Speculative report on the joys and misfortunes of the University

Isaac Witkin, Angola I, 1966


The University is a difficult colt to tame


In antiquity, knowledge – there were sages in antiquity, ancient perhaps, but good – before being written down, it was oral: Socrates, without going any further, spoke and his disciples listened, except for Plato, who wrote what Socrates – is an assumption - he said. This practice of what we would now call "extension" cost the old philosopher his life and, those who preceded him, the humiliating designation of pre-Socratics.

A little later, still within what is generally called Antiquity, knowledge was confined to painful books written by hand on sheets of protopaper; books, on the other hand, were locked up in libraries partly because they were valuable and useful, partly also because they were prematurely corrosive; perhaps for this reason, on sad journeys, they were sometimes set on fire, as happened with the unforgettable Alexandria. It is said, and it is likely to be true, that this set back mankind's scientific development for several centuries, but what importance can time have to a pyromaniac.

Little by little, and perhaps because of these warm antecedents, knowledge, understood as the production of knowledge, took refuge, in the form of books, in more secret places, able to preserve it; I mean the monasteries, although it is not very certain that the monks read or, if it were not for lack of information on my part, wrote them down. Some did so, no doubt, like St. Augustine and the so-called “church fathers”, but certainly their propagation did not go beyond the walls of the holy places. Umberto Eco, as you will surely remember, described this bookish situation in The name of the Rose, using a arduous metaphor about the lethal character of the written word, no matter how closely guarded it may be.

As if sensing that the Middle Ages were about to end, many – some religious, others worldly – ​​conceived structures, called “Universities”, destined not only to preserve knowledge but also to produce it and, in addition, to spread it. , with one conviction: this system could be very useful to help the turbulent and poorly formed society to understand itself, organize itself, to get out of the obscurity that numbed it; philosophy, medicine, theology, grammar, could save mankind from the obvious risks it ran, from imperial abuses, plagues, Jerusalem utopias, suicidal mysticisms, absolute ignorance, social iniquities and many other calamities; In some unclear way, these institutions democratized knowledge, but this, precisely the fact that they tried to create a network on which social life was supported, gave them a power that, in the first moments, could not emerge because it could not compete. with the power of empires or monarchies and of the Church, each separately or both together. Both had understood the potential of Universities and, therefore, assumed that they should be placed at their service.

In this situation, the power granted by the production, reproduction and diffusion of knowledge had no choice but to turn to itself, consolidating it became a program, and one of its points was the passionate task of giving it a guiding it, directing it, using it, controlling it: being the rector of a University thus became a goal, even if outwardly it could not compete with the other powers.

The disposition of an internal power, consequently, determined a displacement whose effects are still felt; in other words, if knowledge was the object of the creation of Universities and these became the enclosure of knowledge, quickly what was most important was the enclosure and not the knowledge stored therein. The institution, whose basic meaning core is the will to endure, even if its essential object is not that, focuses on its structure and what the structure requires, which, in turn, generates a multiplicity of questions that imitate the struggles for power, often for oneself, often, as Nietzsche would have said, for the will to power.

In other words, within Universities there is a life of its own and peculiar, with relations of its own and peculiar, with forms and ways that are distinguished as their own and peculiar, with conflicts that are different from any other, with highly significant historical situations; for example, the University as a democratic island, as a privileged refuge for certain privileged people, at the service of the community or indifferent to requests made by society, as a desirable place to settle down and from there to predicate wisdom or competence, as a mysterious cave in which some research and, on certain occasions, as a reward for their achievements, emigrate from their countries taken by benevolent rulers who want to be generous to those of other countries; also as holders of libraries, which are like the remains of ancient traditions, which unites them to the Middle Ages, when Universities began to see the light and emit their first groans. In short, Universities are microworlds in which many things happen, which, precisely, provoke curiosity in those who are not in them, almost morbid, an object of inquiry and fiction, a secret place full of alcoves, suitable for fantasy, also for teaching and search, though it doesn't seem to hold any interesting secrets.



The internal life of Universities has been, from the beginning, an enigma for those outside, who could imagine that within their walls the strangest things took place, and intriguing or problematic for those inside. The literature has been quite sensitive to one position or another. For the first, it is enough to remember that the myth of Faust came out of the University of Wittenberg, which, since before Goethe, permeated all world literature, or that the sinister library of the University of Arkham, in Providence, where an inauspicious Lovecraft had installed a copy of Necronomicon, a demonic book endowed with powers and explanations about the cetacean origin of the inhabitants of this stormy region.

For the second, from François Villon to Cervantes, the student becomes a character, almost a picaresque hero, the student is a starving man who invents all kinds of tricks to eat, rape servants, earn money that he immediately loses in carouses and, lastly, to waste your time instead of studying. We do not know when, how and what they study, although we can presume that they left Trivium and quadrivium or the stony questions of theology or Kabbalah, but it is possible to know what they did to tolerate the inclement cold of the classrooms: from moving around so much during Friar Luis de León's classes, in Salamanca, they left the wooden floor marked , full of wounds, just as they must have received the teachings of that angelic monk, who we imagine constantly saying, like a scratched record, “as we said yesterday”, the maximum expression of academic continuity.

