P G Tait: Address to the graduates
On my first appearance as Promotor, six of my colleagues had preceded row, and had of course, among them, practically exhausted the ordinary possilbilities of the position. I found, however, that they had left me something to say :- and I discussed the high comparative value of the Edinburgh M.A. degree. I showed that even then it held an exalted rank among the University distinctions of the Empire, and I am proud to be able now to assert that the twenty-two years which have since passed have only added to its value.
Elight years later, the pernicious ideas of centralisation, leading to the proposed substitution of examining boards for Teaching Universities, together with some outrageously absurd educational dicta of Mr. Robert Lowe, and the astounding history of the "Supplemental Charter," furnished me with materials ample enough for a dozen Addresses.
When, once more, my turn came in 1881, Cram was in the ascendant. Examinations were to be developed as the unique test of merit; culture was, in itself, to lie regarded as of no value; the power of rapidly answering, in a mechanical manner, a set of regulation questions, was, to be the sole Passport, to office or employment :- the Professor and his doorkeeper alike having to pass the ordeal. Universities were to be condemned as a dangerous or, at best, an unprofitable luxury.
All this points to constant threat, at least, Of change, but of the retrograde kind. I fear that today we shall have to consider a repetition of the threat, :-though, perhaps, not even yet in its worst possible form. A month or two ago, when it dawned on me that I should have to give this Address, the most suitable subjects seemed to be the Representativc Council, and the rising Union. But these important developments of our system are the fruit of quiet and prosperous times, and cannot fitly be discussed when Revolution is imminent.
The University of Edinburgh never stood bigber, in the estimation of those at least whose judgment is of any value, than on the occasion of its Tercentenary four short years ago.
To speak of my own department alone: what university, home or foreign, has ever been fortunate enough to see assembled at its celebrations such a collection of the very foremost of the world's Mathematicians and Physicists as then graced this bill ? To name only a very few, we have had the continent Cremona, v. Helmholtz, Hermite, and Mendeleeff; with Cayley, Salmon, Stokes, Sylvester, and Thomson from our own islands; and almost every other department of knowledge was similarly represented by the elite of its promoters.
To what, I would now venture to ask, was this altogether unprecedented gathering due? Did these hosts of learned pilgrims, from all parts of the world, come to lay their homage at the feet of our University Court, of our General Council, or of our Curators? How many of them were even aware that possessed such august institutions? It is sufficient to have put the questions.
Who that was privileged to assist on the occasion of the Tercentenary can forget the Jove-like presence of our chivalrous Principal, or the winning courtesy of our genial Lord Rector? Both have since gone to their rest; followed after a brief interval by the stalwart Professor Wilson, one of the chief organisers of the memorable celebration.
Others also have left us, each of whom had like them made his mark and wholly for good, in the annals of our University. To four of these I would for strong personal reasons now briefly advert; Jenkins my old class-fellow, whose stout heart never once flinched under the bitterest frowns of adverse fortune; Wyville Thomson, once my fellow-student here, and for years my trusty colleague in Ireland ; Dickson, who seemed to have been always my intimate associate, so much did he in everything resemble his early-lost elder brother, my inseparable companion in boyhood; and the gentle Balfour Stewart, the cherished friend of my later life, who had secured front rank in Physics while yet he was a student within these walls. Their places in the world of science will be taken by others who will continue and extend their work: -- but their places, in the hearts of those who know them and who loved them, can never be filled. When we think of the devotion of such men, in good report or in bad, to the cause of the University which they loved so well, do we not all seem to hear, amid the new dangers which now threaten us, the words of the heralds in Scott's immortal romance :- "Fight on brave knights! Man dies, but glory lives! Fight on -- death is better than defeat ! Fight on " ?
In what I have further to say, I claim to speak with some little authority. I have spent six years of my life in an English, six in an Irish, and well-nigh thirty in a Scottish University, and I speak also as one whose profession leads him specially to enquire into the causes of phenomena.
