The Modern Era

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The Modern Era

The Spanish American university, with its main intellectual and administrative origins in the University of Salamanca in thirteenth-century Spain, was one of the most enduring colonial institutions. Late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century intellectual and political influences jarred the university, but did not alter its social, economic, and political functions.

The Wars of Independence and the struggles of early nationhood weakened the universities, but most survived, little changed from their colonial past. They had now become national rather than "royal and pontifical" universities, institutions of the state rather than of crown and church. The University of Buenos Aires was one of the earliest (founded 1821) and most important of the new universities. Some of the new universities, such as the University of the Republic of Uruguay (founded 1849), would remain as the only higher education institution of the country during the nineteenth century. Political and economic difficulties hindered the development of the new and old universities. In Mexico, for example, the Royal and Pontifical University (founded 1551) was modified, closed, and reopened several times between 1810 and 1865. A national university was finally reestablished under the guidance of Justo Sierra with the founding of the National University of Mexico in 1910. For those universities that did function, one supposed prevailing influence was the Napoleonic university, with its emphasis on centralization, the development of distinct faculties, and the training of professionals to meet the demands of emerging nation-states. One of the most famous universities to emerge within this intellectual context was the University of Chile, founded by the Venezuelan intellectual Andrís Bello. Despite the French influence, the university included some moral and humanistic education along with professional training. The University of Chile, in a manner similar to several other new state universities, also had control over primary and secondary education.

For much of Latin America in the nineteenth century, university life was narrowly defined, focusing on jurisprudence and the training of lawyers to promote the interests of the Creole elite that emerged after the Wars of Independence, or medicine and the education of physicians. Faculties of law and medicine dominated the university, acting almost as independent fiefdoms rather than as parts of a larger institution. Conflict in the history of the university in the nineteenth century stemmed from competition between liberal and conservative forces. A central issue was the extent of religious influence in education. The dominant trend was toward secular education, controlled by the state. The scholastic education of the past gave way to the training of the social and political elite of the new nations. Positivism provided the philosophical basis for efforts to reorganize the university, emphasizing secular, scientific education to achieve the positivist goals of order and progress. Education under the tutelage of positivism was designed to establish the framework for the orderly economic and social development of society.

Brazil was the exception in university education as it was in so much else. During the colonial period, the University of Coimbra in Portugal served the needs of the empire. In Brazil, Jesuit colleges and seminaries served as centers for advanced studies. With independence, a national educational system was created, but not a university. Technical and vocational institutes satisfied the need for higher education until the creation of the first Brazilian university in the twentieth century. The University of Rio de Janeiro, established in 1920, is usually considered the first Brazilian university, but it was not until 1931 that the first Statute of Brazilian Universities (usually requiring that the university consist of the three faculties of law, medicine, and engineering) was passed. The University of São Paulo (established in 1934) was the first university to fulfill the requirements of the statute.

Law and medicine remained the classic subjects of the university, but were gradually accompanied by a growing emphasis on engineering, mathematics, and the chemical and physical sciences. This was a reflection of the positivist and utilitarian emphasis that affected the university in the late nineteenth century. Education as professional training rather than as the formation of character through humanistic inquiry had become dominant. Yet this education was often inadequate, emphasizing more the title that came with university education than the knowledge. While the university experienced changes in the nineteenth century, it had still not shed its image as an institution of the colonial period (though the nineteenth-century organizational influences were pronounced), serving the interest of a narrow elite rather than the needs of the nation.

This institution, its tradition prompting labels such as "medieval," "monastic," and "anachronistic," came under attack in the early twentieth century. The calls for change culminated in the Córdoba Reforms, initiated in June 1918 at the University of Córdoba in Argentina. The demands of the Córdoba Reforms soon became the Magna Carta of Latin American universities, guiding their development in the twentieth century. Most influential have been the demands for university autonomy, including political, administrative, and financial independence; election of university administrators, with the participation of faculty, students, and alumni; open classrooms and free education; improved teaching and control over faculty; a curriculum appropriate for the current needs of society; and university extension programs, designed to make the university an agent of social reform. University autonomy remained one of the most vocal demands of students and faculty in the twentieth century. Though not often recognized during the turmoil of university politics, autonomy was a tradition that the colonial university had inherited from the University of Salamanca. This included the participation of students in the selection of faculty.