Rascals these students, lovers of nightlife and authors of procaque songs, like the famous “Navarrese students/ chin pun/ comen pan y queso/ chorizo ​​y jamón/ y el porrón”, as if they had nothing else to do. Assuming this order of relationships, the so-called “academic party” appears, that beautiful work by Brahms, whose verses extol the joy of youth but also the fleeting existence, and which some melancholic university students still celebrate, to the detriment of rock, which little or nothing it has to do with university life, although it refers to the risks of youth.

The rogue life, the overflow, the challenge, the secret bid, the adventurous loves are eclipsed in the imaginary of the Enlightenment, subsequent to the Cartesian discovery that obviously modifies the intellectual scheme of the Universities: reason painfully makes its way and medieval darkness retreats not without resistance, but in the XNUMXth century romantic melancholy takes up the theme with all the sadness of the case: Espronceda writes The student from Salamanca, Chekhov, The student, one of his best texts, and even the slick Raskolnikov is a student, although it is not known what university he attends. Those who, on the other hand, do not arouse the interest of literature are the professors, of little interest to the writers, their lives must have been monotonous, like that of Professor Fausto before his pact with the Devil, or that of Professor Unrath, before falling into the nets of the charming and perverse “blue angel”, the divine Marlene Dietrich, even if, at that moment, she did not have the stylized figure that made her famous.

Literature took a while, in the XNUMXth century, to discover narrative material at the University; students are different, there are those who were formerly called “beadles” and lately non-teachers, and also, Last but not least, the kings of creation, the teachers, so that the relationships between all of them, in addition to integrating different commissions and places of salary, ideological-political confrontations and spaces destined to install addicts and exclude disaffections, give rise to interesting figures for the literature. In this context, I cannot fail to mention some important texts or, if not so much, that at least caught the attention of a non-university audience. My list will not be exhaustive, but, I hope, indicative.

Let's start with a play that gave a lot to talk about in its time, in the 1950s: Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, by Edward Albee. He brings into play the traditional figure of a dean, but, and this is the point, this dean has a daughter and the daughter has a relationship with a professor that the dean does not like. I picture the dean: much like the portraits of former US deans that litter boardroom walls; tweed jacket, gray flannel trousers, bow tie over a sky-blue shirt, thick gray mustache, and an air of irreducible impenetrability, both for those who knock on his door and for the hysteria of the daughter who cares little for her investiture of the father and his science, just as he doesn't seem to care about the risk of incest that hovers like a bird over angry disputes.

Thus, we infer that in Universities there must be conflicts that do not pass through scientific discoveries, but also, in other later texts and in films, scientific discoveries can kill, in addition to, of course, provoking envy, resentments, intrigues that are the object of more narratives. fanciful and amusing, as in the case of the novels with which David Lodge entertains us.

This author was highly celebrated because he mocked the mental universe of university students, particularly specialists in certain incombustible subjects, like Shakespeare, Adam Smith, Dickens and other members of a group promised to eternity. Lodge proposes, it is a hypothesis, three reasons to understand why professors go to Congresses. 1. to make yourself heard by the 200 or 2000 participants, each of them trying to do the same; 2. to get a better job than the one they have; 3. to see if they are lucky and manage to get involved in some extramarital adventure. Science, knowledge, becomes, from now on, a means, we are flesh and blood, even if we are university students.

The university environment begins to be claimed by those looking for interesting topics and we proliferate novels that fantasize crimes between classes, evil professors who secretly manipulate the lives of others, research that goes from beneficial to lethal, as shown in the famous dialogue between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg at successful Copenhagennight crimes such as inconspicuous crimes, Guillermo Martínez's intelligent narration, astute students who dismantle the dark maneuvers of treacherous teachers, abuses in assessments, my own novel Evaluator, and laboratories that traffic human organs, vote buying and favorable environments overnight, as shown in the novel Wire of Sergio Holguín, to develop guerrilla activities or, as in the case of Amulet, the novel by Chilean Roberto Bolaño, clandestine inhabitants of college bathrooms, not to mention the fauna of trinket sellers and also, why not, drugs.

Could we interpret this interest in what happens at the University as a deviant, perverse purpose, an unacknowledged attempt to ridicule what the University means for society? It may be so, it may be that this is not true and that what happens inside the walls has attractive characteristics, nuances as rich as those offered by any social sphere and, consequently, as susceptible as any other, aviation, exploration, travel, discrimination, the underworld, the pompous life of the aristocracy, political corruption, making the imagination fly and producing works, if not always transcendental, at least, in many cases, amusing, even, at times, critical.


