Salient: Victoria University Students' Newspaper. Vol. 24, No. 7. 1961.
Victoria University: A Newcomer's Irreverences
Victoria University: A Newcomer's Irreverences
One's first impression of Victoria University is of a cathedral surrounded incongruously with inferior New Zealand imitations of skyscrapers—medievalism buttressed with an incompetent counterfeit of the up to date—this is sufficient description of Victoria University, architecturally and intellectually. In the cathedral hush all heresy is banished, all blasphemy crushed: it seems almost sacrilegious to rebel. Students congregate in the library—the room with the cathedral window—where no conversation is allowed, the only intellectual stimulus being a collection of books which, if we are to believe the Munn-Barr report, was very good in the 1930's.
It is, no doubt, pure accident that one only knows there are other students at Victoria by seeing them in the library: we know that, despite the efforts of a valiant executive, the new student facilities have somehow not yet been built. But Vic. students somehow prefer to be the trappists their library makes them.
Victoria University is the apotheosis of conversation: twice as conservative as the Chamber of Commerce, the only reason why it has not yet started a branch of the League of Empire Loyalists is its suspicion that any kind of student organisation is necessarily a tool of the Kremlin. Let the hush be maintained, the quiet deepened, the silence become deafening: if students speak, may they not say something left-wing.
The university seems to have stopped dead in the 'thirties. The left tendencies other universities had in the late 'thirties it had in the late 'forties, and whereas other universities were sufficiently patriotic in the war to belie their previous sympathy for the Left Book Club, Vic. never had a war in which to shake off triumphantly its shameful red past. No doubt this is the reason why its students are so apathetic about nuclear disarmament. How can you prove your patriotism except in such a national emergency as a war?
But this must not be taken as an endorsement of the equally fallacious myth that Victoria once had bold, brave unshakeable rebels who trusted in Stalin. The left now relies mainly on its memories and its ex-Communists; and it is not surprising that its remaining ex-Communists have little to say. Most joined the Communist Party at the time when it was least possible for any intelligent person to do so when Russia was obviously over-running most of Eastern Europe against the wishes of the Eastern Europeans. That this generation of Communists mostly left the Party over Hungary no doubt shows that they learnt something in the Communist Party: it had sharpened their critical intelligence to some extent. But as most of them would now deny they learnt anything while in the Communist Party, any lessons they may have learnt have been in vain. One might have thought the path obvious. Converted from a belief in a pseudo-revolution in Eastern Europe to sympathy for a reed workers' revolution in Hungary, their Marxism, it might have been expected, would only be strengthened, and its Stalinist glosses purged systematically. But the reverse happened: their sails trimmed to the prevailing wind, Victoria's ex-Communists gleefully denounced Marxism as a dogmatic excrescence on socialism, and formed a group called Socialist Forum which has some effect on the university.
So the left has lost its influence and any crusading force it ever had. There is a nuclear disarmament group, World Affairs Council, which has acquired some notoriety: but it takes no great intelligence to see that the H-bomb is overwhelmingly dangerous and nuclear war is now suicidal. Other universties are going much beyond this position. There is a Social Credit Club (if it can be classified as left-wing) which has probably never heard of Orage or even of Ezta Pound, and yet claims recognition as a serious student body. Does it realise what it has to repudiate, the Fascism of Pound, the anti-Semitism, of Douglas, the monetary views of Mussolini. The Labour Club is at best a curiousity, whose meetings are attended by students wondering what socialists look like.
The remainder of the Vic. intelligentsia prefers, no doubt, on strict Liberal principles, to remain unorganised. It will probably talk badly about T.S. Eliot or Tolstoy, given the opportunity, and has read all the inferior nineteenth-century political writers from Mill to Green. It has definite religious views, mainly because it has not read enough S.C.M. Press publications, which would convert anyone to atheism. (This is not to criticise, but to praise, the merits of S.C.M. Press books).
It is hard, summing up, to think of some glorious tradition to call Victoria University back to neither in its days of the praise of the iron heel with a Socialist label or in its contemporary plight as the kingdom of the law clerk, and the timid civil servant has it had a real reputation. Protest against the status quo, no matter in what terms expressed, has always been alien to it: it has borne only ex-Communists terrified of their past and anti-Communists afraid of ex-Communists. Some things Vic. does well: the bureaucrat of N.Z.U.S.A. resident executive who would be less cautious if he had not gone through Victoria and buried his incipient radicalism in a decent reticence; the Vic. graduate in the Communist front organisation overseas (I have met the species) who became a Socialist at Vic. not because Socialism was a good thing but because it was powerful and had to win. Around the cathedral window at Vic. students sit hushed: but there is no God for them to worship but the will to get on that made them come to university. To be safe and mild and conservative in an office in Wellington or Moscow one must avoid scrupulously the temptations of free speech and student irresponsibility. The idolatories of the bureaucrat have it seems, come to stay in the capital city's university.
[Mr Barry McKaig used the word "rebel" twice. But why should there be anything to rebel against, when we already have around us a system working tolerably well.]