An interview with the Rector of the University of El Salvador, José Luis Argueta Antillon

Jose Luis Argueta Antillon has been Rector of the University of El Salvador since 1986. Before that he was Director of the institute ofEconomics Research at the university. He is an economist and has written widely on economic issues in CentralAmerica. He continues as Rector at UES despite receiving threats from death squads in El Salvador. This interview took place on June 26, 1990 at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. George Sorger was the translator.

By Graeme MacQueen (interviewer) | 1990-10-01 12:00:00

The University of El Salvador (UES), which has today about 35,000 students, was founded in the 1840s. Throughout its long history and in the face of four bloody invasions in the last thirty years (including an occupation of the campus from 1980 to 1984), assassinations and abritrary arrests of faculty, students and staff, the university has retained a critical stance political and economic system. It has recognized its responsibility to the society in numerous ways, most recently through its ambitious University Reform, which seeks to make "social projection" central to the university.

University students spend time in the community putting into practice what they learn in the classroom. When they return to the classroom they participate in the evaluation of theory and the revising of curriculum and texts to make them relevant to reality.

Ideally, students spend a semester in the classroom, then a semester in the community, then back to the classroom and soon. UES is currently in a struggle against a proposed Law of Post-Secondary Education, which would give the government much greater control over university affairs and could cripple the University Reform.

Gtaeme MacQueen: Many of us in Peace Studies have come in for criticism from others in the university. Some have said we are subjective, not objective; utopian instead of realistic; activists instead of thinkers. It is this last issue of thinking and acting that I would like to talk about.

When I first looked at the university calendar of UES, it said explicitly that the univeisity was dedicated to improving the conditions of people in desperate situations in Central America. Has this been the subject of debate in the university?

José Luis Arguela Antillon: The social projection is university reform, which was debated extensively.

MacQueen: Our readers will not understand this term, "social projection." Could you explain?

Antillon: Social projection is the strategic part of the educationat process, because it is a bridge between the university and its human and other environments. We say it is a two-way bridge because it allows students and faculty to go out and understand the circumstances and the processes that are occurring in the society at large and to bring back ftom the wider community empirical knowledge and information. Once this information has been processed, one may give concrete solutiors to the problems outside. Our social projection has had some impact on society. From now on, rather than having elitist and individualist professionals, we are going to have professionals who are sensitized to the needs of the Salvadoran population.

MacQueen: This new commitment to the welfare of the people at large can be called "ideological." How have you been able to make this kind of value change as a university?

Antillon: Good question! We think this change could only have come about in the midst of a conflict. It is paradoxical because during this war the university has seen much more repression than in the past. Yet Salvadoran society is being transformed into a new society. The university has been preparing for that new society. This has given credibility and Icgitimacy to the university in the eyes of the public. National and international solidarity have been vital for the survival of the university.

MacQueen: In the world at large there is massive poverty, starvation, hunger, and war. Yet for most academics in our university these are not considered particularly interesting problems. Some-how in your university these things are regarded as problems that academics have to address fully.

Antillon: The faculty does accept this challenge, but only in those departments and schools where the curriculum change has occurred. The problem that has to be addressed, that is decided by the society itself, outside the university. For example, dentistry students told some university authorities that they had met with members ofa community who had said that they Were grateful for all that the students were doing for oral hygiene in that community, but that a moment would come when the people would have beautiful, bright white teeth but nothing to chew.

The students said that it is necessary not only to identify a problem but to relate it to others and to priorize issues. This message was of strategic importance because it made us see that social projection has to be multidisciplinary. In this fashion you can give coordinated solutions.

MacQueen: Back to "thinking and acting." Have you ever personally had any feeling of this as a dilemma?

Antillon: There were dilemmas at the begihning of this curriculum change. Forexample, in the newwaywithsocial projection it is impossible to haveavery structured curriculum. Having been used to planning everything in detail, the academic staff/faculty were not really prepared for this; to train them required two to four years. Therefore we had to boldly start a curriculum change without an administrative structure, without legal structure, without even the materials. Experience shows that we did the right thing because once the curriculum change begins to operate, it actually solves the problem by itself.

In the case of faculty it has been necessary to provide training, but the greatest education has been the actual practice of the social projection. It has forced faculty to become researchers. The effect of having to do research has been to renew their teaching, to make it more relevant. And having no legal and administrative structure has been correct because, if we had designed it, it would have become a straitjacket.

MacQueen: Paulo Freire says that true education requires an educator to undergo a profound conversion to the people. Is it the war that has brought this change in Salvadoran educators?

Antillon: It has been a important factor. It has made us aware of the crisis, not only in the society but in the university. It makes us aware of the tremendous destruction and of the responsibility of all Salvadorans for reconstruction. As an institution we had to abandon just being critical of society andbecomealso creative. We have tried to give this attitude to all of our members in the university, but many have not responded.

This is notjust a difference of opinion between individuals. We have a heritage of military and legal intervention, from 1972 to 1978, when the university was taken over by the military and by politicians. The government nominated to the university authorities that were actually part of the government and they converted the university into one more bureaucratic office. They fired as many people from the universities as they could, and appointed their own relatives instead. Many of these people are still there. They cannot be identified with the needs of the majority and we can't just sack them because they have legal protection through labor law. Fortunately, the curricular change solves many problems. And in the case of a number offaculty, they themselves have decided to leave.

MacQueen: Is social projection relevant only to El Salvador or might one apply this notion in North America?

Antillon: All over the world there are big problems. In the Third World, there's the tremendous problem ofpoverty. But little is said of the problems of developed countries. Even there you have poverty, and other problems such as pollution. The universities of so-called developed countries have become mired in a concern for efficiency. There continues to be a preoccupation about "cutting edge" technology, but little concern about the renewal of society. The Second International Conference insupportof the University ofEl Salvador, a proposal was made to integrate the worldwide university community. In this way we could arrive at a new concept of the "historic mission" of the university.

As for transplanting social projection to developed countries, we have to keep in mind that each society has its own specific characteristics. What has to be done, is a national diagnosis an historic analysis of the social and econornic structure, present and future. This is the context in which the university should define its mission.

Graeme MacQueen is a professor of religious studies at McMaster University and coordinates the Peace Studies

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1990

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1990, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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