Don McKenzie and the University

Don McKenzie Victoria University Wellington Oxford University
Danny Abse, “The Green Field”, as printed in the pamphlet by Wai-te-Ata Press commemorating the life and work of Don McKenzie.

I spent yesterday reading some of the books and ephemera held by the Bodleian by and about D F McKenzie, New Zealander, bibliographic scholar and long-time professor here at Oxford. I had only previously read excerpts from his famous Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, so this was my first real engagement with his work—it seemed appropriate too to read on the 6th and 7th of February his work on the Treaty of Waitangi.

What a coincidence, then, to receive an email reminding me that that very day, at 5pm, would be held the 23rd D F McKenzie lecture, this year to be given by Professor Kate Nation on “linking biology and culture via cognition.” The timing couldn’t have been more strange, so I walked straight from the library to the talk.

But I want to write here not about that lecture, and instead about one given by McKenzie himself in 1997 at Victoria University when he received his honorary doctorate.

Some background: in 1997 the New Zealand Government published a “green paper” discussion document titled “A future tertiary education policy for New Zealand.” This built on explicit promises made less than a year earlier in the coalition agreement between the National and New Zealand First parties to review tertiary education. The paper sparked strong debate, and obviously great concern from the universities—for this was one of the moments when the commercialism that had long been encroaching upon the universities was made explicit, and accelerated.

In his speech McKenzie weaved back and forth between graciousness and praise for his colleagues, a story of his life and career, and explicit concern about what the proposals laid out in the green paper might do to the university that he so loved. The speech was given less than a year after Don’s retirement from his professorship at Oxford, and less than two years before his death. It was reprinted in the service pamphlet passed out at his funeral in 1999 at Old St. Paul’s in Wellington (probably the most beautiful pamphlet printed in New Zealand, by Wai-te-Ata Press which Don himself founded in 1962).

There are two academic traditions which could be noted here, the Socratic and the Sophistic. In the Socratic tradition, the end of knowledge is virtue. Socrates simply says, ‘This is so, is it not?’. If you say ‘Yes’, then you fully accept as your own the truth you’ve arrived at. There can be no question of being badly taught and then later sueing your teacher, because at every stage, your participation implies a responsibility on your part to question and resolve the point at issue before you proceed further. This is the way in which, in the humanities, we have traditionally taught and learned. Within this tradition, a phrase like ‘the knowledge of business’, for example, is a solecism.

The Sophistic tradition, however, is money-based. Sophists are information-providers. They advertise and say: ‘I know, and for a price I’ll tell you’. There’s a financial contract which implies an efficient transfer of information, and if it doesn’t happen, the student who pays may claim compensation. The Green Paper would like us all to be Sophists.

It’s not surprising therefore that the Green Paper pays scant attention to those definitions of a university given in the Education Act of 1989. Let me remind you of three of the most pertinent: (1) universities are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the main aim being to develop intellectual independence; (2) their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge; (3) they accept a role as critic and conscience of society. All three, I believe, are now at risk.

For New Zealanders, and for many people around the world, the state of affairs that McKenzie worried about has sadly come to pass. Two years ago the New Zealand government published a report on “New Models of Tertiary Education”, in which some of the more worrying parts of the 1997 report have become hidden foundations. (I published my own concerns about that report in this essay).

But then again—I am here, studying at a university, with the freedom to read the words of someone like Don McKenzie. The worry about the future of the university itself sometimes seems a sign of the success of the university in the kinds of things that McKenzie quoted from New Zealand’s Education Act. The worry remains, though, about numbers—how many people feel the freedom to do this kind of reading? Ever fewer, from accounts of professors. And this reading itself can sometimes seem ever more difficult as the instrumentalist logic of reports like the Green Paper seeps into every corner of the library.

Of the poem I photographed above, McKenzie said: “It’s one which shows how blind we are when the variety of our human and natural worlds is obscured by our distance from the objects of study.” Thanks to Don McKenzie for the ever-fresh reminder of what we’re really here for—for being A New Zealand Scholar. And thanks to all those who continue his work, and keep his lecture series running.