1902 Fredericton Encaenia

Address in Praise of Founders

Delivered by: Davidson, John


“Address in Praise of the Founders by Dr. DAVIDSON” The University Monthly XXI, 8 (May 1902): 205-210. (UA Case 71)

It has not always been an easy matter to determine who the founders of this institution were; but in the present cycle of Encoenial Addresses in their praise, it has been customary to single out for honor the members of the New Brunswick Legislature, whose names were so eloquently enumerated by the Chancellor from this place some years ago, and to attribute to them an almost uncanny foresight regarding the intellectual requirements of a time half a century later than their day. In the last clauses of the statute, in which this foresight is exhibited, there is an outline of a course, leading to a diploma, in Commerce which is in general harmony with the proposals made, in these latter days, for giving commercial education as part of a college course; and in this matter, at least as fully as in others, the founders may claim, or be allowed, the great merit of anticipating future needs. One of the demands now being made on the universities is that some provision shall be made for technical instruction in commerce. We have as yet heard but little of this demand in this province; but when the demand does arise, and the public is prepared to pay for what it asks, the University of New Brunswick will probably be found ready to discuss the question of organization intelligently. But it is not the function of the college to anticipate such a demand by showing the commercial advantages of commercial education. For the enthusiasm which makes the demand is not always intelligent and ridiculous claims are sometimes made regarding its necessity and its value. Not long since in a leading Review the English people were adjured to follow the example of Germany and establish a Training College for Colonial administrators, presumably that we may repeat Germany’s success with her trained Colonial administrators.

But whatever the excesses of some enthusiasts, there can be no doubt of the reality of the demand. The Universities have not yet made up their minds how to meet the demand; and there is, moreover, a disposition in some parts of the University circle to be at least backward in welcoming such a new development. There is a certain fear that the introduction of commercial education means an intrusion of the commercial spirit and a qualification, if not a degradation, of those ideals for which universities were founded and ought to continue to exist. It is felt that the efforts which the universities have made in the last half century to accommodate themselves to the spirit of the age have resulted in the degradation of the University and in the degradation of the professional office; and many feel that the spirit of commerce is antagonistic to the University spirit.

Whatever one may think regarding the protest thus raised against commercial education, there is some justification for the apprehension regarding the deterioration of the University spirit. Not only is the University apparently a factor of decreasing importance in national life; but it is open to question whether the University is as worthy as it was of high place among social institutions. How far this decline is due to increasing and unbalanced specialization within the University, or to the increasing materialization of the public mind, or to other causes, we are not immediately concerned to determine. But the fact remains that there has been a decline relatively at least; and neither the increasing attendance nor the increasing benefactions are evidence to the contrary and may, under circumstances, be deterioration. To put the matter briefly, the universities have lost touch with the life for which their students are being trained and in consequence have apparently to a certain extent lost confidence in themselves. They seem no longer to dare to impress themselves on the student; and while giving perhaps a better technical preparation for the struggle for life, do not succeed so wall as in the past in placing their unmistakable stamp upon their graduates. It has always been a complaint against the universities that they are not practical; but in the past they were generally effectual; and in endeavoring to become more practical they seem to have become less effectual. It may be that the old fashioned course, however restricted, was more logical ; and it may also be that the old type of professor, who was not a specialist, was more fitted for the task of impressing the university spirit upon the students. But whatever the cause there has been a change for the worse; and university people have to deplore that in these days the University does not exert so abiding an influence over its graduates. The ideals are quickly forgotten: the graduate finds that to live he must readjust himself; and in the process he sheds, like an outworn garment, much of the University spirit He may retain an affection for his alma mater but it is not always because he believes in the work which she has to do. In some cases this readjustment works itself out into what we may call spiritual bankruptcy; but the spectacle of a University graduate, without ideals either of public or private life, is so disheartening that one dislikes to contemplate it.

The fault is not altogether in the graduate. It lies partly in the institution; and I speak of the best of them. There is no need to refer to teachers who are themselves the cause of disillusionment, for there are unworthy men in every calling; but the same difficulty exists even in institutions where the teachers are filled with enthusiasm for knowledge, for the making of knowledge and the imparting of knowledge, and are at the same time men of character and ideals. The University, as an institution, has lost its grip. Living in a world where knowledge is paramount, University teachers have, in all ages, been apt to lose their sense of value or proportion; and in this age the danger is peculiarly great. For specialization almost surely leads to disproportion. I am not depreciating the specialist. I am one myself; and in the modern University life there is nothing more hopeless than the man who is not a specialist, who without any sense of responsibility drifts from one subject, to another, as a grocer may turn from selling tea to selling butter. Specialization we must have apparently in the Universities; but it brings with it an increased danger, for very often the specialist has specialized prematurely and lacks even that sense of proportion which a general training gives. The specialist is an enthusiast, and often can communicate his enthusiasm to his students; and then they go out into the world to find the world has a totally different and, as it turns out, a very much better set of values. There may be, indeed, small room in the world’s system for pure knowledge, but by its values a man must live, and the readjustment is not always a safe process.

The share of the fault which is due to the University arises from the fact that the University has not adjusted itself properly to the increased complexity of life. Half a century ago life was relatively simpler; and the old orthodox course was not an inadequate preparation for that life. Classical and English literature, mathematics and natural philosophy, mental and moral philosophy, constituted a logical course and met fairly the old demands. The new demands of the last half century have been met by adding new courses of study, which was right; but the University has not readjusted its proportions, and the modern curriculum is not a logical preparation for life. The chief defect is the neglect of philosophy; and as things now are in many places many a student graduates without ever having studied philosophy, even in the shape of that modern apology for philosophy called psychology. And in this neglect of philosophy lies the explanation of the failure of the University to retain its place as a social factor; and in the restoration of philosophy, which is the study of man, to its proper place in a University curriculum lies the hope of the University regaining its proper position.

