Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Santiago: Freedom To Read

I have just returned from a visit to Universidad Diego Portales (UDP) in Santiago, Chile.  I was hosted there by the Centro de Estudios de la Argumentación y el Razonamiento (CEAR), which is part of La Facultad de Psicología.  It was a fabulous trip, my first to South America, and my hosts were exceedingly kind.

As part of my visit, I presented a couple of public lectures on embodied cognitive science.  Prior to my first talk, Arturo Pérez, who had stayed with my wife and I in Edmonton last year, working on an interesting robotics project in my lab, led me on a walking tour of the beautiful UDP neighborhood.  There are many striking buildings in the area, including UDP’s Casa Central:

One stop on the tour was particularly poignant, and provided perspective on our current troubles in the Alberta postsecondary sector.  Arturo took me into a fairly new building, UDP’s Biblioteca Central.  At first glance, as can be seen below, it looks like many a North American library: books on display on the main floor, and stacks of books visible as one looks up from the entrance:

A closer examination of the books on display in the black shelves in the lobby is more chilling.  They were all banned by Augusto Pinochet after his military coup overthrew the government of Salvador Allende in 1973.  Along a wall to the left of this display is a long line of black and white photographs:

Each photograph is a picture of Pinochet’s soldiers in the process of burning books; here is just one example of the many photographs on display:

The books being burned were deemed subversive, including leftist literature and any other material inconsistent with the junta’s political position, including newspapers and magazines.  Arturo told me, as an example, that the ban included classic work in psychology by Russian scholars like Vygotsky.  In addition to being burned, these books were removed from the shelves of libraries and book stores.  The book bans lasted throughout the Pinochet regime, and book burnings sporadically continued.  In 1987 the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pinochet government burned thousands of copies of a book by Nobel prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

As one comes to the end of this display, there is a particularly striking juxtaposition of images.  On the right is a colorful poster, America Despierta,, created by Patricia Israel and Alberto Pérez in 1972.  It is a colorful, stylized, political map of South America; it creates the shape of the continent using images related to its various countries.  For instance, Chile is in part depicted by its national flower (the copihue), miners, and one of its founders, Manuel Rodríguez.

Immediately to left of this poster is a photograph of it being burned in 1973:

The entire display of banned and burned books was profoundly sobering.  I was deeply moved, not in the least because of the display’s setting, surrounded by a huge number of books in a modern, thriving university library in central Santiago.  It was as if the books on the floors towering above me had risen from the ashes of those burned books on display below.

Of course, all of this made me reflect on my own experiences in Canada.  I have never encountered the violent oppression of ideas that was on display before me.  I was astonished at how much I took for granted my freedom to write, to read, and to think.

Surprisingly, though, I did not conclude that I should be content with my current situation in an Albertan postsecondary institution, because – as shown in those stark black and white photographs – things could be far worse than I could even imagine.  Instead, I realized that the tension between government policy and freedom to think is universal.  The current ‘push back’ that we are experiencing from the Alberta government seems (in comparison to Chilean history) fairly benign, in the sense that the only lever being used is financial.

However, it struck me that this is really a difference of degree, not of kind.  Restricting the opportunities of students to choose some programs of study relative to others (e.g. via preferential funding, reducing grants that lead to closed programs, creating institutes that explore some research domains and not others) reduces the freedom of our next generation to read, to think, and to choose, for themselves.

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