The Chilean Road to Socialism



For several years prior to the election of President Allende, Chilean universities had been undergoing a profound, critical self-examination. Important reforms in higher education were well underway before antagonistic forces within universities, particularly the University of Chile, were again propelled into severe conflict. The sometimes violent confrontations in the University of Chile during 1971 were not based upon questions of whether or not the university should change—all parties agree that further reforms have to be imposed. The conflict has rather to do with what kind of changes the university should undergo. Immediately at issue are questions of who shall have power within the university and the role of the university in the socialist transformation of Chile. The candidate of the Right and the Christian Democrats won the 1972 elections for Rector of the University of Chile. "Three Patterns for University Reform" serves to clarify these fundamental issues.


From Panorama Económico Nº. 243, August 1969. Tomás Amadeo Vasconi is an Argentine sociologist of many years' residence in Chile. He is presently with the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America.


The notes and observations offered here are the result of several preoccupations which came about as a consequence of the events at the University of Chile after the Memorandum of Agreement was signed (June 12, 1968) between the groups in conflict. The agreement "institutionalized" the conflict—violent up to then—by giving birth to a process that afterward developed into the constitution of reform committees and later into the Convention and Referendum. Through these committees, assemblies, etc. the demands of the reformist groups started to take shape.

We did not believe at that time;—nor do we believe now—that consequences following from the decisions taken were very clear to those who acted in this process. Therefore, with a more settled vision due to the observation and study of the events that followed the signing of the memorandum, we are now pubfisbing this article to establish the basis for a model of analysis that permits an evaluation of the final consequences of the process. Obviously we do not pretend to build a model in the strictly technical sense of the expression, but to formulate the basic propositions for its construction. . . .

During the process of conflict and in its subsequent "institutionalization," we found it possible to identify three different concepts whose content we would like to explain here: the "modernizing," the "democratizing," and the "revolutionary" concepts. . . [1]

1. The Modernizing Concept

At this opportunity we cannot analyze the particular effects caused by industrialization—or more generically by "modernization"—in our countries; these, however, have already become evident for those who wish to see them, through the works of many authors. We center our analysis on one specific problem: modernization of the university.

The "modernizing" concept particularly stresses "rationalization," "depoliticization," and "technification," and is primarily preoccupied with the attainment of greater institutional efficiency within the university.

Modernization appears as a process destined to attain greater efficiency in the university on one hand and, on the other hand, a closer correspondence between the university and the structures and organization supposed to be typical of the "modern" society.

In the "internal" functioning of the institution, the aspects that fit into modernizing considerations are several: renovation of teaching methods, making the content of instruction consonant with the development of science at an international level, the departmentalization of faculties, the optimum utilization of material and human resources, etc. Already at this level, in the concrete historical context of our societies, the first contradictory aspects between the "modernization" and "democratization" concepts appear. In order to attain high levels of efficiency and return, a rigorous selection of students is defended. This pattern will inevitably favor the dominant groups by limiting the number of students for the purpose of improving teaching, requiring full-time studies, etc. Under the present circumstances, such procedures deny every possible process of democratization of the university.

Even more fundamental is the thesis that a closer correspondence is needed between the university and the requirements of a modern society. . . . The university as an institution of "modern society" tends to satisfy its requirements—for example, preparing "human resources" demanded by the apparatus of production— by incorporating all its material and human resources to the "modern center or pole." By doing so, it becomes a subsidiary of its development and moves apart from the marginal sector (which comprises the greatest part of the society). Thus interpreted, the modernizing process—far from converting the university into a creative center that frees forces for effective social change— submits the destiny of the institution to the development of the "giant modern enterprise" and its requirements.

Moreover, to the degree to which the "modern pole" is increasingly dependent upon the dominant centers of world capitalism and subsidiary to its organization, development, technology, etc., the modernization process of the university implies also a process of growing dependence. Thus, the university becomes progressively converted into an organization for the reproduction and transmission of knowledge, techniques, etc., developed in the dominant international centers, which produce that knowledge in a defined historical social situation quite different from the one that can be considered typical of underdeveloped and dependent societies. The "modernizing" concept implies that the university constitutes a supranational institution. Thus, national universities become a steppingstone (naturally one of the lowest steps) on a professional, scientific, and cultural hierarchy, the highest point of which is represented by the universities and scientific centers of "international prestige."