Wishing to be entirely untrammelled in the statement of my opinions, I have kept aloof from all the discussions which my colleagues have recently held, whether among themselves or with our brethren in the other Scottish Universities. I felt that I could thus speak much more freely than if I had listened to the opinions of others, or had taken counsel with them as to what it was desirable to say, and what on the other hand, I might think if I pleased, but must refrain from saying. If my objections should prove to be the same as theirs, they will have the force of independent testimony. If they be entirely different, they will serve to allow how thoroughly vulnerable are the new proposals. There is, of course, one special disadvantage inseparable from the conditions under which I now address you. Questions of politics, however closely they may bear on my present subject (or even upon the integrity of the British Empire), must here be looked upon as tabu. When I have finished, you will be able to judge how sorely this restriction has pressed on me. For there are a few exceedingly important considerations, alike of reminiscence and of warning, which the unities of an Academic Ceremony now rightly forbid me to introduce.
Of course the all-absorbing topic, not here alone but in all our Northern Universities, is the "Bill instituted an Act for the better Administration and Endowment of the Universities of Scotland." When a Bill has passed into law, we are concerned only with its meaning, and not in the slightest degree with the intentions of its authors, or the greater or less success with which the parliamentary draughtsman has managed to embody them. But while it is still on the stocks, these latter matters an of transcendent importance. Some of its authors' proposals may be unworkable, others of a retrograde, rather than of a progressive character, and some day even promise to be dangerous to the cause of education. Again, even the soundest and most desirable of proposals may be so transformed in the hands of the draughtsman as to ensure the very opposite of the effect intended by their authors;- one clause may be made incompatible with another: in short, the various possibilities of bungling good material are too numerous to mention.
It is of course not possible exactly to assign the responsibility for each part of the document, but it seems to me that, while many of the objectionable parts are most probably due to the draughtsman alone, some are of so fundamental a character that no mere draughtsman could have ventured to introduce them, and must therefore be regarded as essentially belonging to the original scheme of the Government.
Thus the proposed transfer of the whole management of Finance to the University Courts is obviously due to the authors of the Bill. But be this proposal good or bad in itself we cannot suppose that its authors are responsible for such an application of it as would leave the care and maintenance of the University Buildings in the hands of nobody in particular; would provide no means whatever of defraying as they crop up the every-day expenses of these great institutions; and would (by clause 35) throw upon the penniless Senatus "the redemption of charges forming part of the land revenue of the Crown" !
Again, the proposal that an affiliated College should be represented on the University Court, whether right or wrong in itself is one of a fundamental character; but we can scarcely think its authors, responsible for having left it possible that such representatives may in time outnumber not only the representatives of the Senatus, but even the whole of the rest of the Court! Moreover, the Government can hardly be supposed to have designed that these affiliated Colleges, whose representatives are to form in future an unlimited part of the central authority, are themselves to be practically free from the control ! Yet so it stands at present in the Bill as printed.
The one great weakness of our own University, as of all the Scottish Universities, has hitherto been the scantiness of its funds. Yet there is no provision in the Bill to prevent the University Courts from depleting these slender stores, by directly or indirectly employing their contents for the maintenance of those affiliated Colleges with whose courses of instruction they have no power to interfere !
Of course, if such things as these were really contemplated by the Authors of the Bill, we must call upon every man of common sense, whether friendly to the Universities or not, to do his best to prevent the engrafting on the Statute Book of a piece of gratuitous mischief. And, even at the best, it surely savours of culpable carelessness to present to Parliament a scheme which must have been so terribly bungled by the draughtsman. And the instances I have given you form, in all probability, a mere fraction of the inconsistencies and absurdities which have found their way into this remarkable document. If we do not timeously discover these and have them removed, they may do deadly, (though unintended) injury in the future.
I shall now advert, briefly, to some of the main provisions of the Bill -- but only to some; first, because the time at my disposal does not admit of much detail ; second, because there am points upon which it is impossible to form a judgment of any value without much longer consideration than I have yet had opportunityof bestowing on them; third, because there are one or two so obviously bad, and so certain I hope to perish in the Parliamentary furnace, that it would be mere waste of time to discuss them here and now.
