By 1921, a few years after the Bolshevik revolution, students at Argentine universities had begun to agitate for equal rights with professors and were demanding the same rights for the cleaning staff. It sounds like the spring of 1968 in Paris and Columbia University, but in South America it was old stuff by then. Students there have been perhaps even more politicized than in Europe and the United States, and politicization was always radical leftist. When I first entered the premises of the University of San Marcos, in Lima (the first to be founded in the western hemisphere), I saw nothing but Marxist posters, eulogies of Castro, and Maoist brochures. Mind you, this was in 1966, two years before the “Paris Spring” and its not quite minor revolution, but Rector Alberto Sanchez was already an impotent prisoner in his office. He admitted to me that absolutely nothing could be done to shore up his university against the red tide.
Things have changed somewhat since then. No mistake about it—the most vocal forces in student government are revolutionary: Marxist, ultra-leftist, pacifist (the most radical and dangerous, except perhaps the Christian Socialists), Catholic Marxists, plus the varieties of all these. The so-called “rightists” (in quotes because they would rather be caught dead than embrace the label) are in reality timid centrists: liberal, conservative, and orthodox Catholics, the vanguard of which is the Opus Dei. Campus life and life at the majority of urban universities, as in Europe, is marked by political conflict which reproduces the conflicts in the political life of the “adults.” At times, when political life is necessarily quieter, as in Chile today, it is the universities where radicalism is centered and where the conflicts are the sharpest. It would be an error, however, to conclude, with certain frightened adults, that university politics is a microcosm of long-term social trends. Most radical students settle in jobs (unless chronic unemployment blocks their future), and only a handful continue their revolutionary careers. Since the foreign press focuses mostly on these agitators, we gather the mistaken impression that they speak for student mentality and for the nation as a whole.
In Chile everyone knows that the “repression” denounced in the New York Times is mere provocation by committed Communists, among whom “students” are the most aggressive. In the same Chile, student elections are supposed to prefigure the general elections, forecast in 1989. While I was there, the Marxists were denouncing Pinochet, Washington, and the other usual objects of their wrath, and they did this at their allotted election counters—where not only Communist propaganda was openly displayed, but also the ingredients for Molotov cocktails. Funds were collected for purchase of weapons—this in the 13th year of “fascist” repression.
Not all is gloomy, however, in South American student life, and propaganda takes second or third place behind serious studies. In three months (spring in the southern hemisphere) I gave some 25 lectures before the most varied institutions: universities in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile; schools of diplomacy; Catholic and state universities; business schools; religious groups; even in private homes before invited guests. It is rare these days to find such attentive audiences in the United States, where knowledge is compartmentalized and fragmentary. At a business school in Buenos Aires, students’ questions included references to Heraclitus and Xenophanes, and at a panel on Tocqueville at a liberal economic institution, the pro-democratic side was arguing so intelligently that it almost converted me to their point of view.
There is no question that these wide interests and knowledge are first gained in high school, where culture is still pursued. The vast middle class in the three countries mentioned want their children immersed in European culture, and only after acquiring the essentials do they send them on to the Harvard Business School or to Chicago or Berkeley. As a result, I found practically no difference of cultural level among businessmen, lawyers, and professors. Beyond the political hostility, these men share a common system of reference whose components are literature, the classics, and the rudiments of philosophy. At an Opus Dei seminar in Mendoza, my young public was extraordinarily sharp and probing, as was a wider public at the National Teachers College in Santiago. More than that, the dozen or so young journalists who interviewed me at various stops of my travel (men and women) were just as curious and well-informed as the students themselves. Even on television the questioners insisted on the deepest problems to be discussed and did not shy away from the most controversial questions that simply cannot be debated on our taboo-laden channels.
The administrators of universities are well aware that with the large numbers (plus the specter of unemployment), radicalism cannot be excluded, although it may be channeled. In Mendoza, one hour per week is set aside for student orators to hold meetings. I went through such a group toward the lecture hall and found neither hostility (“the professor from the U.S.”) nor interest. Academic authorities are not acting in loco parentis in these countries and leave the students free to organize—as long as these organizations are not disruptive. When they are, little can be done, apart from calling out the police (very infrequent, even in “authoritarian” Chile) or shutting down the university until things calm down.
