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Mark Schmidt

Mark graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2012 with an International Economics major. Originally from Wheaton, Illinois, he spent the fall 2010 semester in Santiago, Chile, where he wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network.

Mark Schmidt on Poverty, Politics, and the Chilean Catholic Church

October 6, 2010 | 1 COMMENT

Latin America is a land of striking contrasts, and Santiago de Chile is no exception. Despite three decades of almost uninterrupted economic growth, Chile remains one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. The wealthiest 10% of Chileans earn 42% of the country’s output, making Chile as unequal as Nicaragua, and only slightly less stratified than either Brazil or Bolivia. This result is actually an improvement over the situation in 1990, when the newly elected, newly democratic government of Patricio Aylwin faced a poverty rate of nearly 38.2%. Today, that rate has fallen to 15.6%, but as the fortunes of the poor have risen, so too have the incomes of the rich, meaning that the income gap has not diminished so much as it has shifted. Moreover, in the past four years the population in poverty grew by 10.4%, and the population in extreme poverty, 15.6%.

Income inequality is certainly not new. It is a tragic byproduct of Spanish colonial policies specifically, and colonial society more generally, that will not go away. Rather, what makes the present moment in the poverty debate noteworthy is the Chilean elite’s shifting – and increasingly secular – response to the debate. The Chilean Catholic Church has always promoted class solidarity and social justice – particularly amongst the wealthy elite. Although the elite’s response varied substantially in different places at different times, the Catholic Church inspired a genuine concern for the poor amongst the elite that, in turn, sparked political movements such as the Christian Democrats in the 1950s and 60s, who sought gradual economic reforms to make Chile a more just society.

After the 1973 coup d’état, the Church’s social justice message, and the campaign of moderate groups such as the Christian Democrats, took a back seat to Augusto Pinochet’s conservative regime. Nevertheless, even Pinochet continued the longstanding political practice of legitimizing decisions by seeking Church guidance, even as the Church organized the Vicariate of Solidarity to document human rights abuses committed by the same military regime.

In light of this history, I came to Chile expecting to find a profoundly Catholic country – and indeed the country appears universally Catholic at first glance. Bishops and church representatives interject in political debates on a regular basis, often serving as formal or informal mediators in the most sensitive issues. Catholic imagery is inescapable – the principal hill in Santiago is topped with a monumental statue of the Virgin Mary, which on a clear day can be seen throughout the city. The country’s top-ranked university (which happens to be my host university), the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, runs one of the country’s leading television networks and the capital’s leading health system. In social issues, too, the Catholic Church appears unquestioned. Divorce was only legalized in 2004, and abortion remains illegal in all cases. The possibility of gay marriage, or even civil unions, is hardly considered.

Yet although the Catholic Church, as an institution, is omnipresent in Chile, the faith is much harder to find. 70% of Chileans may self-identify as Catholic, but only a fraction go to mass. Nowhere is this spiritual disconnect more apparent than in the youth: according to the most recent national census, 73% of Chilean youth do not identify with any religion in particular, and half the country’s 931,000 atheists and agnostics are aged 15-29. (In my own experience, I am regularly the only young adult at Sunday mass, and the very fact that I attended weekly mass led my host mother to conclude that I was planning on becoming a priest.)

It’s difficult to pinpoint exact reasons for the rapid secularization of Chilean society. Public opinion data on many issues, such as those cited above, is only available since 1990 onwards, as the military suppressed most opinion polls during the Pinochet era. Thus it is entirely plausible that Chilean society had been gradually secularizing, but that this process had been hidden – or suppressed – by the 1973-89 dictatorship.

Regardless of its exact origins, secularism, combined with the country’s breakneck economic growth, has made Chilean society markedly more individualistic and materialistic. Stability and economic growth has fostered a heady confidence in individuals and markets: greed is good. The current center-right President, Sebastian Piñera, a Harvard trained economist and billionaire businessman, speaks far more often about markets than religion.

In terms of social justice, efficiency is the buzzword surrounding all welfare programs. While efficiency is an admirable goal for any government spending program, welfare included, it is often invoked by anyone suspicious of government welfare programs in general. Despite years of successful social spending programs, the conservative national daily El Mercurio still laments that “vast sums” are being spent on helping the poor to little effect. The recent rise in the poverty rate, far from illustrating the need for increased, or at least sustained, funding to educational and training opportunities for the poor, led El Mercurio to infer that all welfare spending was for naught.

In this new, secularized welfare debate, the Church has become increasingly marginalized. Religion does not, in general, mesh with econometric analysis of welfare expenditures, or with ambiguous political discussions of “inefficiency” lacking in empirical evidence.

