Posted by Sebastian Castaneda on Feb 13, 2009 Leave a comment

The problem of Colombia’s intellectuals

There was outrage among some circles after
Uribe’s denunciation of a FARC’s “intellectual block” disorienting Colombians
with a dishonest peace discourse. These comments naturally caused indignation
not only for the nature of the accusations and the implications for the lives
of the members of such group, but also for its ambiguity. Much of the aftermath
focused on calling the president to explicitly express who he was referring to.
However, a question emerges, even if there is an intellectual block, is there a
problem with a public debate among different currents of thought?

The self-proclaimed intellectual group
“Colombians for Peace”, at the forefront of the recent hostages released by the
FARC is probably the block Uribe alluded to. This group started with a few
politicians, writers, journalists, and human rights workers; there are now over
100,000 adherents. Their aim was to launch a public dialogue with the FARC in
order to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, promoting a humanitarian
exchange as the first step. They have been successful, partly because of their
independence. This is corroborated by recent remarks calling
on the FARC to stop kidnappings
and demanding the explanation of the massacres
committed on the Awá. However, the government appears to fear the challenge
posed to their monopoly of the “truth” that is easily transmitted amid a
mis-educated population.

The root of this mis-education lies, obviously, in the school system.

Colombian secondary education hampers the
capacity for critical thinking and limits the acquisition of intellectual tools
for analyzing economic and political issues that are of paramount importance in
any society. The school system is based on memorizing facts in order to recite
back in examinations. Essays and class debates are a novelty. Basic economic
principles and political systems are hardly ever taught.

Therefore, many
Colombians are oblivious to the fact that politics is about who gets what, when
and how, while economics is about devising the best system to distribute scarce
resources. If more people were to acquire this basic knowledge major changes on
how the government operates and the policies pursued could be expected to

Teaching politics and economics is not an
absurd idea for secondary school students in many countries in Europe.
History classes for example, are no longer about memorizing dates,
but about understanding the origin and
consequences of historic events. Teenagers are also taught about the
different forms of ruling and the differences between the ‘left’ and
the ‘right’ together with the implications for different sectors of

The FARC have tainted the Marxist-Leninist
ideology. However, this neither means that people utilizing this ideology are
members of the FARC nor that this ideology’s criticism to dogmatic capitalism has become
irrelevant. In the contrary, their theses are more relevant now than ever since they vastly explain the structural problems that led to the
current financial crisis. A case in point is the sales boost that Karl Marx ‘Das Kapital’ has received in Germany with the financial crisis.

Independently of different ideologies’
validity there is a lot to gain if opposing currents of thought can be debated
without being stigmatized. Perhaps then Colombians would acquire a deeper understanding
of the ideological forces that are fuelling this conflict. In a pluralist
society open dialogue ought to be encouraged instead of being openly condemned.
We need a society where “war” of ideas supplants conventional wars.

Author Sebastian Castaneda is Colombian studies psychology and political economy at the University of Hong Kong