What we understand by rowdiness is very rare. Since emotions take immediate political forms, students behave more like urban intellectuals than rabble-rousers—not necessarily an advantage. Also, they are sharply divided among three or four ideological commitments: Marxism, orthodox (integrist) Catholicism, liberal democracy, and Christian Socialism—in a word, reproducing (but also formulating and preparing) the divisions of the cultural-political adult world. The Marxists are not always pro-Soviet, but very often pro-Castro and pro-Sandinista. Only the Catholic clergy contains more radical elements who, after a belated discovery, are celebrating the antiquated slogans of Marxism-Leninism along with the new slogans of liberation theology. Yet, it is a fact that the South American population is deeply impregnated with the spirit and culture of Catholicism; to every leftist protest there are two pilgrimages. The lower strata in particular—and this includes the Indian population of the Bolivian highlands or the miserable huts in the favellas of Brazil—are strongly religious and remain indifferent to leftist agitation. The latter, however, is strong in academic circles, and in our industrial democracies this is what tips the balance. Both left and right in the universities quote Antonio Gramsci, who tilted Communism in the 1930’s in the direction of cultural conquest. Gramscism has become, among professors and students, the intellectual sugar-coating of leftist and rightist power ambitions.
In this respect, little difference can be found between Catholic and secular institutions. Almost all universities are now of the campus format, which means that students, even in downtown areas of big cities, are pressed together, easy victims of agitation and mass culture. The buildings themselves are mostly nondescript, factorylike, far from the Oxford-Sorbonne- Harvard style—another indication that universities in the post-1945 mass-societies are now subject to the requirements and mentality of the industrial society. Universities no longer stand out proudly with their architecture rivaling churches and palaces; they are parts of the system of production, of sociological transformations, and of the political game. In South America, too, students now think in terms of job opportunities and take courses that lead to employment, regardless of deeper personal and cultural interests. Engineering, business, electronics are the preferred subjects, as well as that much of culture that facilitates entry into politics. Under the circumstances, it is a miracle that I still met interested and cultivated young men and women. At the Catholic University of Santiago, where I was guest professor for the month of November (19th-century political thought, with emphasis on Tocqueville), the public of students and visitors put the hardest questions and entered the debate engendered by the previous guest professor, Guy Sorman, French author of the Conservative Revolution in America. Sorman’s purely liberal/capitalist theses clashed with my own, and I would say that the audience was divided about half-and-half, although I may have had 51 percent of the votes since I (unlike Sorman) spoke in Spanish. The “debate” was the more attentively listened to as Chileans are now preparing a changeover to democracy when President Pinochet steps down as expected in 1989. This political context lent the lectures some added public interest, since the nation’s mind is not quite made up on which regime to choose over the other. But all, or almost all, understood that each regime means very different things, not only politically, but also economically, morally, religiously, even aesthetically. Overriding Sorman’s general economism, my emphasis was on those other motives.
I soon understood, not only in Santiago but at other universities in other countries, that the lecturer’s words are weighed on the balance of grave local choices: between revolution and stability, democracy and the authoritarian regime, military intervention and civilian rule. In other words, the professor and his course are not heard as mere scholarship but are expected to be engage statements, or at least pointers for concrete, here-and-now suggestions.
Finally I concluded that this political context gave my lectures, and lectures by others, the kind of piquant flavor they do not have in societies where political discourse and debate are ritualistically denied philosophical and religious relevance. The very instability of changing regimes, of the employment market, of a Church hesitant between secular antagonists provides university life with the obligation and risk of existential choices. As the World Comptroller confides in Brave New World, a robotized humanity needs no literature, no theater, no philosophy, and no art because the tragic essence of life has been eliminated.
Well, it has not been eliminated from Argentina, Chile, or Brazil, nor from the expectations of their citizens and students. Placed among contradictory forces and living in a permanent tension, the best among the students live their history, and therefore their national destiny. To a lecturer’s delight, audiences react to his analyses in most subtle ways, and their questions and comments suggest that, in their minds, a transfer has been made from analysis to application. Genuine compliments to the teaching staff and students were gratefully received, since the continent, and particularly its southern third, feels outside the mainstreams of Western life. There can be no greater compliment in these parts than to assure these valiant intellects that they do not lag behind the Western heartland in subtlety and knowledge. They are, if anything, ahead in the quality of their moral debate.