Agustín Squella: the cursed intellectual

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The argument about knowledge is a public one, as Agustín Squella well knows. He has been a university professor since 1970, but for over 25 years the National Humanities and Social Sciences Prize-winner has ben writing newspaper columns with an important media presence, taking on the role of intellectual provocateur and “stone in the shoe”. What’s his aim? To strengthen public debate in a society in which this concept seems to be increasingly restricted.

By Jennifer Abate

“Thank you, but no thank you” was Agustín Squella’s answer when at the beginning of the year President Sebastián Piñera named him Attorney to the Court of Appeals of Valparaíso. It’s the same answer that this lawyer, journalist, Doctor in Law and National Humanities and Social Sciences Prize-winner gives every time that he feels that the “modernisation” of academic life is asking him to adhere to a logic of indicators, index-linked publications or other scales of measurement. “Thanks, but no thank you”.

With a recently published book Democracia ¿Crisis, decadencia o colapso? (“Democracy: Crisis, Decadence or Collapse?”, Editorial Universidad de Valparaíso, 2019), Squella characteristically doesn’t mince his words in an interview in which he criticises what he sees as a lack of public debate in a country in which, in his opinion, people seem to be increasingly losing “the will to listen to each other, to give or even to pay attention to reasons”.

Most of us, almost by default, think of scientific knowledge when we hear the phrase “knowledge”, instead of also thinking, for example, of intellectual production linked to humanities. Why do you think that is?

Maybe it’s because advances in scientific knowledge, and their technological application, are more frequent, faster, more visible and seem to have a more direct impact on people’s lives and expectations. Look at what happens with the pages that the press devotes to science and technology: almost every day there’s something surprising and even moving, whether it’s in the realm of physics, biology, anthropology, astronomy or neuroscience. These latter subjects, for example, produce as much fascination as consternation in the reader. It’s quite striking how this information is so much more present and frequently discussed in the media than religious commentary, which used to be much more widely debated in the newspapers, on television and the radio.

Are humanities undervalued in our society?

They have been for a long time, among other reasons because there’s not even consensus about what we call the “humanities”. Within that frame there are a variety of differences in the objectives of study, their methods, in whether they pretend to present themselves as scientific or not and assume that title. For knowledge to be classified as scientific it has to function on the basis of the concept of “science”, and even in this field not everything is plain sailing. But knowledge doesn’t have to be scientific in order to be important. For example the knowledge lawyers have, what is called “legal science”, is also called “legal dogma”. It’s a very ancient knowledge and socially extremely important, but it is hardly what you would call scientific.

What value does intellectual reflection that comes from humanities have at a moment of institutional crisis like the one our country is undergoing at the moment, in a situation in which the credibility of institutions such at the Congress, the law enforcement agencies and the church is diminished?

It is important, without a doubt, because in order to avoid crisis in our institutions, in order to correct them and to judge what they should be like at a given moment, is precisely to know them well, or rather, to know how to identify and differentiate between them – which is currently not at all easy. When the previous government began a constituent process which could have led us for the first time Chile’s history to a Constitution that was democratic in both its origins and its content –a process that is unfortunately currently interrupted– more than 70% of Chileans at the time, according to reliable polling, declared that they had no idea what a Constitution was. How much do we really know what the national Congress, the regional governments, or the communal administrations do? And if we don’t really know, how can we ensure that they’re doing what they should be doing and, above all, that they’re doing it in a transparent and fair way?

Crédito: Alejandra Fuenzalida

As a columnist and opinion-piece writer you are actively engaged with a variety of different events. Why do you do that? What’s the worth, in your opinion, of people such as yourself, who come from the academic or intellectual sphere, of participating in public debates? And what is the value of public reflection?

If you don’t mind, I’d rather qualify myself as a “damned intellectual”. Do you know why? Because calling oneself an “intellectual” suggests a pretension to what one calls intelligence, when we know that “intellectual” and “intelligence” are by no means synonymous. Not every intellectual is necessary intelligent. There’s an eloquent example that illustrates this: one week before the 11th September 1973 a well-known intellectual from Valparaíso gave a conference with the following title: “10 reasons why there won’t be a military coup in Chile”. An intellectual is someone who reads, thinks, writes and generally teaches in some sort of a higher education institution, participating regularly in public debates, thinking about subjects that sometimes go beyond their field of expertise, all in order to exercise some sort of influence over public opinion and over those who take collective decisions, such as governments, parliaments, judges, administrative authorities and others. That is what an intellectual does.

What do you concentrate on when you write your columns?

Working as a columnist has been very important for transmitting certain ideas, feelings, experiences, interests, and above all, it has helped me write with a greater freedom. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t been obliged to write about political events. I do sometimes, it’s true, from my left-wing perspective, but I also write about novels, films, sensations I’ve had in a bar or at the horse races, and even what I’ve felt watching the cinnamon tree growing in my little garden. To be honest, more right-leaning friends of mine always say that they prefer my columns that talk about anything other than politics, while my more left-wing friends scold me every time I publish a column that isn’t about politics, and ask me how I can waste the opportunity of writing in El Mercurio on cinnamon tree or the races.

Does this position in the public space help generate a dialogue?

In Chile we need more conversation, a word I prefer to “dialogue” because the latter comes with a whiff of the sanctimonious. A conversation supposes a meeting between people who want to speak in the public space, who are willing to listen to each other and also to allow that another opinion is correct, to try to convince others but be open to letting themselves be persuaded by others. For this the cultivating, the teaching and the dissemination of the humanities and its accompanying virtues of tolerance is vital. Not tolerance as a passive but resentful resignation when faced with different opinions or ways of doing things, but rather as a conscious openness towards that which we are being presented with.

What do you think of the discussions that have arisen thanks to the Ministry of Education’s proposals for changing the curriculum of high school students? The plan of making History teaching voluntary but Philosophy obligatory. What do you think of these changes, which seem to be depend on how the different disciplines are valued at different moments.

We give too much importance to what is being taught (the material, the subjects) and how something is taught (the pedagogy), and not enough to why something is being taught. The question of the objectives tends to be dealt with in a few grandiose statements included at the beginning of educational projects or statutes of educational establishments, but in fact education seems have been reduced to training, or rather, to a sort of warm-up for the working world, functioning according to the necessity of the market of professions and trades. Educational establishments of all levels, whose staff and teachers tend to criticise students who only study to get good grades, have also started to work entirely focused on the national or international aptitude tests or for the index rankings that are elaborated from the results of those tests. Things should be measured, that’s fine, but these tests shouldn’t be the undeclared “be-all and end-all” of educational establishments. It’s fine that they should try to win prestige, but it often seems that they’re chasing something rather more prosaic: an image.

A lot of importance is also given to what happens in educational establishments, in classrooms, while forgetting that we’re also educated at home, by the families we belong to, by the street, during our leisure time, in the football stadiums, in the cinemas. History and Philosophy should be part of the high school curriculum, either because they’re obligatory subjects or because the schools have decided to include them. History teaches us to think and philosophy does what Jorge Millas says: it puts intelligence under pressure to think to the limits of our possibilities and to somehow escape the intellectual bottleneck of, for example the complacency of the obvious, the partisan or gregarious spirit, and sceptical laziness and conformism, whether it’s revolutionary or reactionary.

Do you think that the public universities are currently able to provide what is required of them in terms of public debate around different subjects?

What does “public universities” mean? They all declare that that’s what they are because they fulfil an important public function, but funeral directors fulfil an important public function as well and they wouldn’t think of presenting themselves as public organisations with the right to receive public funds. Many of our private universities declare themselves to be public only so that they can take their place in the queue to receive public funding, but they’re profoundly private in terms of their professions of faith, in their management, in the contracting and management of their teaching and administrative workforce, in the direct or indirect profiting of their shareholders, and so on.

Thinking only of the state run universities –which aren’t the only public ones–, what is certain is that, today but also yesterday, it is impossible to evaluate them without bearing in mind the fact that the legislation for university education in the 80s, just like that for public policies that was implemented in education by the dictatorship, was looking for an underhand way (obvious, actually, to anyone who was looking) to substitute this type of institution with the private offer, in the logic that the satisfaction of fundamental human rights –medical treatment, education, a fair and well-timed retirement provision– should be transformed into new business opportunities for private investors whose main objective is, of course, always the same: maximising their own profits.

What is your position in the discussion that has emerged in certain circles of the “consecration” of academic papers as the most valid form of producing knowledge?

These days, academics don’t have “works” or fulfilment. What they have is “productivity” because neoliberal common sense has imposed the economic hegemony over any other kind of knowledge. It will soon take over politics as well, imposing the categories of analysis and its own language of economy in fields that are not economic or not exclusively economic. At what moment did we consent to talking about “cultural capital” in terms of the educational level people reach? When did “social capital” come to define our relationships with each other? When did the working parents of our children become “human resources”? When did citizens who vote for a particular candidate become “political capital”? Academics in universities these days spend hours of their working day churning out academic papers that give them points to show to their superiors or to external scientific organisations. They spend even more time calculating and gathering the quota of points that they have to reach every semester as part of their teaching and research work. Academic accounting, that’s what it should be called. Although it’s also true that inside university walls there’s usually some “free spirit” who thinks that they’re only there to stew eternally in their own thoughts and that no one has the right to control them or ask that they prove they’re doing anything useful for their students or for society. A certain amount of leisure is part of academic life, but you can’t confuse leisure with laziness.

Do you think that certain indicators to evaluate academic work are abused?

There’s a fad at the moment: to try to measure everything, and, what’s worse, with one standard. Even happiness is being measured these days. Chile is at about 23rd in the world in terms of happiness. Have you ever seen anything so dumb? There are also “baskets of happiness” – another imbecility. All I can say is that in my case give me half a day at the horse races a week and that Santiago Wanderers of Valparaíso are in the first division. There are politicians talking about the right to happiness, which is another idiotic idea. The right to search for happiness, yes, but the right to happiness itself? Compare that to the fact that there’s no right to good health, or to being always healthy, but rather a right to a certain amount of healthcare, both preventative and curative. If there were a right to health and happiness anyone who caught the flu or who’d had a tough time at home could install themself with a placard in front of the Moneda Palace or the Congress in Valparaíso. Some countries, already surely showing signs of madness, have created Ministries of Happiness. Would any of us trust our happiness to a minister? God forbid!

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