There is one special objection, of a very important nature, to the document as a whole:- viz., its vagueness. On a first reading many passages seem perfectly harmless which, on closer scrutiny, are seen to contain (whether designedly or not) the germs of serious mischief. This ought not to be. Parliament has a right to know the full possibilities which may be involved in anything it is asked to sanction.
And further, I would make the general remark that it is most especially to be regretted that the authors of the present Bill have paid so little attention to the results of the exhaustive inquiry into the condition of the Scottish Universities which was made by the Commissioners of 1876, and published in their Report of 1878. It may be said, indeed, that the framers of the now measure have entirely ignored many of the chief arguments aud conclusions of, that Report: -- a document which in its thoroughness, its ripe wisdom, and its calm impartiality, stands in irreconcilable disaccord with much or the contents of the present hasty, and therefore slipshod and one-sided, Bill it should be a sad reflection that the steady labour of two years ; cheerfully given by a group of men of the highest eminence, chosen from all parties and from almost every field of knowledge; a group including Froude, Huxley, and Stirling-Maxwell; and presided over by our illustrious Chancellor, wbo is not only the greatest of all benefactors of the Scottish Universities, but of all men the most conversant with their position and their wants; that such hearty, honest, and valuable labour has been spent absolutely in vain. How vainly, a very few words will show.
Among the chief points which were thoroughly discussed by the Commission of 1876, were the constitution and powers of the University Court; and here is their carefully- weighed recommendation on the first of these points -.
The Senatus is the body most immediately concerned with the daily government and administration of the University, and we think it expedient and right that an adequate representation in the Court should be secured to it.Now, were two members to be elected instead of one, there would probably be simply two members of Council sent by the same majority; and the minority, who certainly have not less interest in the prosperity of the University, would remain unrepresented. But by giving three Assessors in all to the General Council, two in addition to the one now sent, and giving to each member of Council only two votes, the minority, if at all considerable, may reckon on having one representative in the Court to give expression to its views, and attend to the matters in which it may be specially interested. This, of course, involves the assumption that the three Assessors to be elected by the General Council shall be elected together, and shall hold office for the same period ; and also that, in the event of any casual vacancy in the office of all Assessor, the person elected to fill his place before the usual time shall go out of office along with the other Assessors."
It would certainly be inexpedient to make the numbers of the Court too large. On the other hand, there may be different interests or views on academic questions within the Council itself, and to have only two members sent by that body, as would be the case were a single additional member to be given, might lead to an undue representation of a particular interest or shade of opinion to the entire exclusion of a different interest shared in, perhaps, by a large section, although not the majority, of the Council.
The chief features here are:-
- The inexpediency of much increasing the membership of the Court, and the cogent reasons against such a change. In the teeth of this, it is now proposed to raise the number at once to double the present figure, with a prospect of further and unlimited increase!
- The danger of non-representation of a large minority of the Council, and the steps recommended to prevent this.
Again, the Report of 1878 says :
It seems undesirable to suggest by a clause in an Act of Parliament that the University Court is the proper body to administer a fund intended for University purposes.This brief passage (dealing with a mere bye-question) seems to be the only reference inade to the giving of any authority to University Courts to deal with University finance ; but it is quite explicit enough in its terms to show how the late Coinmission would have regarded the proposal of the present Bill: i.e. to band over to each University Court the entire control of the corresponding funds. Such a proposal seems not even to have been suggested to that Commission. But the present Bill not only gives the entire control of the funds to the University Court, it actually appears to leave to the Court irresponsible power to deal with them as it pleases:- a position not occupied by any man, or body of men, in the Empire !
Such at least seems to be the effect of the Bill. A few isolated and very vague remarks, connected with the powers of the Commissioners, are the only reasons for hoping that it may be otherwise. But a vital point like this should have been made absolutely clear from the first.