Few of these reforms were enacted in their entirety, but they did signal that the university had become a center of political and social activity, aware of its potential for challenging the past and creating the future. In addition to its traditional teaching and research mission, the university now had a "social mission," broadly defined as the commitment to using the resources of the university to create more equitable and just societies.

This has made the Latin American university a very visible political institution, much more so than in the United States or Europe. The expectation that the university would provide the solution to the social and economic woes of Latin America has been a source of inspiration and frustration since 1918. It represents the core of the dilemmas that confronted the university as it tried to reconcile the different emphases of training versus education, humanism versus scientism, and reformism versus conservation of the established order.

While the Córdoba Reforms faced obstacles that minimized their implementation, they did provide the basis for regional cooperation among Latin American universities. International meetings of faculty and students discussed issues and proposed cooperative programs. This regional effort culminated in the First Congress of Latin American Universities, hosted by Guatemala in 1949. This led to the creation of the Union of Latin American Universities (UDUAL), which expressed its goal "of orienting university education to the full development of the human personality" in the Carta de Guatemala. UDUAL continues to function, publishing Universidades, a good source of information on the modern Latin American university.

After World War II, the universities entered a new phase of growth. The physical presence of the university changed with the emergence of the university cities, sprawling modern campuses that did resemble cities. One of the most widely admired new campuses was that of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The new university city proclaimed the modernity of the university and reinforced the strong centralizing tendency of Latin American politics.

Latin American universities entered a period of unprecedented growth in the 1960s. Increasing social demand for education led to mushrooming enrollments in existing universities and the creation of new ones, public and private.

The percentage of women enrolled has increased faster than general enrollments. In the 1980s women comprised 58 percent of students in Panama (1985), 57 percent in Uruguay (1987) and Cuba (1988), 51 percent in Brazil (1988), 47 percent in Argentina (1987), and 41 percent in Mexico (1988). In addition to increases in university enrollments, there have been jumps in the number of men and women attending non-university institutes of higher education.

The proliferation of higher education institutions included many private universities. A few private universities continued to exist from earlier periods. Notable among them was the Jesuit Pontifical Javerian Catholic University of Bogotá, founded in 1622. Following World War I these were joined by several new Catholic universities. In addition, there were the "popular universities," at times extensions of national universities, at other times independent efforts to take the knowledge and skills of the university to the rural and urban poor. These new institutions did not compensate for the inability of the nation to satisfy the increasing demographic and social pressures for university education. As a result, private higher educational institutions grew more rapidly, and included secular as well as religious education. In 1980, 35 percent of higher-education students attended private institutions. Because private universities differ from public universities in finance, organization, student background, and often in curriculum, it makes it particularly difficult to generalize about recent changes in university education in Latin America.

Student unrest in the 1960s, more common in the public than in the private university, responded to university-related problems and to broader social issues. Lack of access to the university and the increasing distance between university curriculum and professional opportunities contributed to unrest. The traditional programs of law, medicine, and engineering still dominated. Internally, the university faced the old problems of part-time, unprepared faculty; dominance of the traditional organizational structure of the university, particularly the cátedra, the chair of professorship so powerful in university affairs; and the lack of adequate support for teaching and research. Finance was a continual problem that often made university autonomy more rhetorical than real. Competition for state funds increased friction between the university and government. Inadequate planning and uncertain revenues in both state and university hampered the development efforts of the university. With the global recession of the 1970s, financial problems became more severe. At the same time, partly as a response to the unrest of the 1960s, new organizations emerged to challenge traditional university life. Staff and faculty unions in particular have exercised their power to demand better salaries and working conditions.