2. The Democratizing Concept

The "democratizing" concept has as its ideological core the extension of participation within the university. This participation should be understood as very broad. It not only facilitates access to higher education for all social groups, but also brings the benefits of university activity to all sectors of the population.

The democratizing concept assumes university reform to be a political process. Therefore, seizure of power in the university appears at the center of its program. The groups that consider themselves genuine reformists, however (in the sense of directing reform as a process of substantive democratization) do not actually succeed in controlling the decision-making centers of the university. They barely escape into a process that appears more like "modernization" than reform.

Together with this seizure of power in which the students, as the most dynamic element of the community, must play the important role, democratization requires the conquest of effective autonomy within the university (although this aspect, as we shall see, is even more important in the "revolutionary concept").

In order to make this democratizing concept more precise, we distinguish three fundamental dimensions: a) the process of democratization "from within", b) the process of democratization "to the outside," and c) the process of democratization "from the outside."

A. The Process of Democratization from Within.

Within this process it is possible to distinguish several main aspects.

a) Participation in power by different segments of the university community: This participation must be effective to generate authority and to control decisions by the different sectors (professors, students, etc.) and by the various "strata" existing within them (the different ranks of professors, assistants, etc.). Student participation must be sufficiently broad to assure its "weight" in relation to the importance of this sector and give a dynamic, renovative character to the university.

b) Periodic competitions to obtain teaching positions: This avoids the generation of a university "oligarchy" implied by life tenure.

c) Reform of the content of study programs: This aspect is not always clearly defined in the democratizing concept. Sometimes democratization and the reduction of educational standards are identified (through a reduction of requirements, etc.) so that more people, it is supposed, can obtain a college degree (this approach appears more frequently among ideologists of populist style). Substantive democratization requires that the university find mechanisms to effectively incorporate the different social groups. This implies the need to structure varied organisms and opportunities. At the same time, the democratizing reformists have a commitment to development and to society to prepare people at the most advanced scientific and technical level.

d) Research: This decisive aspect is one in which "substantive democratization" tries to impose its criteria. The pretended "value neutrality" and "subjectivism" sustained by liberal ideology that leaves the selection of subjects and methods of research to the individual researcher's judgment and ideology are rejected. This research appears in the "democratizing conception" as committed research which tends to explain and clarify the mechanisms of underdevelopment and to scientifically point out the means of confronting it.

Scheduling and provisions regarding work, class attendance, seminars, etc.: The "democratizing concept" carefully points out that these provisions should not restrict those students who have to work in order to pay their tuition, etc. Another argument relates to the possibility of freedom in attending classes and to students' rejection of courses by certain professors.

B. The Process of Democratization to the Outside.

This dimension of the general process of democratization comprises a wide range of actions for the extension of university services to groups that are now excluded. Thus, democratization "to the outside" relates to access to the university and to the responsibility of the university to the whole society. There are a number of aspects.

a) Free education: This appears as a fundamental requisite. However, it is pointed out that, given the characteristics of the structure of these societies, this principle cannot be completely applied. In a stratified society, if free education is established at the university level unaccompanied by other social policies that compensate for the consequences, a regressive effect will take place. The groups that already had access to that level of education will be favored, and other groups will still not have access to free education. It is thus said that in the present social and economic conditions, it might be better to replace the general and simple concept of a free university with two standards of judgment. First, those who can, must pay for their higher education in proportion to their ability to do so. Second, a meaningful proportion of the university budget must be dedicated to the provision of full scholarships for those who otherwise could not go on with their studies.

b) Revision of the system of selection and admittance: This is to insure that the systems that will be adopted do not explicitly or implicitly discriminate among the candidates according to their economic and social positions.

c) Creation of intermediate degrees: This implies modification of the university structure itself, because these intermediate degrees must leave open the possibility that studies can be continued at a higher level. Professional careers could be set up that may comprise, through the years, alternate periods of study and professional work. This would naturally require not only reforms in university studies, but new provisions for professional practice.

d) The creation of preuniversity and extra-university bodies: These should depend upon the university. The creation of schools at an intermediate level (technical schools, etc.) must also respond to the general democratization process. Just as with the "intermediate degrees," they must not form closed entities, but the education given in them must be open to continuation at a higher level. These same objectives must dominate the regional policy of the University of Chile. Regional units must not go on being only ways of extending lower-level university programs. . . .

e) Programs of university extension: These programs include the diffusion of knowledge, and even art exhibits, which are generated and developed within the university in order to bring them closer to wider sectors of the population as well as activities . . . that allow access to the university by the new groups. . . .