Yet among the youth, the greatest threat that the Catholic Church faces is apathy. As the younger generations mature and become breadwinners, it remains an open question whether or not they will return to the faith. If they do not, the Church’s political influence will surely decline, along with the power of its social justice message. Yet if this happens, the Chilean poor will lose a strong advocate without a clear replacement, for government is increasingly viewed with ambivalence at best, or suspicion at worst, and the post-dictatorship youth is almost totally apolitical.

Yet with politics a non-starter, and religion irrelevant, how will my Chilean contemporaries reflect on social justice? Not only is Chilean society unequal, it is also geographically stratified and segregated, meaning that the rich literally have no reason to visit, or even travel through, poor neighborhoods. And the highly stratified educational system, far from being an engine of meritocracy, furthers existing class divisions: at the Pontifical Catholic University, for instance, 71% of students come from the richest 20% of families, and nearly all students come from private schools. Will social justice give way to ‘out of sight, out of mind?’

Of course, this is not to say that the elite is selfish or inherently self serving, or that the only institutions which exist to serve the poor are Catholic or generally religious. Both claims are patently false. Rather, the point I am trying to make is that social justice requires community awareness. Those who are privileged – whether they hail from Georgetown or Santiago – need to be reminded of as much. To this end, the Pontifical Catholic University continues a tremendous effort to foster solidarity and volunteerism amongst its students. Moreover, the country has a number of secular institutions which serve the poor and less fortunate – from Un Techo Para Chile, the local equivalent of Habitat for Humanity, to the annual 24 hour Teletón which is broadcast throughout the country. However, these institutions pale in comparison to the power and influence of the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, it’s necessary to note that a decline in church attendance does not equate to an equal and instant reduction in church influence – although in the long run, the two trends are almost certainly linked. Even though Chileans may not be religious, for instance, they may still remain spiritual, and such spirituality could keep people receptive to what the Church has to say. But again, the sheer lack of religious activity amongst the youth calls into question this more optimistic outlook. Finally, there is a possibility that Protestant Groups will gain in influence and promote the same social justice mission. But despite centuries of presence, Protestants in Chile remain a distinct minority.

Thus the question remains: if the Church, arguably the most powerful and forceful advocate for the poor, declines in influence, what institution will fill the void? What institution will remind the elite that although much has been accomplished in reducing inequality, more must be done? And, more importantly, how will the next generations of the Chilean elite relate to the political and social justice campaigns of their parents and grandparents – campaigns that have been heavily imbued with Catholic teachings, teachings that strike no chord with the youth?

The outlook for social justice in Chile is neither positive nor negative, however, it is uncertain.

COMMENT FROM MARK SCHMIDT - NOVEMBER 12, 2010

Shortly after completing my first essay, a group of students at La Catolica ran for student government on a "Solidarity" ticket. Their platform emphasized the need for greater diversity and need-based scholarships. Despite being exceptionally well-funded and well-organized, "Solidarity" lost in the first round of voting. As of November 12, the winner of the run-off appeared to be a ticket entitled "1A," whose platform promised larger computer labs and better school services, and in general downplayed broader questions of inclusiveness or diversity.

Mark Schmidt on the Value of the Liberal Arts: Examining the Chilean University System

November 15, 2010 | 2 COMMENTS

Almost all American foreign exchange students experience some form of academic shock once classes begin at La Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile. At once the system appears foreign and familiar: we’re studying the same subjects, but in an entirely different manner. Something seems distinctive, and the language of instruction usually has nothing to do with it. Only gradually, after having to ask the professor to explain concepts Chilean students find basic or self-evident, after our classmates put our own knowledge of “"the field"” to shame, does the difference become clear: we’re not in a liberal arts institution anymore.

The Chilean academic system did not begin with the Universidad Catolica, but rather with the Universidad de Chile, incorporated in 1843 (although its origins date back to the 1600s). Since its conception, the Universidad de Chile sought to advance the science and humanities - it was not founded as a seminary, as was the case for colonial universities in the United States. To advance this purpose, the Universidad de Chile was organized into distinct faculties, each of which offered "“careers”," or specific plans of study designed to train experts within a specific field. The Universidad Católica, founded several decades later, continued this trend, offering five to seven year careers leading to a “"license"” bestowing upon the candidate the formal credential required to practice within a given field. As it exists today, the Chilean system represents the diametric opposite of the American liberal arts model. Pupils are expected to pick their career at age 17, once they begin to study for the Prueba de Selección Universitaria, or PSU, the Chilean equivalent of the SAT. Although they usually sit for all sections of the test, students only prepare for those sections deemed most important by the particular faculties to which the students plan to apply. Students are not admitted to a particular university, but rather to a particular faculty and career track, and their training begins at day one. Students are immediately immersed into “"the field”," learning how to solve problems like experts. There is no period of general, broad based formation, during which time students can figure out what field interests them most. Although most faculties require students to take a certain number of courses outside their major (usually ten total, or one course per semester), there are no requirements to take these courses at the beginning of the student's field of study, meaning that students have no opportunity to explore various fields before intensely committing themselves to a particular discipline. What is the return on all this specialization? Students graduate with the equivalent of dual Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, and are instantly recognized as licensed professionals within their field. Given the rise of joint BA/MA programs in the United States, along with the decline of the core curriculum, is the Chilean system a sign of future changes in American higher education?

