Medicine – The Two Functions of a Medical School Part 3

The other function of a University is to think. Teaching current knowledge in all departments, teaching the steps by which the status praesens has been reached, and teaching how to teach, form the routine work of the various college faculties. All this may be done in a perfunctory manner by men who have never gone deeply enough into the subjects to know that really thinking about them is in any way necessary or important. What I mean by the thinking function of a University, is that duty which the professional corps owes to enlarge the boundaries of human knowledge.

Work of this sort makes a University great, and alone enables it to exercise a wide influence on the minds of men.

We stand today at a critical point in the history of this faculty. The equipment for teaching, to supply which has taken years of hard struggle, is approaching completion, and with the cooperation of the General and the Royal Victoria Hospitals students can obtain in all branches a thorough training. We have now reached a position in which the higher university work may at any rate be discussed, and towards it progress in the future must trend. It may seem to be discouraging, after so much has been done and so much has been so generously given, to say that there remains a most important function to foster and sustain, but this aspect of the question must be considered when a school has reached a certain stage of development. In a progressive institution the changes come slowly, the pace may not be perceived by those most concerned, except on such occasions as the present, which serve as land-marks in its evolution. The men and methods of the old cote street school were better than those with which the faculty started; we and our ways at the new building on University street were better than those of Cote street; and now you of the present faculty teach and work much better than we did ten years ago. Everywhere the old order changeth, and happy those who can change with it. Like the defeated gods in Keats’s “Hyperion,” too many unable to receive the balm of the truth, resent the wise words of Oceanus (which I quoted here with very different feelings some eighteeen years ago in an introductory lecture).

Now the fresh perfection which will tread on our heels will come with the opportunities for higher university work. Let me indicate in a few words its scope and aims. Teachers who teach current knowledge are not necessarily investigators; many have not had the needful training; others have not the needful time. The very best instructor for students may have no conception of the higher lines of work in his branch, and contrariwise, how many brilliant investigators have been wretched teachers? In a school which has reached this stage and wishes to do thinking as well as teaching, men must be selected who are not only thoroughly au courant with the best work in their department the world over, but who also have ideas, with ambition and energy to put them into force—men who can add each one in his sphere, to the store of the world’s knowledge. Men of this stamp alone confer greatness upon a university. They should be sought for far and wide; an institution which wraps itself in Strabo’s cloak and does not look beyond the college gates in selecting professors may get good teachers, but rarely good thinkers.

One of the chief difficulties in the way of advanced work is the stress of routine class and laboratory duties, which often sap the energies of men capable of higher things. To meet this difficulty it is essential, first, to give the professors plenty of assistance, so that they will not be worn out with teaching; and, secondly, to give encouragement to graduates and others to carry on researches under their direction. With a system of fellowships and research scholarships a university may have a body of able young men, who on the outposts of knowledge are exploring, surveying, defining and correcting. Their work is the outward and visible sign that a university is thinking. Surrounded by a group of bright young minds, well trained in advanced methods, not only is the professor himself stimulated to do his best work, but he has to keep far afield and to know what is stirring in every part of his own domain.

With the wise cooperation of the university and the hospital authorities Montreal may become the Edinburgh of America, a great medical centre to which men will flock for sound learning, whose laboratories will attract the ablest students, and whose teaching will go out into all lands, universally recognized as of the highest and of the best type.

Nowhere is the outlook more encouraging than at McGill. What a guarantee for the future does the progress of the past decade afford! No city on this continent has endowed higher education so liberally. There remains now to foster that undefinable something which, for want of a better term, we call the university spirit, a something which a rich institution may not have, and with which a poor one may be saturated, a something which is associated with men and not with money, which cannot be purchased in the market or grown to order, but which comes insensibly with loyal devotion to duty and to high ideals, and without which Nehushtan is written on the portals of any school of Medicine, however famous.