C. The Democratization Process from the Outside.

Access to the university is conditioned by the degree of democratization of society. Although it is possible to take actions from the university that lead to increased access, many other changes will have to take place from society toward the university for "substantive democratization" actually to work. Immediately linked to university democratization would be a reform of the entire educational system at all levels. A process of democratization that makes possible the access and permanence of students until the end of their studies would have to be experienced at all levels prior to college. In this respect it is necessary to remember that in Chile during 1960-65, of each one hundred children enrolled in the first grade, sixty-one dropped out before completing the sixth grade. In the secondary level this attrition reached 74.1 per cent. It must be pointed out that all studies show an essential incidence of extraschool factors in attrition.

This last aspect constitutes the major limitation of the "democratizing concept."

D. Some Observations.

The democratizing position, except in its first expression as democratization from within, cannot be considered totally feasible except under the assumption of a progressive democratization of society. Only this will guarantee the possibility of the other two dimensions, democratization "to the outside" and democratization "from the outside." The historical experience of Latin American countries does not seem to correspond to such a process, but rather to a progressive concentration of income and power around the modernizing sector. Thus, a project of democratization appears insufficient when proceeding exclusively from the university. Going considerably further than this reform program is the "revolutionary concept" advocated by left-wing groups.

3. The Revolutionary Concept

The revolutionary idea seems to take into account what has been pointed out in the previous paragraph and assumes the perspective of the global society. It does not consider society in a general and abstract sense, but addresses itself to the specific historic situation of a country that is underdeveloped and dependent. Under these circumstances, to consider the main responsibility of the university that of preparing capable personnel ("human resources") for the efficient working of the system is viewed as reactionary.

Development of society is not perceived as a linear process which can be achieved through evolutionary progress or through "growth" within the present structure. Development implies a radical break from the prevailing structure (in this, the "revolutionary" is opposed to the "democratizing" concept). The reformed or "critical" university cannot be conceived as an institution responding efficiently to the requirements of the "establishment," but must place the entire institutional apparatus at the service of criticism of the status quo. The principal battle of the students—who form the most fundamental element of the process—must be fought in the name of the "great absentees," the exploited and pauperized people. The university constitutes a fundamental strategic and tactical center for the revolution. The university, today at the service of the dominant class, the national bourgeoisie, and of foreign capital, will have to abandon its function as part of the system (which means to stop producing ideologists, professionals, technicians, etc. who serve to consolidate the system) and pass on to the service of "workers and peasants." This is why the main subjects of this concept are the seizure of power within the university in order to place it in the struggle for social transformation, and the achievement of the greatest possible autonomy so that the institution may completely fulfill its critical and revolutionary role.

With regard to the seizure of power, those who hold the "revolutionary" position are clearly different from those who hold the "democratizing" positions in admitting that, because the university is part of the superstructure of bourgeois society, it will not be possible to institute in it a "revolutionary power." Moreover, "access to power" does not mean a compromise or coparticipation in the responsibilities of directing the institution, but a way to achieve a higher level of conflict.

Some subjects that are essential in the "modernizing" concept and have an important role in the "democratizing" concept are secondary in the "revolutionary" view. The revolutionaries do not attach great importance to measures related to administrative actions or the use of material and human resources, etc. When some of these aspects appear, such as the question of the organization of studies, they are always subordinated to the central question of revolution ("teaching must fulfill a consciousness-raising and politicizing role"; "research must be applied to the development of a revolutionary theory that allows the vanguard to accelerate the process of revolution"). . . .

Given the characteristics of this concept—which no longer applies exclusively to the university—struggle within the university must be intimately linked to the revolutionary struggle in society.

The most difficult aspect to define is the relationship that will be established between action within the university and the revolutionary process in society. An unequivocal concept about this aspect has not been formulated. This is why the "revolutionary process," though united in its essentials, is fragmented in terms of strategy and tactics (university as a "focus," only as "a moment of the process," etc.). Nevertheless, it seems that the main university function—if not in detail, at least in the general approach—consists of the formation, theoretically and ideologically, of cadres for the revolution.


1. Omitted at this point in the translation is a critical analysis of the work of Clark Kerr et al, Industrialism and Industrial Man, particularly as it relates to the "modernizing" concept of university reform.

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