James Hight was among the most formative influences on higher education in New Zealand during the first half of the twentieth century and, because of his deep imprint on students, well into the second half. He was born at Halswell, near Christchurch, New Zealand, on 3 November 1870, the son of a Catholic mother, Mary Ryan, who was of Irish origin, and her husband, Samuel Hight, a labourer from Northamptonshire. Samuel Hight worked on several farms then acquired his own, of about 100 acres, in the Malvern district. Here James grew up in a family of eight children. He attended the Malvern school as a pupil from 1875 and as a pupil-teacher from 1887. He then went to Christchurch as a student at the teachers' training college in 1891–92, and at Canterbury College from 1891 to 1894 on an English exhibition. For the university college his enrolment helped to make an annus mirabilis: others who signed the declaration book in 1891 included Ernest Rutherford, Apirana Ngata, William Marris (a future governor in India) and John Erskine, who became a successful mining engineer and industrialist in Australia.
Hight graduated BA in 1893 with scholarships in English and French, and MA with first-class honours in 1894. He then taught English, modern languages and commercial subjects for several years at Auckland College and Grammar School. On 7 January 1897 he married Margaret Green in Christchurch.
In 1901 Hight was appointed lecturer in political economy and constitutional history at Canterbury College. Save for a year in 1927 on exchange with Professor A. J. Grant in the chair of history at Leeds, he was never again to leave either his college or his city for any length of time. He was promoted in 1906 to director of studies in commerce, and in 1909 to the new chair of history and economics. When the chair was divided, in 1919, he became professor of history and political science and J. B. Condliffe, one of his most celebrated pupils, was appointed professor of economics. Hight was to hold his position until his retirement in 1948. Whether or not he consciously distinguished the now commonplace academic triad of research, teaching and administration, he excelled in all three.
With a few others, Hight as a scholar established a profession new to his country: academic history. A vigorous physique upheld him as his remarkable capacity for hard work, his quickness of mind, his breadth of vision and his sobriety of judgement issued in a range of publications unusual in its time. There were scholarly works such as The English as a colonising nation (1903), The constitutional history and law of New Zealand with H. D. Bamford (1914), and A short history of the Canterbury College with A. M. F. Candy (1927). In contrast several books – historical, geographical and literary – were written for schools. He gave editorial advice for the New Zealand volume of The Cambridge history of the British Empire (1933), and as commercial editor to the publishers Whitcombe and Tombs he brought out the predecessor of the School Journal and the first professional journal for teachers.
Hight had limitations. His more serious work was almost exclusively political. He was no theorist and never disguised his scepticism of merely fashionable tenets. As one of his students said, 'When the latest smart theory had been wrangled over and lay dead of ridicule…we were glad to return to that still centre of temperate and calm wisdom'. Although far-sighted he lacked originality, and his prose was correct but rarely imaginative. Yet he was panoramic in outlook. He did not see the Old World until advanced middle age, but throughout his life he was the dauntless foe of insularity and saw his own country as immovably founded on Western civilisation. It would be only a little fanciful to say that he held Richelieu and Mazarin barely less significant for New Zealand than the Maori seafarers and Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Equally, he believed in the alliance of the social sciences among themselves and with the humanities. He was the ideal recipient of the first LittD awarded in 1906 by the University of New Zealand.
It was as a teacher, however, that Hight won most fame. 'Doc' Hight, as he was long known, led not by display or charisma but by quiet example. This grave, dignified man of middle height, somewhat sallow complexion and dark, frizzy hair stood almost shyly at the lectern. He spoke in a low, even voice and looked up over his spectacles now and then to single out a point he deemed vital or to enforce the occasional adage or quotation. He rarely met students alone or in groups in the Oxford tutorial style; but for many years, up to his 70s, he gave out cyclostyled reading-sheets which were monuments to energy and erudition, and in the MA special topics so encyclopaedic that the scripts of his best students instructed and enlightened their examiners in England. However it was done, he left truth as the historian's aim and arbiter, with opinion earned only by mastery of the evidence. Hight's natural reserve gave way before his courtesy and friendship to students. He brought them together and they were astonished by his personal interest in them. His resolve that all students should have scope to prosper was one reason why he promoted the bachelor of commerce degree and the diploma in journalism in the early 1900s.
Administration made increasing demands on Hight's time and attention. In his college he rose to be rector from 1928 to 1941. His wise counsel was always available. It was exemplified early in the century by his peace-making in the feuding between overseas and New Zealand-born professors. In the University of New Zealand he had a wider and more exacting field for his foresight, fair-mindedness, sense of timing and conciliatory skills. One of seven chairmen of the academic board, he served no fewer than four consecutive terms between 1934 and 1948. He was a member of the senate for 36 years and pro-chancellor for 10. He was a forthright critic of the federal university and its predecessor. As early as 1924 he had been a leading advocate of separate universities, condemning the existing system as obsolescent, cramped in acting and paralysed in reform by 'its cumbersome, lumbering and Chancery-like procedure'. In 1946 he chaired a board which reported that 'the clumsiness of the federal system has done much to prevent the development of conditions necessary for true University work in research and teaching'. Equal patience appeared in his long, devoted struggle from 1914 for a university press.
Hight also served the wider community. His civic interests extended from tree planting in neighbouring streets to serving on various commissions. In 1912 he was a member of a royal commission on the cost of living and in 1919 on a British Board of Trade commission on the New Zealand coal industry. He was chairman of the New Zealand Economic Committee in 1932. A music lover, he early eked out his earnings – and later enthused amateur societies – as an orchestral violinist, and he also collected violins. For these as well as academic activities he received numerous honours. He was appointed CMG in 1932 and was knighted in 1947. On retirement he was presented with a Festschrift, Liberty and learning, where the variety of contributors proclaimed the wide span of his interests. He was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of New Zealand in 1951. Happily, he was also the first to receive the Margaret Condliffe Memorial Prize in 1945, which J. B. Condliffe had endowed as a tribute to his mother. A bulkier reminder is at the University of Canterbury, where the building which houses the library fittingly bears the name of one to whom libraries were so important.
James Hight died in Christchurch on 17 May 1958; Margaret Hight had died in 1945. They were survived by a daughter. Hight's title to remembrance rests mainly upon two cognate achievements: the care and gentle stimulus he gave his students over many years, and his hard-won success in adapting the University of New Zealand to receive and cherish, as time went by, students from increasingly varied backgrounds. He believed wholly in what his own life attested – that careers should be kept open to talent.