The answer is mixed. Chilean academic specialization looks far more appealing on paper than in practice. Chile'’s universities train highly specialized experts, but specialization often means memorization, and almost always comes at the cost of academic creativity. Worse yet, many students lack a basic understanding of economic, political science, and philosophical concepts that are directly related to their field, yet beyond the plan of studies. Hence I find myself talking to future business translators who know absolutely nothing of economics, or future political analysts with little understanding of political philosophy. Perhaps most disturbingly, the career system enables students to graduate as “"professionals"” without acquiring the basic research, writing, and critical thinking skills vital to any career. In one of my courses, an upper level geography elective, countless students who took the course as part of general formation stumbled when asked to write a research paper because they had never been asked to do so. Or as one third year student in the agronomy faculty said to me, "“The professor acts like we know how to write an essay, but I don’t know how! It’'s not in my malla (plan of studies)!"” Indeed, the greatest weakness of the Chilean system is not specialization per se, but rather the inflexibility of the plan of study. Students are told what classes to take and when to take them. Without opportunities to take electives to pursue an interest, or even to take certain classes out of order, the spirit of inquiry is nipped in the bud. And the emphasis on acquiring knowledge masks the fact that even the most established "“fields"” of knowledge change rapidly, and that in today’s economy where knowledge can be accessed via a single computer search, memory is far less important than analytical ability.

This lack of analytical skills is perhaps the single greatest failing of the Chilean system, since it inhibits not only cross-field synthesis, but also intra-field study. Here culture, in addition to structure, is to blame: Chilean society is hierarchical and stratified, and students are naturally inclined to memorize word-for-word what the professor says because it is the natural social reaction of a subordinate to a superior. Yet although Chilean students respect their professors to a greater (and healthier) degree than their American counterparts in the United States, excessive memorization renders students incapable of separating fact from theory. In my own experience in the Economics faculty, I have witnessed students argue with professors for half-hour stretches because the novel model presented in class does not mesh with the student’s previous understanding,– as if all economic models form a harmonious body of complete understanding, each with the same premises, methods, and conclusions. Unlike in the United States, students never argue with the professor because they believe the professor to be mistaken. To the contrary, my classmates argue with the professor because they are baffled that what has been presented in class does not match theories previously learned.

Although the Chilean system is not without its faults, in some respects it represents a highly cost-effective approach to education that may well be the future of American higher education, assuming that college costs continue to spiral out of control. For although the liberal arts teach us to think, the liberal arts are certainly not the most cost-effective way to land a high-paying career. Chilean universities train students to be employable in the short-run, even if the lack of analytical skills undoubtedly hampers them in the long-run. Even though it'’s easy to discount “"career focused"” education, it pays handsome dividends, particularly in a country where college is cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of young people and their families, even today. The liberal arts certainly have value, but at what price should they be pursued? Chile'’s specialized system was not born of financial necessity, yet financial necessity drives applicants into specific careers and away from American-inspired liberal studies programs (they do exist in Chile, albeit to a limited extent). And if we are not careful to contain college costs in the United States, the Chilean system of specialized education,– flaws and all,– may look more appealing after all.

COMMENT FROM BETHAN MCGARRY - DECEMBER 10, 2010

Mark draws attention to a really fascinating and prevalent difference in the way that higher education functions in the United States and the rest of the world. I am also studying in Chile this semester, but I have experience with the educational system in Ireland and the UK; there, too, a career path is chosen at an early age and pursued through to professionalism in most cases. The immediate question that this calls to mind is simply how do they know? I still find myself doubting my choice of an extremely broad major, that of Culture and Politics, and I had at least two extra years to make that choice.

Put in social context, however, it becomes much easier to see how Chileans and other global citizens decide which course of action they want to pursue, and unfortunately, at least in Chile, much of it seems to be eventual income. As Mark also addressed in his earlier letter, Chile is a country with harsh socio-economic realities and a very sharp contrast between rich and poor. I am taking several courses in theology and philosophy, and have heard classmates on many occassions lament how much they enjoy the subject because it destines them for careers as teachers, though "not in a liceo, ojala" (public school, God willing). When I asked my Chilean host brother why he wants to study law, his response was basically that lawyers make more money. These themes are of course also prevalent in United States higher education, but the nature of a liberal arts university means that many students get to at least experience what strengths they may have in other areas; I for one know that I still have much to learn about my abilities as a student in various fields.

