ultimate spiritual truth which not even the deep suspicion I have of doctrine and of dogma can convince me is other than genuine, fruitful and filled with hope.

Many of you will have read that extraordinary book which became available in English rather more than a year ago. The Phenomenon of Man, by a scientist who is also a humanist and at the same time priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It is a book of great difficulty but of great beauty and of stimulating impact. De Chardin conceives mankind as moving toward a crisis which may take the form of a collective and unified effort of self-realization and realization of God or may alternatively take shape as a clash between forces favouring this release and forces dragging mankind back, so that after a decisive struggle, only a portion as it were of the collective psyche is released. A few years ago such expressions would have seemed strained, vague and obscurantist. Read beside the daily newspaper today, de Chardin appears lucid, rational, and timely.

In the light of these considerations, it would seem reasonable, necessary, indeed imperative that we who work in universities should listen to the insistent voice of history and begin to teach and learn with our eye on the new portents which take their stand on our horizon. We need a constant sight of ultimate ends; we need to expand the academic view of life (and especially the view secretly held by some academics, that nothing exists until it is written down), to acknowledge the tragic view, the apocalyptic view, the noumenal view. We cannot do less. If the future is full of menace and of promise, the present is full of demand, of imperatives we dare not, disregard.

We need new concepts in academic life and one of these is the idea of salutary discontinuity. It will not, I am sure, prove unacceptable to those of you who are scientists if I say that too many students harbour the notion that science deals with immutable laws, and that all physical operations can be relied upon to conform. Too few see the scientific record as a set of hypotheses ever changing under the impact of fresh experiment and ready to be changed radically at a moment's notice if fresh methods of observation produce fresh records upon which more beautiful and more satisfying hypotheses can be constructed. The moral glow that invests the scientist springs not from his good works in raising the standard of living, not from his assumed possession of dogmatic laws, but from his willingness to revise is ideas and abandon his old procedures whenever the evidence requires it. It should not be difficult to induce in science students a belief in change, and the ability to see discontinuities approaching, and a willingness to face a metamorphosis of society. No one who watches the onset of turbulence in a stream of liquid flowing confined can fail to believe in the inevitability of crisis. To the student of physics or chemistry critical temperatures and pressures are no new thing.

In the humanities we pay, I think, too little attention to the element of sudden and complete change in life. And yet it is hard to see why this should be so. Literature, language and the arts are full of it. Homer's Iliad is the story of a city destined to immediate and total destruction, of a royal family that in Virgil's Aenead will renew its sway elsewhere, in far-off Italy, under totally new conditions. Milton, the great Puritan poet, tells the story of Paradise Lost and the expulsion (real or symbolic, as you wish) of our first parents from the idyllic garden, of their emergence into a totally different world. Shakespeare's tragedies concern the fall of heroes and passing of kingdoms from one power to another. Shelley hails the return of revolutions:

The world's great age begins anew
The golden years return
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn
Heaven smiles and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.

And insofar as the concepts of religion may in one form or another enter into university teaching, let us take cognizance of the fact that there is now a revival of the apocalyptic theme and that a sense of discontinuity in human affairs is again strongly present. And with what extraordinary freshness the old text now reverberates: Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God: And how apt to our present condition are the symbols of apocalypse the warning angel, the opening of the seals, the sad messages to the seven churches, the devil loosed for a little while, the fall of Babylon the great, the passing away of heavens and earth and the coming of the new Jerusalem. How easy to accept the symbolism of all this vision of John on Patmnos, when we have read the morning's newspaper.

Our task, it would seem then, is to teach with the consciousness of impending transformation. To infuse into the minds of those we are privileged to instruct a sense of the imminence of decisive crisis, simultaneously in many fields. To make them see - whatever may be their fields - that liberal ideas, adorned with a few flowers of the humanities and aided by a few scientific tools are not enough. To suggest to them that although the precise shape of the future cannot be foreseen, its critical nature is inevitable. That many signs point in the same direction: the completion of the exploration of this earth; the growth in world population; the speed of scientific discovery and technological advance; the breaking of barriers between races and classes; the physical limitations of the individual who can now contrive neither is own means of sustenance nor his own defence; the possibilities of extinguishing or of vastly enhancing human life; the inevitability of world unity, for good or evil.