Should the proposed transfer of the Botanic Gardens to the University be carried out, we may some day wake to find the Major part of our funds spent on them for the benefit of the town :-- and there will be no remedy, not even any one to blame! All will have been done in strict accordance with law ! I do not, of course, mean to suggest that this would ever be proposed. It is sufficient for my purpose to have shown that such things are now to be made possible.
At present the finance of the University is in the hands of the Senatus, who act under the supervision of the Court, and are responsible to it. This arrangement works well, and with very great economy; and even our most persistent enemies have never ventured to suspect the integrity of the management. What may happen, even in the single but very important matter of cost of management, when the control passes to ail absolutely irresponsible body, no one can tell. All that the Court is expressly bound do is " to make all annual report on the state of the finances of the University." There is no hint that it must give details as to how it has spent them in the past, or how it proposes to spend them in the future.
Alarming as this may appear, it is perhaps scarcely the most serious of the proposals of the Bill. For may be contained, in the singularly ambiguous words relating to the "Affiliation of Colleges," a proposal still more terrible, which will deal a deadly blow to the System of University Educution as it has hitherto been understood in Scotland, I have always held, I think in accordance with all the highest authority that the great object of a University is to teach what is alike surely known and of value when known, and to add to the utmost of our power to the store of really useful human knowledge. In comparison with these great objects, the conferring of degees is a secondary and relatively unimportant matter :- which, however, may become developed under the present Bill into an entirely mischievous one, by unduly fostering the growth of the Examination System with its inseparable evils. But this is so viital a question, and of such a vast and complicated character, as to demand Iong and careful consideration. It cannot possibly be settled in the hasty manner now proposed, which is simply, as I read the Bill, to hand the subject over to the Commissioners without any pretence of giving them a hint as to the principles which are to regulate and direct their action. These principles involve questions so fundamental that they ought to be settled by Parliament itself. All that it seems for the present necessary to say on such a point has already been well said in the Report of 1878 :
It must still be recollected that, for all the higher purposes of education, examinations are at best little better than necessary evils; that in the process of preparing for them there is a constant and a powerful temptation to forsake the pursuit of well -assimulated knomledge for that of crude and mechanically gathered learning ; and that one of the most important functions of the Universities, as the depositaries and representatives of intellectual interests, is, by precept and example, to keep before the mind of the public the fundamental truth that real knowledge is to be gained only by the steady, calm, and thoughtful labour of minds left free to ponder over each new couception, and make it their own, an intellectual habit which is antagonistic to those acquired in the course of the training of young athletes for competitive combats at present in vogue.To this I will add a short extract from a very able pamphlet, dated 1867, and entitled Studium Generale, the work of the late Dr. Andrews, one of the most profound thinkers and discoverers of the present century : -
The Imperial institutions of France, front their magnitude and imposing form, may captivate the rulers and even the people of a country; but similar institutions were coincident with the decline of the Roman Empire, and literature and art soon withered under their protection. The example of ancient Greece, or of modern Germany, is more worthy of imitation than that of Imperial Rome or of Imperial France; and the chief end of higher education, the cultivation of habits of accurate and independent thought, will be best attained by allowing the fullest freedom to those who are engaged in the difficult task of training the youth of a country in the noble walks of literature and science.There is another item ill the Bill which, though its modest head is barely visible antiong the surrounding giants, may be fraught with absolutely incalculable mischief; and to it I wish to call your most special attention. In section 14, subsection 6, clause (e), there appears anion.a the Powers of the Commissioners the following :
The institution of an examination either on entering the University, or as a preliminary condition of entering on the course of study for a degree in any faculty, or of both such examinations.To the second of these three alternatives no objection can possibly be taken by any reasonable man ; so long, at least, as examinations continue to be tolerated. In fact, that proposal is one of those wholly good things which should only be dispensed with where circumstances render their non-enforcement imperative. if the imperfection of the Secondary School System of the country is one of these circumstances, it is the obvious and immediate duty of the State to improve the Secondary Schools. But I need not waste time on a point so plain.
