Academic Institutions of Nueva España


Enrique Gallud Jardiel

         Alongwith the process of colonisation, Spain transplanted in its American provinces the same means of intellectual, didactic and instrumental development which it had. Many learned persons established themselves in America and continued cultivating their specialities  –Theology, Philosophy, Law, etc.– and developed the sciences necessary for the study of the New Con­tinent and its cultures –Philology, Geography, Ethnology–. All this produced an intense scientific movement, in its broadest sense, including cultural or humanistic sciences and natural sciences, whose growth in Spanish America was considerable. This cultural development was achieved through a few universities which created a class of Europeanised intellectuals of world repute. This was another expression of the concept in which Spain had its possessions and of its assimilating conduct, as it did not have a development even remotely equal to that of the other ultramarine empires, where colonial life did not have such an interest towards culture. In order to illustrate this point it is imperative to mention some data referring to the foundation of educational institutions. I will refer to the British  model of colonisation, as it was the model geographically the closest to the Spanish one.
         While the first Spanish universities in the New Continent were founded in the year 1551, in Mexico and Lima, the British did not found any for almost another century. Harvard University dates back to 1636, the College of William and Mary was founded in 1693 and Yale University in 1701. At the end of the 18th century there were only ten universities in the USA in comparison to the hundred in Spanish America. And the USA can be considered culturally privileged if they are compared to other British possessions in other places. The first Canadian university, McGill University, was not founded till 1821, more than two and  a half centuries later that those in Mexico. The University of Sydney, the first Australian one, was established in 1875, the New Zealand University in 1874 and the South African College in 1829. This data must not surprise us if we remember that the British Parliament did not pass the foundation of the first British Universities in IndiaCalcutta, Bombay and Madras– till 1853 and they were not established till 1857, a year in which the people of India clearly showed that British presence in the country had already been too long. Other European countries have shown the same apathy and slowness in the cultural development of their colonies. From these data one can infer the ampleness and brilliance of Spanish cultural endeavours in the Latin American lands.
         This cultural process had, logically, its ups and downs. Their phases roughly correspond to those of Spain. The recent increase in the studies of the cultural history of the colonial times tends to give a precise appreciation of this process, instead of the simplistic, censoring and despising judgements which had been nurtured for long. A revaluation of Hispanic-American culture has begun taking place in both its aspects of the internal development of the “criollos” and the external contribution of the metropolis. Here is a study of the ups and downs mentioned earlier.
         After the discovery and the conquest, during the Renaissance, some European ideological guidelines reached America before the triumph of Scholasticism brought by the religious orders. The influence of Humanists like Luis Vives and Erasmus of Rotterdam was promptly felt. Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, Professor in the university of Mexico, commented on the works of Vives and his innovative pedagogical theories. The open mindness of Hispanic America is clearly seen in the fact that, in the year 1546, Constantino Ponce de la Fuente published in Mexico a Protestant Catechism, in a historical juncture when such a thing would have been totally impossible in the peninsula, where Catholicism was fighting against the religious schism of the time and considering Protestantism as a total heresy.
         Regarding the philosophical sphere, Marcel Bataillon points out the extensive spread of Erasmus' thinking, due to the activities of many missionaries of Nueva España, who took from him his aim of revitalising the religious spirit, giving it more depth and a sense of intimacy. On the same lines, the prelate Vasco de Quiroga tried to adapt the Utopia of Thomas Moor. He created an ideal organisation for the instruction of the natives. The purpose was to instruct them in European civilisation and protect them from every kind of ill-treatment. To this purpose he founded several hospital-villages in Santa Fe, in Mexico and in Michoacán, which functioned efficiently.
         Another philosophical trend of the 16th century was neo­Platonism. El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega translated the Diálogos de amor (Dialogues of Love), by León Hebreo, a text fully saturated by this doctrine. On the other hand, the botanist Francisco Hernández greatly contributed to the spread of Stoicism.
         The American interpretation of Scholasticism did eliminate the nomism and fully accepted the doctrines of Thomas Aquinas (thomism). The scholasticists had to define the structure of the Spanish State and the reasons and justifications for the conquest of America, Thus they created the base of International Law. The question of the right to conquest, originally in the writings of Las Casas, led to a theological, philosophical and legal dispute between the two scholastic schools: the Thomist (followed by Dominicans and Agustinians) and the Suarecists (defended by the Jesuits). This proved that America did not blindly follow Spain’s guidelines, but was independent enough to solve the most complicated questions, at a level of intellectual parity with the metropolis.
         Some milestones in the American Scholastic development were the publications of several philosophical works, like Recognitio Summularum, on Logic, Dialectica Resolutio and Physica Speculatio, by Fray Antonio de la Veracruz, the first Professor of Philosophy in Mexico. Philosophy was not only taught in the University, but also in some colleges. Among them the Máximo de San Pedro y San Pablo, and the Colegio Tlaltelolco, for natives, are outstanding. Apart from these disciplines, Grammar, Rhetorics, Medicine, Indian Languages, etc. were thoroughly taught. It should not be forgotten that the University of Mexico offered Law as a discipline a century before the Sorbonne of Paris.
         After this philosophical flourishing, the l7th century saw a more stiff and rigid system of teaching, and science was somewhat overlooked. Nevertheless, two very important works were written: Cursus integer philosophicus and Theologia scholastica naturalis by the brothers Alonso and Leonardo de Peñafiel. Apart from their intrinsic value, these books are worth-mentioning due to the fact that, in spite of having been written by Mexicans, they were used in Spanish universities as compulsory text-books for the study of Philosophy.
         In spite of scholastic orthodoxy, many new ideas came and were easily accepted in Nueva España. The Colleges of San Ildefonso of Puebla de los Angeles and Santo Tomás, of Guadala­jara were given the status of universities. One of their faculty members was Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy, who scientifically disproved a series of superstitions regarding a comet, and who is considered the precursor of Feijoo.
         During the Enlightenment –a time when the Spanish State granted huge sums of money for scientific research in Mexico, Nueva Granada and Perú– the vicissitudes of Spanish culture had repercussions in América. Nueva España received the main trends of the l8th century: the fostering of Natural Science, the fight against Scholasticism, the Cartesian method of Descartes and several philosophical systems which reached their zenith with Encyclopaedism. The most influential thinkers were Feijoo, Descartes, Bacon, Malebranche, Leibnitz, Newton, Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, Franklin and Bentham. Mexico is the place where philosophical and scientific thought were more intense. Father Andrés de Guevara, author of Instituciones elementales de filosofía (Elemental Institutions of Philosophy) was the initiator of the ideological revolution. He and his followers, from the Colegio de San Pedro y San Pablo, drastically contributed towards the diffusion of the new knowledge. In this prestigious institution modern languages were taught, new approaches to teaching were introduced and some disciplines like History, Literature Law and even Theology were improved. With these activities, the relative isolation of Mexico came to an end and cultural relations with learned men from Europe and the United States were established.
         During the last years of the colonial period, the Mexican intellectuality was mainly interested in Natural Sciences and Modern Philosophy. Benito Díaz de Gamarra, founder of many centres of teaching and research, and newspapers of  highly erudite level, played an important part in the development of this interest. All these factors contributed to the spread of liberalism in Mexico and eventually led to the process of independence, which, without these cultural inputs, would not have been possible or would have happened much later.
         Other empires kept their colonies in ignorance and, thus, lasted more than the Spanish empire. The Latin American republics reached their political maturity rapidly, because of the determination of Spain in giving, from the very beginning to its colonies, the full right to culture.