This heightened consciousness of the human condition, this new sense of urgency, this opportunity for dedication to great ends are already being achieved by the young, whose barometric sensibility to the real pressures of the times is greater than ours who have left our twenties some distance behind. How senseless then for us who teach to let slip this occasion, to spend our time in dispensing incidental criticism, or conducting routine laboratory techniques as an end in themselves, or teaching adjustment to a community which is on the verge of transformation.

Looked at properly, the history of the Loyalists is itself a perfect essay in the art of dealing with discontinuity. They left their established forms behind them and came to Canada to face a totally new set of conditions. Their family records are eloquent witness to their ability to transform themselves under the stress of violent change. And whatever capacities they showed for dealing with discontinuity, we may be certain that those who have now succeeded them will require that capacity tenfold to meet the challenge of our immediate future.

Universities are, like Proteus, capable of many forms and must be all things to all men that they may by all means save some. In these times when annually the autumn tide of freshmen flows over the threshold and engulfs the familiar furniture, it is hard to recognize the Canadian university as Alma Mater, the kindly, generous and gentle mother nourishing the intellectual life of each of her children. There are too many steel filing cabinets in her nursery.

What then is our image of the university? Perhaps some beneficent and slightly confused figure like Santa Claus, who has gifts for all, books and games, power tools, flowers, puddings and dolls. And so everyone is for the time being happy.

But perhaps our mission is quite otherwise. Perhaps the task of the university is that of John the Baptist whose business it was to recognize, to baptize and to prepare for transcendental truth. Not to accommodate to society but living on the edge of the wilderness to proclaim another Kingdom, a discontinuity in human affairs, a crisis in human history, an undefined but identified means of deliverance, of hope and of salvation.

However we look at it, a great crisis of the collective human will approaches. There are loud voices, cries of direction, demands and pronouncements from all quarters. Many in this city, this province, this country, will listen for the voice of the university. It would be a pity if we, who have put forth great claims for learning, should speak weakly or confusedly, or if at the moment of crisis it should be apparent that we have nothing to say. It will not be enough to show that we kept attendance, balanced our budget and marked the examination papers.

Now I can well imagine that some here, even among the most charitable, will feel at this point that there are better ways of spending half an hour than in imprecise conjecture as to how the unspecified crisis of our civilization at some not quite predictable future date should be met. So let us come for a moment to an historical example, to a specific case of someone who gave thought to higher education in the light of his belief that a crisis, which was at the same time to be an opportunity, was approaching. Let us look back up the pathway of our own history to the seventeenth century, that extraordinary period in which western civilization defined its problems, identified its archetypes and sketched its procedures. This is the century of Bacon's Advancement of Learning, of the foundation of the Royal Society and the commencement of systematic experimental and mathematical research. It saw the replacement, after violent oscillations of power, of a concept of divine right by a fairly workable system of party and parliamentary government; freedom of worship and equality before the law became accepted principles. But the full idealism of the revolution remained unrealized; hopes for social justice and for a new temper in politics were frustrated. It was at this time, in the midst of furious activity directed toward clarifying fundamental ideas, that a certain writer of pamphlets named Samuel Hartlib, much interested in agriculture and education, was editing a collection of papers on educational theory to which he asked for a contribution from a young poet of his acquaintance. The manuscript he received, only some five thousand words long, shows us, for all its brevity, how a great mind will transcend local confusions and difficulties and will forge from the rusted arms it has inherited a new weapon to assault the future.