The first alternative of the clause is a very different matter,
And seems to threaten in a direct manner one of the most valuable of a Scotsman's birthrights. The Scottish Universities have hitherto made it their proudest boast that they are the property of the Scottish people, without distinction of rank, age or sect. Anyone who can pay his matriculation fee has at present a right to demand enrolment in my class. Is he now to be deprived of this right, or are obstacles to be gratuitously put in the way of his enjoying it ? I said "gratuitously." I should have said "wantonly." Experience has led me to the deliberate conclusion that the less a man knows of Natural Philosophy when he enters my Ordinary class, the better is his progress in that fascinating study. "Technical Education" is a good thing and so are "object lessons" but my experience of what is called "science teaching in schools" is that it is wholly and necessarily evil. Those who come to the with this fancied passport soon find that, before they can begin to learn, they have to devote all their energies to unlearning:-- the hardest task which perverted ingenuity has yet succeeded in devising. And the reason is simple enough. A certain maturity of mind (which is reached at all early age by a specially favoured few alone) is required to master even the elements of pure science :- and the best of science teachers, if he works on unripe material, cannot possibly do good, and in general does real and very great harm. Again many men who have exceptionally high qualifications for the study of experimental science, men who may, if properly guided, render invaluable service to science and to their country, are hopelessly incapable of mastering elementary mathematics, or even the trivial pedantries of grammar. Are these men to be stopped on the very threshhold of the career for which nature has spcially qualified them ? To them a degree is not an object; they come to the University to obtain from it the knowledge they desire and which it is the primary duty of a University to give to all comers.
Connected with this question, though I do not see any allusion to it in the Bill, there is an outcry against large classes. It is popularly asserted that these are necessarily bad. I think the notion is wholly incorrect; at all events, when applied to th teaching of the elements of science to such as are fitted to understand them. In more advanced teaching the large classes unfortunately never present themselves. If a clergyman attracts a large congregation, do we ever hear of the impossibility of his doing justice to all ? Even in the case of a singer or violinist does anyone object to a crowded audience on any other ground than that of personal inconvenience ? So it ought to be with elementary science, and so it is if the teacher is a competent one. Any experiment which can he shown to a dozen at a time can by the use of modern improvements, be shon to as many students, at least, as can be reached by the voice of the lecturer.
All thus receive the same elementary instruction; and if it has to be further instilled into them, the process can be easily carried out by divididing them, afterwards into smaller groups, each under a special Repetiteur or Assistant. But the character of the whole teaching of each branch of science remains under the control of one head so that its unity and its quality are alike thoroughly assured.
There seems to underlie many of the provisions of the new Bill, a Purpose of a character so dark that it may well set the Scottish People a-thinking not for their Universities alone but for all their institutions. Let us for a little look at some of the provisions of the Bill, not at all from the University point of view but from the point of view of the just claims of Scotland as a not undistinguished, perhaps even an important, part of the as yet undivided Empire. Let us also curiously enquire why there has been such delay in the present matter, why the exhaustive report of 1878 has been, after so long an interval, followed by so many abortive Bills. Is not the answer to be found in the difficulties raised by The Treasury, that wonderful Abstraction to whose changeless Persistency even the most powerful of ministers have once and again been constrained to bow ? From this point of view a good many of the more unexpected proposals in the Bill may be seen to be, but the natural outcome of a desire to get rid, as cheaply as possible, of serious pecuniary responsibilities once readily undertaken, but now felt to be irksome. A few instances will suffice to show that such an explanation is at least a highly plausible one, and that Scotland has real cause for watchfulness. And this, as I said before, not for her Universities alone, but for all her institutions. The Universities appear to have been selected as the first victims, only because they ware looked upon as having the fewest friends, and therefore as being the safest subjects on which to commence operations.
