By Christopher Burke
18 April 2012. Bogotá, Colombia. The Jesuits, with their great store of knowledge, arrived in Colombia in 1589. Good lord, what a long time ago. I live on Carrera 5 and Calle 34 in Bogotá, and the Jesuits arrived at my doorstep a mere blink of an eye ago within that time framework, in 1941. My apartment building sits directly opposite the Colegio de San Bartolomé de la Merced, built by the Jesuits in 1941. I walk up the hill from Carrera Septima with my groceries daily and I love the welcome home with which the Colegio de San Bartolomé greets me. I love the building even more lit up as it is at night. It beckons me home with its art deco-like structure, no less than an anchored ocean liner arrived in safe harbor. During the months of December and January, this anchor of San Bartolomé de la Merced is colored in the festive lights of the season, a greeting of no less than heaven established on earth. And not even partially because of this, I love where I live. I love this Bogotá.
In la Soledad and Teusaquillo, nearby neighborhoods, I still see religious men in dark tunics walking their routes between church and residence, day and evening, on everyday streets oblivious to the rumba of Chapinero or Santa Fe to their north or south. Rumba and diversion, Colombia does very well! (Cartagena in recent news, point of fact.) But convents sit truly discrete in many areas of central Bogotá. For those attentive to demographics, it can sometimes appear that there is still a convent on every central city block of Bogotá. Or put another way, religion runs deep here in Colombia. Well, the Jesuits planned it that way. The idea was always for a particular religious bent to a society that was being established far from Europe. Of course the Jesuits didn’t do it alone. The first university in the country here was opened by Dominicans.
No matter who came first, or however the concept of education became ingrained, learning took hold in Colombia unlike anywhere else in the Americas. There are 39 universities in Bogotá alone. Washington D.C. lists 26. Antioquía, the Department in which the city of Medellín calls home, counts 43. And that’s just the start of it. Bogotá itself is home to approximately 113 institutions of higher learning. Impressive numbers, but what do they mean?
Well, on a very fundamental level, they mean that learning, and the establishment of institutions of learning, is no guarantee of a nation’s international educational cache (or prestige, Cartagena’s brothel image underlined by Americans, a very recent example). Colombia has not established itself on the map of higher knowledge as a beacon. And institutions abroad still beckon as opportunities to Colombians foreign-learning-focused in huge numbers. On another level, the number of educational institutions in Colombia means that ideas have a prominent position in the culture here. Hours can be spent at a coffee shop table discussing nuances of concept. Perhaps connected to this is the fact that Colombia is the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America. Freedom of the press is ingrained. At a cigarrería over an Aquila beer or two in the evening, questioning of basic rights and responsibilities becomes ingrained. Self-criticism, a rich cultural trait, is established. And on a more mundane level, this means that the city of Bogotá is home to a huge student population. This is a city of youth. In certain areas of the city of Bogotá, the streets team with youthful energy in constant motion, something like an ongoing freshman Cancún, 24/7, year round.
Move over Centre Pompidou, Beaubourg, Paris. The Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango in la Candelaria of Bogotá vies with you as the largest and most utilized public use library/cultural center in the world. The Casa Poesia de Silva, again in la Candelaria, situated in a calm colonial building, beckons as a center of poetry. Bogotá challenges the world for inclusion in literature large. Our institutions may not call aggressively, but they call consistent in historical context, and they call constant in everyday relevance.
In the Department of Cesar in Colombia, a system called the Biblioburro book distribution took hold. Two donkeys were used to transport books to children who might otherwise have been neglected. Learning was deemed essential, and thus became essential. Shakira, our national hero in terms of reinvestment in our community of human potential, just this month sang the national anthem of Colombia at an international convocation in Cartagena (the same Cartagena of the Obama security detail scandal.) Leaders from the Americas, Obama and Santos included, were present as Shakira reiterated her and Colombia’s commitment to the enhancement of the distribution of resources worldwide. Learning has made Colombia. And just perhaps this learning gave the escort in the Cartagena scandal the right to demand her negotiated payment, and gave the Colombian police the empowerment to back her up. Learning has brought us to where we are. And learning takes us forward. Learning is our future. We celebrate the 337 institutes of higher learning that we are in Colombia today.
The Secret Service detail assigned to President Obama obviously did not understand the basic precept of Colombia. They thought otherwise. We might say it quietly, or we might not say it at all. But when we say it, what we say is that we have knowledge. We have learning, and therefore we are. And Colombia with this learning presumes to influence. And with this learning, Colombia presumes to influence the world about. And, with this learning, Colombia presumes to make its mark on the world at large.
Christopher Burke is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia.