The Principle of Unity in the University

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By C. W. Crawley
Trinity Hall, Cambridge





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".