Take as a first instance of this new danger the Edinburgh Observatory, which it is now proposed to hand over to us ; a white elephant of truly colossal proportions ! It had no original connection with the University, though the use of it was given in 1834 to the Professor of Practical Astronomy. It was taken in charge by Government at the instance of the now defunct Edinburgh Astronomical Institution (who erected the building), under an engagement to maintain it in a state of efficiency. If that Contract be broken, the feu (with the building on it) will revert to the Town Council. The University may perhaps signalise its assumption of irresponsible power by simply starving the Observatory for a year, and so getting rid of it for ever: the clause as to non-alienation notwithstanding ! A Commission, of which I was a member, reported in 1877 to the House of Commons, the position and Prospects of this establishment. That Blue-book will form very instructive reading to any thinking and watchful Scot who looks for the springs of action in the present case ; for he will readily see in its pages reasons enough for the apparentlyy handsome proffer. The cost or putting the Observatory, its Staff, and its imstruments in complete working order would of itself swallow up, for a year at least, the greater part of Edinburgh's share of the proposed Grant ! I need not add more. it is enough to have called attention to a question so exceedingly serious as well as suggestive.
With the history of the Botanic Garden I am not acquainted, save in the extremely important particular that on more than one occasion it has given rise to fierce disputes about Sunday opening. Its maintenance costs a considerable annual sum -- and it is but a small part of the establishment which is really of use to the students of the University. These facts, and especially the first, show how extremely undesirable would be such an appendage to the University; mixing it up with civic or sectarian squabbles: -- while the second shows reason enough for the apparent eagerness of the present holders to part with the property.
Another burden to be borne by the Government Grant is the provision of Retiring Allowances, on the scale already fixed, for Professors appointed before 1882; and on a scale to be fixed by the Commisioners for later appointments. There is certainly an oversight here, for several of the Professors appointed since 1882 received commissions precisely in the same terms as those of their predecessors. The provision of retiring allowances was undertaken long ago by Government, and claims of this kind would form in consequence a first charge upon the Grant. Now these belong to the class of irregularly fluctuating risks which can be borne in safety only by a very large relative capital. Were there several hundreds of Professors and a correspondingly large sum to be dealt with, all Actuary could easily settle what portion of the Grant, annually paid for ever, or for a fixed term of years, would justify a good insurance office in undertaking the whole risk. But the number of persons involved is much too small for the safe application of this method :- and the consequences will be that, if at any future time there should be a considerable number of the scientific professors in receipt of pensions, their successors will be specially incommoded by want of funds at the very time when these are most required for the development of their (presumably) novel modes of teaching.
Hitherto I have spoken of things in the Bill which seem objectionable hy their presence. Several desirable things are conspicuous by their absence. Among these a Modification of the compulsory Life Insurance Act is much required. At present every Professor, even if he is (and intends to remain) unmarried, is forced to purchase an annuity for his widow !
Here I conclude my remarks on the Bill so far as concerns the interests of the higher education in Scotland. I should now wish, metaphorically, to doff my Master's gown and to speak to you for a moment not as a Professor but simply as a fellow-countryman. And as such I would say to you a word or two of much-needed warning. We Scotsmen are, to a very great extent, what, we have made ourselves ; and many of the worst evils under which we suffer, as well as the fresh ones with which we are now threatened, are but the natural consequences of our our inexplicable infatuation. It has been well said:-
Men at some times are masters of their fates.For a long series of years, within the memories of most of you, our Scottish Members Of Parliament were in a position absolutely to dictate the terms of the Government of this country. Thc violent denunciations to which this statement gave rise, when I made it on a former occasion were not required to prove its truth : - for it is unquestionable, but they did they did show how keenly it had gone home to the consciences of those who cried out. Yes, we once had our fate entirely in our own hands; but we insanely parted with the substance for the shadow; forgetting, in our blindness, duty as well as interest: - and we are now righteously left to ponder the bitter truth of the old trenchant saying :
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, if we are underlings
He that will not when he may
He shall not when he will.