The proposal is to establish an academy for something between a hundred and a hundred and fifty boys, to take them in at twelve and keep them till they are twenty, and to teach them Latin and Greek and some modern languages as fast as possible so that they may read what is stored up in those languages and get the benefit of it as soon as possible. In the eight years they are at the academy, they are to everything, everything then available except the upper reaches of medical and legal knowledge. And what is to induce these boys to give themselves to study night and day and to make themselves paragons of wisdom and universal knowledge? Not punishments, certainly, and not the hope of personal gain. Let us go to the words of the text "But here the main skill and groundwork will be to temper them such lectures and explanations, upon every opportunity, as may lead and draw them in willing obedience, inflamed with the study of learning and the admiration of virtue; stirred up with high hopes of living to be brave men, and worthy patriots, dear to God and famous to all ages". The overtones are either glorious or faintly absurd, according to your point of view, for what Canadian university (what theological college even?) expects its graduates to be dear to God and famous to all ages? And in what world that we have any experience of will those dear to God be also the recipients of earthly fame? As we read on, the double focus becomes still more apparent. The boys are to become masters of all knowledge, ancient and modern. Languages, literatures, history, philosophy, theology, logic and rhetoric, economics and political science, mathematics, astronomy, physics, agriculture, geology, and geography, anatomy, some law and medicine; the list stretches into infinity. And the prescription of study is replete with hopeful idealism. Sundays, we are told, "Sundays also and every evening may be now understandingly spent in the highest matters of theology and church history ancient and modern; and ere this time the Hebrew tongue at the set hour might have been gained, that the scriptures may now be read in their own original; whereto it would be no impossibility to add the Chaldee and Syrian dialect". Why learn the Syrian dialect? Because some of the New Testament, of the infallible scripture, is originally in that language. A little further on, we read that in the springtime, when the air is calm and pleasant, the boys will ride out in companies to all parts of the country, - "sometimes taking sea as far as to our navy, to learn there also what they can in the practical knowledge of sailing and of sea-fight". There is nothing relating to the defence of their country, no divine truth, learned knowledge or practical engineering skill that they do not need to know. By now one is reading this tract on education, written by a great soul in a great age filled with conflict, as a vision, not as a directive. It was scarcely possible, even then, for a university to expect that each of its members would compass the total range of knowledge and still less that he would exercise his gifts and skills in life-long self-denying service to God and his country. The last magnificent Baroque prose cadence concedes this but with no loss of confidence or purpose: "Only I believe that this is not a bow for every man to shoot in, that counts himself a teacher; but will require sinews almost equal to those which Homer gave Ulysses; yet I am withal persuaded that it may prove much more easy in the assay, than it now seems at a distance, and much more illustrious; howbeit, not more difficult than I imagine, and that imagination presents me with nothing but very happy, and very possible according to best wishes; if God have so decreed and this age have spirit and capacity enough to apprehend".

Read in a pragmatic context these proposals seem impractical, even a trifle ludicrous. It is apparent that they skate over organizational difficulties and ignore limitations of human nature. Nevertheless, they compel the imagination. For if we are to face, as the nineteenth-century Englishman faced, a time of crisis, if we are to expect the same renovation and regeneration of society that he expected, but on a scale and with an impetus and acceleration of change beyond his thought, then it is no longer a question of whether young men can be called upon to know everything and to bring their knowledge with wisdom and dedication of their powers to bear upon the regeneration of society; it is a question of how we can conceivably survive if the young men and women in our universities do not do so. Their knowledge, their competence to meet emergencies, their readiness to face crisis must today be a collective effort. But this effort will still stretch the individual to his utmost capacity and will exact from him a devotion not less arduous than the old desire to be dear to God and famous to all ages.

The young men and women of this university, Mr. President, in common with their fellows across the length of Canada are, I am convinced, fully aware of the necessity of reckoning with approximate turning point in human affairs and of arming themselves by strenuous work and thought to meet this challenge, to prepare to throw a bridge over the discontinuity between our present world and the new world that is inevitable. Doubtless a task of great difficulty, but we may say with Milton, - not more difficult than we imagine, and that imagination presents us with nothing but very happy, and very possible, if God have so decreed and this age have spirit and capacity enough to apprehend.