I do not for one moment contemplate the restoration of the old curriculum and those who hope for such a return are either visionaries or reactionaries. A University is a social institution from which social service is required It is to be judged, not by its past services or its own traditions, but by its present capacity for service. It must therefore recognize new studies as they arise and continuously adjust itself to new conditions. It may determine the form of the service it renders but the real character is determined by present social needs. Each generation is entitled to demand that the University shall justify itself by training its graduates to cope with the conditions of life that will meet them. It is worse than useless to seek to return to the idealism of the old curriculum. That was a real idealism then because it was in vital relation to life then; now it would be an unreal and abstract idealism. The problem for the University is how to keep its idealism a reality; and it is to be solved only by continuous adjustment to social needs.

We may not hope for the restoration of philosophy, qua philosophy, to its old position as the crowning study of the University course; but we must have in some way or other the study of man and especially the study of man’s activities if the University is to regain its old position as a social institution. Therefore because commercial education is, in its University aspects, a study of one of man’s most important activities, I see in its introduction the possibility of a new life for the institution. With that view, which would make the University a superior or inferior sort of business college where type-writing and the casting of accounts may take their place alongside of Latin and physics, I have no sympathy; nor has any one seriously proposed such a system for the universities. But the study of the conditions of business is a study of man and therefore a kind of concrete philosophy; and combined with the study of man in his other chief activities in his religion and his politics, it may, properly conceived, be a not inadequate substitute for the older philosophy and may lead up to the study of man in his ultimate relations. The Trust and the Church, the University and the Banking system, the Organization of trade and Parliament, are all of them means which man has found necessary for the realization of self and the achievement of his ends. These are not all of one rank or importance, but they all have some rank because they are vitally related to man. Even as isolated studies they are not unworthy of attention; as parts of a, more concrete philosophy they may reinvigorate the Universities. As such a study of man, commercial education is to be welcomed, not rejected. Indeed, taught merely as a short and easy method to success, business cannot be either in the University or elsewhere. But regarded as human activity, the means and methods by which man has made and is making sure his dominion over nature, the conditions and limitations which nature imposes upon that activity, and the measure of success which man has achieved: these are subjects which may not be philosophy in the narrower sense but are yet essentially philosophical in character. It is in this sense, as understanding and appreciation of the dignity of my subject have come to me with experience, that I have endeavored to teach economics; not merely as a subject but as an activity; and it is in this sense that commercial education may prove a great gain to the Universities themselves.

The demand for commercial education is really an opportunity for restoring that sense of proportion to the curriculum which has been lost and overwhelmed in the multitude of new studies. So far as the University can meet the demand it must deal with business as a human activity and it must impress upon its graduates the fact that in these concrete activities the ideal of man may be found, that morality, in short, does not exist merely in man’s aspirations but has a more valuable and more concrete expression in the institutions of actual life. The remarkable growth of the commercial spirit, which so many deplore and which has given rise to the demand for commercial education, means, in its last analysis, a demand that business shall be regarded as an occupation on a footing of equality in social service with any of the professions. This is in itself a distinct moral advance for the community; and the University must realize the importance of the fact. Merely to preach a barren and formal idealism, resenting the intrusion of the study of commerce, leads nowhere. Life, even for University graduates, is lived among concrete realities, and not in the heights above; and the University must prepare its students for life. The University is not an end in itself but a stage through which men pass, and its ideals must not be so conceived and enforced that the interpretation of the real life which men must live becomes more difficult.

No traveller ever forgets the impression made by his first vision of the Rockies, a hundred miles and more away; the mountains, clear cut, snow clad and cloud piercing, but apparently baseless and having no connection with the earth, arising out of nothing and reaching to the infinite; and while the traveller sits spell-bound. But he is carried quickly on; and soon the low, rounded green foothills come between him and the heavenly vision and shut him down to the commonplace. Yes it is among the foothills that men live and work; and there they may even forget the glory of the early vision. But some day a man leaves the busy haunts of men and comes to a spot whence he can see, near at hand, no longer baseless but resting on the solid earth, and almost within hand reach, the mountains he had “lost awhile and they still have the overwhelming grandeur of the early vision with an added sense of immediate reality. Then, too, he may realize that in the eternal hills the foothills have their origin and are nearer the ideal than the spirit compelling vision of earlier days.

Ladies and gentlemen of the graduating class, this University has given you, I hope, some opportunity of the earlier vision; but if it has presented the ideal to you in such a form that with it the realities of life seem to have nothing in common, it has done you a great wrong. For you are now entering the foothills of life where men live and work and do not see daily visions. But if this University has in any degree given a knowledge of the dignity and worth and practical idealism of ordinary life, it has rendered you a very great service indeed, and has performed in you a part of the social duty required of it. For to realize the ethical value of the common round of life, to realize that the ideal is better represented in achievement than in aspiration and that the ordinary institutions of life are not only capable of reconciliation with, but are actually derived from the ideal, is to know much of the wisdom of all ages. And if you are wise you will seek, not merely to retain the memory of the past, but also at times pass to some spot whence again you can see, but now clearly and not as in a vision, those eternal hills from which doth come, not only our aid and aspiration, but the very meaning and possibility of the ordinary life we have to lead.

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