Esteban Bara, F. (2019). La universidad light: Un análisis de nuestra formación universitaria [The light university: An analysis of our university education] (José L. González-Geraldo)

Esteban Bara, F. (2019).

La universidad light: Un análisis de nuestra formación universitaria [The light university: An analysis of our university education].

Barcelona: Paidós. 233 pp.


Good directors know that the success of a film depends on the distance — the shorter the better — between their initial idea and the end result. It has nothing to do with the box office, which producers care about so much, or even with the tastes of critics and viewers. If they make what they intended to make, and at the time thought was a good idea, mission accomplished.

The book that interests us here — theoretical and readable from beginning to end, if I can allow myself the pleonasm or even oxymoron — encourages us to reconsider the distance between the idea and the outcome in the university sector from this perspective. Its title does not deceive us: in this case success, far from being guaranteed, is diluted, cloying, reduced, lacking in substance… ultimately light.

Esteban Bara sets out in general terms and accurately his concerns about the current direction of universities. As the author himself claims, invoking the great thinkers who have taken an interest in this very matter, universities offer society the gift of a period of time that, at least in theory, should be qualitatively different from other experiences.

A life within another life, essentially, one that teaches us — or should teach us — to consolidate this community of seekers of knowledge that have a sufficiently strong (id)entity not to be confused, ignored, or undervalued: «The gift of an interval that Oakeshott mentions is the time to dedicate oneself to the higher elements of the person as a person, and it is hard to find gifts that are more interesting and spectacular than this» (p. 56).

The book is structured in five different parts: 1) an analysis of the current status; 2) reflections on university life; 3) reflections on academics; 4) reflections on students, and 5) reflections on these institutions’ educational practice. All of these are as interesting as the epilogue which, as a summary, provides clues to help us identify whether we are in the presence of a light university, teacher, student, or practice.

Throughout just over 200 pages, in a style that is accessible but does not neglect academic rigour, this work exposes the practices and bad habits of those who do not know how to appreciate or make good use of the virtues true higher education offers. Unsurprisingly, the apathy and bad habits of some students — ever more foolishly immersed and spellbound in our classes with aspects that have little connection to what was planned and wished for — will become apparent, but so will those of the academics — not educators and sometimes only teachers — who turn up to their classes almost because they are obliged to do so and are incapable of spreading any love at all for their discipline, which they undoubtedly disrespect and harm. In the author’s own words: «it is not enough for university teaching staff to be fascinated by what they do … they must make their students fall in love with it, they must captivate them, and this very responsibility means that they are fascinated by what is in their hands» (p. 97).

Accordingly, while maintaining appropriate forms, and with a sense of irony that does not lack truth, the author encourages us to be scandalous teachers (e.g., p. 105) who can create educational situations from which our students cannot emerge unchanged; we should pity those students — and teachers — who pass through the university without letting it pass through them!

Nobody should misinterpret this brave and necessary desire, since it is not a missile aimed at the university’s waterline, but quite the opposite. It is a necessary reminder that the university must follow its own path, that of building the community of seekers of knowledge described above, without allowing itself to be led astray by other interests that are perhaps more pressing, more pragmatic and utilitarian, but are further from the idea of what a good higher education institution should be. Indeed, it is strange to think how the amorphous postmodern fluidity has led us to point where defending the Classics can be interpreted as a true act of rebellion against a university where the customer — that student we must motivate and please at all costs — is always right from the very first day.

Perhaps then we might also understand that when seeking knowledge for the love of it, we are also fundamentally and certainly seeking experiences and sensations that remind us and restore not only what it means to be alive, but also to belong to this select club of people who, when we want to do so and make the effort, can see further — and better — from the shoulders of those giants who came before us and who, if we respect them and give them the place they deserve, still walk by our side.

The pace of life of our societies, as dizzying as it sometimes is aimless, does not help or fit in with this vision of a university that requires its own tempos and places. The book that interests us, among its many other gifts, provides an excellent opportunity to rethink the period of time university offers. Without rushing, but without lingering, as:

university education is not a matter of a single day, of months, or of a few years. The attitudes and aptitudes of this wonderful undertaking develop slowly and ferment gradually. In addition, and for this very reason, because we live in times of haste and rushing, we need people who are calm and collected, in the same way as in fluid times we need solid people and in ephemeral eras we need firm and stable individuals (pp. 149-150).

Indeed, this book is a real defence of the thought, feelings, and lives of those people who aspire to be the best versions of themselves, since this is in truth the ultimate aim of any educational process that hopes to boast of being higher. A version that will not be such if it is not shared by society. The author himself, while understandably focusing his defence of the university on the academic field, acknowledges that: «A complete university education involves recognising the other and, going further, recognising oneself in the other. Indeed, there is much otherness in the community of seekers of knowledge» (p. 189).

Strictly speaking, there is certainly no dispute that we have the university we have built, more or less consciously, over the centuries. Nonetheless, it is another story if we believe we are more or less deserving of our higher education institutions. For those who believe we must have more successful universities, closer to the initial idea of what an ideal institution of higher education should be, these pages are essential reading.

This objective, improving the quality of universities, is as important as it is elusive and full of ethical twists and turns that are hard to measure and, far from hindering the undertaking, make it more attractive and exciting. What might be repulsive and repellent for some, for others is an irresistible bait. This could be because of the innate curiosity of people who know how much they do not know, and who, at the end of the day, know that Sisyphus smiles, happy for a new day full of challenges and efforts. Or it could be because someone who is educated, truly educated, does not fear exposure, steep slopes, disappointments, and hard times. Perhaps, and only perhaps, it is because the university ultimately exists for a purpose and is not just there by chance.

José L. González-Geraldo ■