The chains of scholarship

NOV politics academicThe Politics of Academic Autonomy in Latin America
Edited by Fernanda Beigel
2013, Ashgate
270 pages, paperback

IT IS understandably hard to get people excited about the theme of academic autonomy, but in many ways it is one of the most pressing in the developing world. “Academic dependence” is a crucial pillar of broader patterns of economic and cultural dependence, reflecting much more complex geopolitical constraints. Higher education is a battleground of paradigms that shapes knowledge, and hence a country’s understanding of its limitations and possibilities. In Latin America, those paradigms have, since Conquest, largely been imported – or imposed – by the Euro-American academy, and in particular by the US whose scholars have dominated the study of history and the social sciences since the second world war. Not only has this shaped the entire trajectory of Latin American development to the extent that it has been assumed uncritically and universally that it should mimic the linear, stages of growth patterns of development comprising Western “modernisation”, but has simultaneously reinforced the belief that the region generates few local ideas and, hence, dependence is inevitable. In short, in the absence of indigenous scientific knowledge, academic “imperialism” is justifiable. Yet as Fernanda Beigel and her contributors demonstrate in this pioneering book, the main differences between mainstream academies and peripheral circuits are not the lack of indigenous thinking, but the constraints imposed upon it by the role of the state in higher education. And it is the political factors of this kind – the nature of the state and the perspective of the elites that dominate it – that offer the best way of explaining the relationship between academic autonomy and the broader themes of dependence and imperialism. Through an excellent set of case studies focused mainly on the large countries of the Southern Cone, the contributors explore the political and institutional factors that have shaped research and professional training in Latin America. They consider the role played by foreign aid and co-operation and the tension between politicisation and professionalisation in determining academic autonomy. This book represents a refreshing effort to scrutinise in more detail something that has been taken for granted for far too long by scholars of the region. At a time when the need for locally generated knowledge in areas such as the environmental sciences is pressing in the broader global effort to understand – and hence act on – climate change, this book offers a timely reminder that investing in original ideas released from the stranglehold of political priorities may be the only way to solve our shared problems.