If tomorrow a cataclysm or a racist virus destroyed all the universities in Latin America and Spain, the world's culture would barely feel an imperceptible sting in the fields of science and technology, though also in humanities and social studies.
The reason is very sad. Latin American and Ibero-American universities are not among the best 150 on the planet. Although they number in the hundreds or maybe thousands, very few of them figure among the 500 best in the world.
The less bad ones include some Brazilian, Chilean, Colombian, Argentine, Mexican and Spanish universities. Caribbean and Central American universities barely appear on the list, with the exception of the University of Costa Rica, which has one or two outstanding schools.
How do we know this? Because several rankings of university quality in various regions are compiled annually, and all of them reach approximately the same conclusions.
The best known lists are those made by The Times of London, Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, the magazine U.S. News & World Report, and the Higher Council of Scientific Research in Madrid.
To measure the excellence of the institutions, they take into account the publications in accredited journals, their presence in the Internet, the times that the articles, books or authors are quoted, the number of professors with Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals (mathematics), the performance of the graduates, and the opinions of experts.
It's not a question of boosting some countries and denigrating others. They're simply trying to establish a certain hierarchy.
It's a pity, because the first university in the New World was founded in Santo Domingo in 1538, practically a century before Harvard. Shortly thereafter, in 1551, universities were created in Mexico and Lima.
The University of Havana is almost 300 years old, 20 years older than Princeton. That tradition has not been very useful; it may even have been a drag.
When the universities opened in Spanish America, all of them legitimized by the Spanish Crown and run by priests, the method of teaching and the philosophy behind it were based on scholarship. All the truths had already been discovered by the religious authorities.
The task of the teacher and the student (literally, "the nourished one") was to gain that knowledge through mnemonic exercises or rhetorical games.
The university was there to repeat, not to innovate. Remember that one of the crimes hunted down by the Inquisition was innovation. Today, you can still hear the unbelievable statement by the dean of the University of Cervera, in Catalonia, to King Ferdinand VII: "We rebuke, Your Majesty, the pernicious mania of thinking."
Naturally, it's a cultural problem. In the Ibero-American world, there is no abundance (as in other regions) of the will to change, to innovate, to progress, to find new and better ways to do things. It represents a reiterative culture, not a transformative one.
To those who live in this world, an educated person is not someone who can change our present but someone who has a mind-boggling amount of information about the past.
We spend our time reviewing what happened a long time ago, which certainly has not saved us from committing the same or similar errors over and again, belying Jorge Santayana's futile warning: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We Latin Americans remember it - and repeat it.
Of course, I don't mean to say that Latin American universities are useless. That would be silly. Many of them are excellent and produce competent graduates.
Some of them produce excellent doctors, lawyers, dentists, journalists, economists, engineers, experts in business, and the 50 or so valuable professionals who are absolutely indispensable for the proper functioning of society.
That's not the problem. The consequence of the phenomenon of reiterative cultures is that they live like parasites, clinging to creative centers established outside their perimeter. To a great degree, the length and mode of our lives are determined in those intellectually dense centers that generate the ideas.
In a perverse way, without realizing it, we continue to describe the act of thinking with our own heads as a "pernicious mania." And so it goes.