Externally, the university failed to address the social and economic needs of development. Critics went much further, interpreting the university as an instrument of an oppressive international economic order that depended on the economic and social polarization of Latin American society for its well-being. This was reminiscent of the demands of 1918, but was now couched in Marxist terms with clearly stated revolutionary objectives. The university was seen as training an elite that served the needs of national and international capital. In response there was the call for the "popularization" of the university, to use it as a weapon in the fight for social and economic justice. In addition to simply increasing enrollments, the critics called for linking the university to the working classes, forming alliances with them to create a new bloc in the struggle against oppression.

The charged political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s erupted in violence in Latin America. The most renowned conflict occurred in Mexico City on the eve of the 1968 Olympics as students clashed with army and police at the Plaza de la Tres Culturas. University reform was no longer the only issue. Students demanded sweeping reforms that affected the social, political, and economic life of their countries. The reform efforts often clashed with the repressive military regimes then in power, leading to particularly chilling effects on university life in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.

An important development within the university in the 1960s was a new emphasis on extension and social-action programs. They had the responsibility for helping to create a new awareness of the social and economic reality of the oppressive conditions of life rather than simply diffusing the dominant culture of the elite. At the same time, they designed and implemented programs to combat illiteracy, malnutrition, and infant mortality. In a word, extension was to become the bridge between university and society, a network of communication that would overcome the chasm that had traditionally separated the university from the society that it supposedly served.

The neoliberal period in Latin America from the late 1980s through the 1990s also revamped the relationship between the university, society, and economics. At the same time that international financial institutions recommended stricter economic measures and less state intervention, private universities proliferated across the region. U.S.-backed financial assistance packages to higher education peaked as many state institutions were privatized. In fact, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank set aside approximately 4 to 10 percent of their loans to promote tertiary education in Latin America. During the 1990s, there was also a shift in the educational curriculum. Technical degrees such as engineering, economics and agronomy were privileged. In this sense, the important development within the university in the 1990s was a new renewed interest from the region and from abroad to expand the traditional academic fields and improve the technical degrees and expertise. A clear example of this interest was the creation of private research centers and clusters, which were parallel to the universities. The transformation of the universities as private laboratories of technical experts thus coincided with the increased political and economic interests of the neoliberal decade that favored the formation of a technocratic bureaucracy. Nonetheless, such proliferation of private universities raised new problems in the region. Many had different grading schemes and accreditations. As a result, many students lacked the national accreditation approval that would enable their diplomas to be recognized as official.

In the early twenty-first century the university has demonstrated its power again as locus site of national politics, including the formation of political thought, contestation and legitimacy. In Venezuela, as Hugo Chávez rallied support throughout the country for his third re-election in 2006, the polls indicated clear dissent among the student population in the main universities. This dissent among the universities has matured substantially. In fact, while Chávez planned to hold the referendum in December 2007 on his 69 constitutional amendments, hundreds of students protested against Chávez, the police, and the national guard. The amendments were narrowly defeated.

See alsoEducation: Overview; National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).


For general introductions to the university, see Luis-Alberto Sánchez, La universidad latinoamericana (Guatemala: Editorial Universitaria, 1949); Darcy Ribeiro, La universidad latinoamericana (Montevideo: Universidad de la Repú blica, 1971); Hanns-Albert Steger, Las universidades en el desarrollo social de la América Latina (México, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1974); Joseph Maier and Richard W. Weatherhead, eds., The Latin American University (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979). Specialized studies include Daniel C. Levy, Higher Education and the State in Latin America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), an analysis of the differences between private and public universities; Donald J. Mabry, Mexican University and the State: Student Conflicts, 1910–1971 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982), a detailed history of student activism; and Iván Jaksíc, Academic Rebels in Chile: The Role of Philosophy in Higher Education and Politics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), a study of the interaction between the history of a discipline, the university, and politics.

Additional Bibliography

Levy, Daniel C. To Export Progress: The Golden Age of University Assistance in the Americas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

                                              John C. Super

                              Monica Hernandez Quijano

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The Modern Era

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