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La Educación
Número: (118) II
Año: 1994

Analysis and Implications

The term “cultural politics” has gained currency over the last decade in large part because the phrase highlights the relationship between culture and ideology and the political system (Tierney 1993). From this perspective, overarching definitions of terms such as “knowledge” or “power” are rejected in favor of particularistic analyses that emphasize cultural production based on social and historical forces that are both constructed and inherited. Culture operates within a political terrain that constrains and inhibits action, but at the same time, individuals and constituencies are able to create change. Individuals are both objects and subjects in the organization’s culture. I have offered a cultural framework that is useful in determining how an organization’s participants view different aspects of the culture. What remains to be done, however, is to use this framework in a manner to create dynamic change. In Panama, Juana Camargo and Virginia Miranda (1992) have analyzed the entire educational system and have suggested areas that demand change pertaining to what I have called cultural politics. Candanedo, González, and Avila (1991) have located specific practices that need to be initiated in order to enhance institutional autonomy in Panama. De León and Chang de Méndez have considered what needs to occur to improve academic conditions in the university (1992). On a more general scale, Cornel West has argued that three challenges confront proponents of cultural politics: intellectual, existential, and political (1990, 94). I will use these points to analyze the findings pertaining to the University of Panama’s culture.

The Intellectual Challenge

The changes begun with the reopening of UP after Torrijos came to power offer an initial portrait of the intellectual struggle over cultural politics. European or North American forms of organizational life were rejected in favor of a Latin American concept—massification. Yet this initial movement toward self-definition of what constitutes Panamanian public higher education has not moved beyond the first step, but it must (Camargo 1991).

Olmedo Garcia has effectively argued that foreign intervention in the University has not moved intellectual activity toward culturally specific actions in concert with Panamanian ideals but instead it has moved UP in the opposite direction—toward the homogenization of teaching, research, and service. Garcia labels loans from the World Bank or agreements on technical assistance as examples of “sociological espionage” (1989, 20) insofar as such activities provide massive ideological influences on the nature of activity at the University. To be sure, neither all loans nor all offers of technical assistance are examples of conscious attempts at “espionage.” Yet in the absence of clear mission statements that have direct linkages with the daily activities of an institution, the logic of Garcia’s idea takes on credence.

In this light Garcia’s argument is an extension of Ortega y Gassett’s call for an institution’s participants to come to terms with the mission of their institution so that activities can be defined and acted on that are in support of the organization’s culture. The organizational participants at the University of Panama have neither actively redefined the environment nor the constituencies for 25 years. The curriculum and its transmission remain locked in European modes of thought. Research in general is absent, and research within the University that struggles to articulate Panamanian concepts or needs is rare. The intellectual challenge, then, revolves on the ability of individuals to define specific cultural practices that relate to each of the cultural themes discussed.

The Existential Challenge

West helps define this challenge with a question: “How does one acquire the resources to survive and the cultural capital to thrive” (1990, 106). “Cultural capital” refers to those critical and social practices that enable individuals to succeed in the larger world order. Thus, how does an institution acquire fiscal and cultural resources that enable independent thought and action and do not necessitate an over reliance on the whims of governments or foundations. Such a question is a structural concern that demands the creation of unique forms of leadership, decision making, and strategy.

A variety of possible responses exists. One answer is to suggest that increased levels of training will raise the quality of the institution. In this light, for example, more professors who hold doctorates will change the institution. Although one cannot deny that to undertake research, institutions need individuals with technical and intellectual skills, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that advanced training is an end in itself. Indeed, such training is one form of cultural imperialism that Garcia warns against. Merely to mirror the status quo does not move an institution closer to concerted action around institutional purpose.