Daily life

In principle, those who are at the University seem to have been there forever, they are like water and air. But it's not like that; There are different recruitment systems for teachers, students and non-teaching staff. The case of the latter is the least problematic: they take up their jobs as they could elsewhere, although their skills may vary. Students often enter through exams or preparatory courses or by simple request, depending on the occupation strategy of the respective Universities. The most complicated thing occurs in the context of teaching. We could say that there are three forms of admission: the tender, the contract and the finger. In any case, what counts is the merit, and, in the case of the contest, the so-called “peers” who were previously admitted through the same procedure act. As the merits are interpretable, the instance of impugnation was created, sometimes justified, sometimes just a product of resentment for not having won. Be that as it may, the resentments this produces take many different forms, from attack to hypocrisy. The contract is a way of sorting out the disadvantages of the competition and its conclusion no longer depends on the peers but on the authorities; sometimes there is no other remedy, sometimes it is a way of blocking competitions and the access of professors who are not valued intellectually, ethically or politically. Indeed, a problem. The finger is interesting but its action bifurcates; in the first direction, it can respond to a prestigious policy, the University is honored to have a key figure in its squad; the second is the realm of arbitrariness. When Spinoza received a letter from the Rector of a University inviting him to join it, he politely refused because that Rector wrote to him on the recommendation of such and such a prince or duke, who admired the philosopher, but not because he personally and spontaneously wanted to take this initiative.

The most important thing, what is permanent in the life of the University, is what happens between professors and students, although in recent times the former beadles, today not professors, have been incorporated into this scheme and somewhat altered the basso continuo character that it has. that relationship. In their primitive form, professors were all-powerful in terms of knowledge and prestige – in France, chair holders were called “patrons” – and students feared or revered them or boasted of having been their followers. , that was a title; things have changed for the better in the last few decades, so even teachers are not the “ultimate” of knowledge nor students are submissive blank pages; on the contrary, many of them, even before having contributed to a book, face the professors, refute them with conviction and, based on that certainty, manage, sometimes, to direct the academic life, the universe of research and the destiny of the former owners of wisdom.

It is obvious that the teacher-student relationship is basic and essential at the University and, in principle, it is well regarded and is the object of passion, if not of expectations for the future: a good student can be appreciated by a good professor and this can be a good thing for later. But it also has dark aspects. For example, what has been designated as “sexual harassment”, a figure that caused a furor a few years ago, especially in North American Universities and which, predictably, spread almost immediately to ours. As a practice, as an attitude, it must have always existed, there is no way to deny the Faustian temptations in older people, however much the spirit of seriousness of science, teachers or professors have in front of attractive and dazzled young people.

From there, it's just a step, certainly reprehensible, as it implies a less than delicate use from a position of superiority. In addition, harassment was linked to academic issues, namely, if the young person resisted the harasser's trembling hand, his or her promotion would be at great risk. This gave much to talk about and had practical consequences: many teachers, accused or caught in the act of committing a crime, had to emigrate, others left their classroom doors open, just in case, and, finally, many students found it amusing to accuse unfriendly teachers without reason. , in order to simply make their lives impossible or force them to modify the grades they deserved or seemed unfair to them. Muted rumors of this situation ran through the corridors so that many professors, to put an end to them, resorted to the only suitable means, the best defense, and, by applying it, they organized, in passing, their lives; I am referring to the marriage between teachers and students, rarely between teachers and students.

The relationships between students have multiple possibilities. Firstly, in large Latin American cities, students from the interior of the country tend to live in certain areas, in boarding houses that are recommended to them, sometimes sharing apartments, in other places, in residences where, from time to time, Conflicts arise due to various prohibitions such as, for example, visiting the rooms of the other sex: as we remember, this prohibition generated the movement known as “May 68”, with great social consequences and, perhaps, an enormous production of children.

Then, on another plane, they group together to study, giving rise to all kinds of rivalries, especially those linked to citations: there were cases of students who managed to get a certain book and that, when it was borrowed so that it could also be quoted, respond with all sorts of arguments to leave an orphan the one who did not get the saving book. At a later stage, after having arrived at the environment, they integrate, at least in Latin America, into political groups, the reason for being at the University changes radically or, at least, becomes much more nuanced; many discover, at that moment, a strong pictorial and/or graphic vocation, not figurative, but lyrical, following an important current of contemporary painting that paints letters. Finally, they manage to intervene in the government of the University, but all that ends when they graduate and the arduous path of decisions awaits them: “the” student is moving away and, sometimes, the attitude towards life that is taking shape is very different than it was during the student period.



The University is a difficult colt to break; in its precincts there are various habits, a certain amount of corruption, politics and trinket sellers have infiltrated it, and, overlapping these notes, vocations to teach, vocations to learn, a space for criticism and a thermometer of issues , relationships that tend to be established for life. Outside its precincts, the prejudices against it are numerous, and are expressed with the bluntness which is normally characteristic of prejudices; in addition, it is a coveted prey and a sensitive film, whenever it has a problem, ideas arise to abandon it or destroy it. But the University continues, there is, for now, nothing better. After all, defending it is not a vain task. I hope that the account I have just given will emerge from this idea and that you will see it as consistent with what I have endeavored to show.

* Noah Jitrik, literary critic, he is director of the Institute of Hispano-American Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Author, among other books, of Critical history of Argentine literature (Emece).

Text read at the opening of the V National and II Latin American Meeting: “The University as an object of research”, in Tandil, on August 30, 2007.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

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