I agree with Mark's astute observation that it often seems that students here in Chile acquire a knowledge base that lacks analytical prowess, and in many cases even the ability to pragmatically apply what they know to real-life situations.

COMMENT FROM FR. JAMES WALSH - March 20, 2011

“We're not in a liberal arts institution anymore.”

Mark’s typically astute insights can be set against the historical background of the development of the university in Europe. The university as institution aimed to offer training (after propaedeutic instruction in what were called Arts) in three professions, law, theology, and medicine. The university, historically, never aimed at liberal education: it was, as it were, a trade school. The Chilean university continues this millennium-long tradition.

The ideal of liberal education—developing the imagination, expanding the student’s horizons, cultivating the intellectual quality Aristotle called wonder, and so on—came from the humanistic Renaissance tradition of “litterae humaniores.”

These two educational trajectories came together in the Jesuit schools of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, as University Professor John W. O’Malley, S.J., has shown. And in America—well, as Fr. O’Malley wrote, “the universities of the United States ..., unlike their counterparts in Europe, did not begin as universities but as colleges, as humanistic schools, onto the top of which was fastened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only a number of professional schools such as law, business, medicine, and nursing but a Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.”

So it is no surprise that the Chilean university culture does what the university has always done: pre-professional training. That it strikes Mark as regrettably narrowing is a testament to the power and efficacy of that other, humanistic educational philosophy, which he has profited from and of which he himself could be the poster child.

Mark calls attention to the focus on memorization as the default mode of student academic activity. This has another context, and it is cultural rather than historical. The emphasis on developing habits of mind like questioning, intellectual playfulness or venturesomeness, wide-open conversation, and the like, is characteristic of the pedagogical tradition Georgetown represents and may, perhaps, be characteristically American. In Europe, students “give back” what the professor says. That is how the system works. This cultural difference is seen in the ambiguous or equivocal use of the word “teach” in Catholic Church documents. What Church authorities imagine in their teaching of Catholic beliefs is that the faithful will accept them the way students in Italy accept what the professor lays down, no questions asked. That is not our way. We’re not in Italy, Toto.

Mark Schmidt on Syncretism in Peru: La Hermandad del Señor de los Milagros

December 7, 2010

Paige Lovejoy'’s intelligent analysis was not my first encounter with the Señor de los Milagros, but it certainly made much more sense than my first meeting. La Hermandad del Señor de los Milagros, –the Brotherhood of Our Lord of Miracles,– is a staple of the Peruvian community and a fascinating example of syncretism - the fusion of indigenous beliefs with catholic dogma following the Conquista. Moreover, the Brotherhood currently flourishes amongst the Peruvian immigrant community in Chile – a community that receives, at best, curt tolerance from your average Chilean.

The Santiago chapter of the Brotherhood actually resides at my local parish in Santiago, Our Lady of Pompeii, a church specially dedicated to helping and welcoming immigrants. Although the Parish originally served the Italian community which immigrated to Chile during the nineteenth century, today the church serves an increasingly diverse group of Latin American immigrants, and especially Peruvians, who are drawn to the career prospects in Chile, South America’'s richest and most successful economy.

Last weekend, as I was walking back to my house near the city center, I was shocked to find one of downtown’'s busiest thoroughfares restricted to only one lane: what, I thought to myself, could possibly be going on? From a distance, given the jumble of car horns, police, traffic cones, and smoke, I surmised that yet another car crash had taken place at the intersection ahead. But then I smelled the smoke – sure enough, it was incense, drifting hundreds of feet down the street. After a few hundred yards of walking, carefully navigating through throngs of Peruvian migrants, I finally caught sight of the formal procession.

A giant gilt painting of the crucified Christ had been mounted on a resplendent chrome altar, which in turn was covered in ornate gold candles held up by silver cherubim. Flowers in glass vases covered every square inch of the altar, itself a cube of six feet wide. What'’s more, this enormous altar was slowly, haltingly carried on the shoulders of 10 Peruvian immigrant men in bright purple robes. In front of the altar, twenty women in similar garb burned incense from massive silver torches, so that fragrance wafted in a thick cloud over the entire procession. Behind the altar, dozens of trombones and drums played a solemn march as the women chanted prayers. Peruvian immigrants – praying or chatting, by themselves or with their children – followed behind, along with several preachers with portable speakers, so that the gospel could be heard over the constant hum of oncoming traffic – and the cacophony of angry car horns.

The anger and frustration visible on the faces of countless Chilean passersby elegantly summarized the relationship between the Peruvian and Chilean communities here. Much like the frustrated drivers honking even after they realized the religious nature of the procession, Chileans generally do not welcome Peruvians even though their cultures and traditions are remarkably similar. Instead, the Peruvians mere presence is viewed as an inconvenience, in spite of the increasingly integral role they play in Chile’'s economy and in the Chilean Catholic Church.