Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

September 11: Pluralizing History

As I indicated before, the paper is organized around the notion that the aftermath of September 11, 2001 has entailed a change in the nature of the American university, affecting its capacity to stand as an independent center for global thinking and research.

In my view, presenting September 11, 2001 as a rupture or radical change in the role of the U.S. university misrepresents the changing role of the university in this country. If we pluralize September 11, if we transport ourselves to another September 11 three decades earlier, we may get a different view of the changes taking place now. In Chile, September 11 also stands as a landmark. That day in 1973 there took place an attack from airplanes also against an emblematic building leading to many deaths, but this time the attack was against a presidential palace, el Palacio de la Moneda, with the support of the U.S. government. At that time, a president elected by constitutional means died battling in defense of his principles and his nation. Salvador Allende sought to redefine the course of Chilean history, including transforming not only the economy and social relations, but also the role of the universities as centers of learning and training of citizens for the nation.

One consequence of this dramatic rupture was the establishment in Chile of a monstrous dictatorship, supported by the government of the United States and many U.S. scholars. Through the extensive use of state violence and terror, the Pinochet regime treated the opposition to its regime as a cancer that had to be violently removed from the social body, killing several thousand people. With the support of experts from the University of Chicago, it established a new economic model of development that has come to be hegemonic in the rest of Latin America and the world: the dismantling of the protectionist state and the development of a free market in financial flows, capital, goods and services, but of course not of labor, which remained confined to the domestic economy and the heavily repressed civil society. The Chilean dictatorship, like other dictatorships and repressive regimes in Latin America, redefined the universities, expelling or killing scholars and students, transforming research agendas, and leading to a massive exodus of professors and students to other countries.

At the global level, the generalization of a neoliberal framework has led to widening gap between the rich and the poor not only within, but alsoPage  116 between nations. After World War II, through decolonizing struggles and modernizing programs, many countries of the so-called Third World sought to develop their economies, diversify their productive structures, and promote educational institutions. As the Gubelkian report has shown, throughout the nineteenth century most academic knowledge was produced by five countries: France, England, Germany, the United States, and Italy. The push towards modernization after World War II included efforts to develop strong national universities in nations previously colonized by these countries.

September 11, 1973 marked a shift in global patterns of economic and intellectual production. The emerging international order resulting from neoliberal globalization has concentrated academic power in Western centers and weakened the universities and research centers of the South. From World War II to the early 1970s there were many flourishing centers of research and education in the South; after 1973, many of these centers have been weakened or dismantled.

Of course, other factors played into this change. 1973 was also the year of the oil shock, when a group of primary product exporters sought to change the terms of international trade by increasing the price of their basic export product. In a perverse historical twist, petrodollars ignited not national development in these countries, but a massive reorganization of the world economy, the concentration of economic power in flexible transnational corporations, and the creation of a massive debt structure that has trapped vast financial resources of both oil exporting and oil consuming nations from the South. This burden continues to affect most nations of the South. The recent crisis in Argentina illustrates a general situation. A country previously known for the excellence of its universities, Argentina has faced an intense erosion of its system of higher education. As in other nations from the South, its libraries have cut down subscriptions. Professors have been fired or have had to take several jobs outside academia in order to survive; thousands have left the country. Money for research has been drastically reduced. In most countries from the South, programs and institutions to promote local development of technology, such as the CONACIT in Mexico and the CONICIT in Venezuela, have been dismantled or significantly reoriented towards less ambitious goals.

More than ever before, the production of knowledge—from basic research in the hard sciences, to technological transformation in professional disciplines,Page  117 to advances in the social sciences and the humanities—is concentrated in metropolitan centers. I have read recently somewhere that over ninety percent of global basic and technological research is now being carried out in the United States. That much of this knowledge is produced by diasporic intellectuals coming from the South, that their presence often enriches the work and expands the agendas of these universities, confirms the centrality of metropolitan universities as global centers of learning and research. In the new international division of academic knowledge, metropolitan centers appear increasingly as producers of knowledge and universities in the South as consumers. Even when universities in the South manage to produce innovative knowledge, whether in the hard sciences, the social sciences, or the humanities, it is typically the case that this knowledge is marginalized or is defined as "local" knowledge; regardless of its intrinsic merits, it seldom becomes part of the canon, and to do so it must circulate in English and be legitimated by metropolitan centers.