A second possible solution is xenophobic in nature and suggests that the academic institution should be insular, self-contained and sever ties with its environment to the extent possible. Relations with other institutions are cut to a minimum. Intellectual interchange is seen as unimportant and little effort is made to understand the needs of the constituencies. The problem with this response is twofold. First, such a suggestion is antithetical for an institution whose central organizing concept is that it must be a public space where ideas are to be debated and argued. Second, as West notes, “If it becomes a permanent option it is self-defeating in that it usually reinforces the very inferiority complexes promoted by the racist mainstream. Hence, it tends to revel in parochialism” (1990, 108). The strength of this approach is that it encourages independent thinking; but, ultimately, for academic thought to be sustained and advanced, the community’s members need dialogue.

I suggest a third alternative. As long as an institution has a clearly thought out mission that gets articulated throughout the institution’s components then the concerns of hegemonic thought or involvement with outside constituencies are capable of being understood for what they are and of being used according to the needs of the institution. That is, in a curious sense, to develop institutional autonomy, the University of Panama needs to develop short-and long-range plans that offer new funding mechanisms, more involvement with outside financial agencies, and new formulations of how they work with their environment and who their constituencies are. This suggestion follows the comment of the individual above who argued that the institution’s problems were “cultural and not fiscal.” Autonomy is not simply a fiscal relationship determining who gives an institution funding and who does not. Institutional autonomy, and in this case specific cultural practices, precedes fiscal decisions. To be sure, funding, structures and decision making play a central role in how an institution is to present itself publicly and to one another; the argument here, however, is that essentially these concepts are intimately tied to the underlying ideology of institutional life.

The Political Challenge

Responses to the intellectual and existential topics enable an organization’s participants to deal with the political challenge. This theme pertains not only with how to interact with external forums such as governmental agencies, but also is action-driven and goal-oriented with regard to all institutional activities. If the intellectual challenge is philosophical and the existential challenge is strategic, the political challenge is where cultural themes get articulated and enacted.

It would be ironic, not to say mistaken, to outline specific actions that an institution such as the University of Panama should take, for the basic premise of cultural action is that the organization’s members need to come together to decide those actions. To impose ideas from the outside, especially by way of a North American researcher, would only retard collective thought and concerted action on the part of the organization’s members. Instead, I return briefly to each cultural theme and ask a series of questions specific to the University of Panama that might provoke dialogue.

Mission and Ideology
  • How is the mission unique to Panamanian culture?
  • How does it enable the participants to define themselves differently from other postsecondary institutions in Panama, the region, and world?
  • How does the mission foment culturally specific action in all arenas, and especially in teaching, research, and extension?
Knowledge and Power
  • How is knowledge linked to power?
  • How does knowledge get transmitted to students in a manner that accentuates Panamanian culture?
  • How is research undertaken that foments praxis and advances Panamanian thought?
Communication and Language
  • What culturally specific forms of communication need to be created that enable dialogue?
  • Whose voices are silenced in academic decision making?
  • What are the symbols and discursive strategies that UP uses to convey its message to external constituencies and how might they be changed?
Leadership and Strategy
  • How might a form of Panamanian intellectual leadership be enacted that foments action?
  • What strategies need to be developed that link the intellectual and existential challenges with the political challenge?
  • What basic changes must be done to the organization’s structure to encourage, rather than retard, culturally specific dialogue and debate?
Environment and Constituencies
  • How might a more interpretive analysis and relationship be developed with one’s environment?
  • How might the institution’s participants redefine their constituencies in light of the needs of the 21st century?
  • What does the University need to do to create explicit linkages between the needs of the local citizenry and the capabilities of the institution?
These questions are interrelated and action-oriented. A mission that takes into account the needs of the Panamanian citizenry will of necessity redirect how individuals think about knowledge production, teaching, and pedagogy. A reanalysis of constituencies could conceivably create dialogues about the need for doctorates in particular areas. A reassessment of the organization’s structure might induce a movement away from the overt politicization of decisions and toward different forms of communication. My point is neither to set the terms of the debate nor to advocate for particular responses; I am attempting to highlight how an interpretive analysis of an organization’s culture might be used to construct dialogue and action.