The Challenge of University Education

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Peter Pan

At one time, we all thought that University Education was the highest form of training one could get to face ultimately the big issues of life: moral, social, economic, political, etc.

University graduation ceremony. Photo – wikimedia.org

In my teens I always dreamt of the polish and culture one could possibly get from places like London, Oxford, and Cambridge; and whenever I read of graduates corning from London or Oxford, with their ‘peau d’âne’, to our little island I could not help saying: ‘Oh! They must be very bright’… A degree for me was the nec plus ultra of life.

Alas, experience – at any rate at home – has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that our major poets, writers, thinkers are not graduates! Robert Edward Hart was apparently educated solely by his mother, to become later the self-taught genius well-known in various parts of France. Martial, Charoux, is so far as I know, never graduated at Oxford or Cambridge. And Leoville L’Homme?

Malcolm de Chazal, Cabon, Ribet, Legallant and most of our best writers at home never learnt to translate from the original the works of Greek philosophers. And Masson, the poet novelist, in France?…

Chazal evolved his own philosophy through his own insight, through his own set of values. And if for some he is nothing but a crank let us stress that Chazal’s philosophy as embodied in Sens Plastique is well-known in France, Germany, America…

For sure, a degree is a guarantee. It means that one has covered a fairly wide field, represented very often by no more than 10 to 12 textbooks. It equally means that one is disciplined, industrious, steady, keen. And so what? Does it mean that one is better equipped to argue, discuss or reason in a more sensible way than the so-called ‘common man’? Is it true that a university-educated boy or girl is mentally fitter or superior than his or her less fortunate friends?…

Incidentally, were Dickens, Keats, Shakespeare, Franklin, Jefferson, Mozart, Linnaeus, Beethoven or Michelangelo graduates?

It is very unfortunate that a degree today is first and foremost reckoned in terms of money and security. Any father at home with a boy gifted for architecture or electricity will often deliberately try to make of the lad a doctor or a lawyer. Question of money, prestige – the typical approach of the 20th century bourgeois to education!

The recent conclusions of modern America about graduates and undergraduates are most illuminating. Says one well-known critic:

“The University is no longer a place where a youth discovers himself, but a mere processing chamber where he swots for a job that will provide security.”

About the students in the under-30 group, Miss Dorathy C. Doe of Washington University says:

What we all lack who are under 30 is some guiding passion, some moral vision.”

Actually, how many want to graduate today to serve like a Ralph Bunche or a Schweitzer?…

Another professor confesses: ‘Their minds are as quiet as mice.’

Is it any better in London? I am afraid, after having questioned a fairly large cross-section of London students, that most students here lack that moral or spiritual vision referred to by Miss Doe above. The student is pretty often a misfit in a circle where the lecturers or professors themselves think they are demi-gods. One lecturer in Biology last month made it quite clear to me (sic) that the human machine was badly built and that the Great Architect had blundered in following his blueprint for man’s build!…

The typical London student is an amorphous, dull, shallow, misinformed lad. He argues and discusses with his textbooks in hand. Above all, he is an eccentric. His immaturity, specially the student in his early twenties, is well-nigh evidenced in his hair cut, his dirty, loose corduroy, his scarf which is there to make you see and feel that he is a university student. And naturally, he must always be in the company of his ‘girlfriend’ – an expression which covers more than meets that eye. Why insist?…

In his ivory tower, with his holier-than-thou attitude, the university student thinks he is by far better than his forbears. For him, his father is a bumpkin and his mother a ‘bourgeois’. Actually, the students all know a lot, except the basic thing of life: the art of living…

Cheap love affairs, Rock n’ Roll, exhibitionism in all its forms – lads of 18- or 19-years growing beards and moustache, girls dressing almost like boys and vice versa! – are the everyday ingredients of university life. At Oxford or Cambridge, acts of hooliganism, typical of morons, are so common that they hardly ever hit the headlines.

What is wrong with the kids who experiment with sex as you would with a cockroach, who think that they are the salt of the earth, who think that man can be better studied between four walls, in front of test tubes, retorts, in terms of Freud’s theories or in terms of genes and chromosomes?…

And please don’t talk of religion, of constructive philosophy to the modern student. He fights shy of religion as if it were a menace to society. Poor boy! As for philosophy, the London student has yet to learn that, to put it like Prof A.E. Heath, ‘philosophy is a disturber of intellectual peace, not a sedative’…

Is that young generation of escapists, of misfits, all out for security, TV, better pay, fatter grants, bigger degrees, going to rule Britain in years to come? Then, let us make Bruce Rothwell’s conclusion on modern American youths in American colleges – in News Chronicles – 22 April 1957 – ours:

“The generation which in ten years will run the world’s most powerful nation will be trained, but not educated. It will know the philosophers, but will not appreciate them. It will have been taught manners in the Life Adjustment classes, it will work hard, it will be earnest; and it will be dull.’

After all, didn’t the Principle of the University of London himself confess in his 1955-1956 Report on p.27:

‘I do not think that the minds of our students are thin by nature but I have an uneasy feeling that some of them are exhausted by cultivation or over cultivation.’

Frankly, we never learnt that true culture could exhaust the mind! And we think that modern psychology is rather on our side.

4th Year No 146 – Friday 24th May 1957


* Published in print edition on 4 September 2020

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