Caracas — The campus of Simon Bolivar University is a good half- hour's drive out of Caracas. The final few miles require climbing over a mountain, and there, in a fertile valley that used to be one grand hacienda, is what Venezuelans would like to believe is the MIT of Venezuela.
Simon Bolivar -- the university -- was born in the mid- '60s. Then Central University in the heart of Caracas was -- depending on your perspective -- a breeding ground for radical, leftist guerillas or for Robin Hood revolutionaries.
Today, Central University is teeming with education- hungry students and Simon Bolivar provides strong teaching and some research in mathematics, chemistry, physics, and other sciences.
I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Steven Andreas, a mathematics professor, an American who studied and taught at both the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dr. Andreas felt it was important I understand that the succession of dictators governing Venezuela had virtually kept its education system from any serious growth, particularly in the applied sciences. He made the argument that Venezuela in 1935 might be compared to the United States in 1776.
If that is so, then some sort of academic miracle has taken place, since students preparing for Simon Bolivar in the not- quite-50-year span compare rather favorably with students in the 205 -- year-old US.
There is, of course, a great desire in Venezuela for practical and applied sciences to meet today's needs, and this desire runs counter to the more traditional theoretical studies.
Many of the Simon Bolivar professors were once professors at Central University. For the most part, these men (almost no women) teach the more theoretical classes. And it is in France, Spain, West Germany, and possibly England that most have done graduate studies.
Younger professors have done more graduate work in Argentina, Chile, and the US.
I was given two conflicting bits of information -- that students from the better Venezuelan secondary schools come well prepared in mathematics to Simon Bolivar; or that the students arrive weak in algebra and must first be taught during the first two years at college what they should have learned in secondary school.
Since the first statement came from a director of secondary school mathematics and the second from a college professor, I can only assume it is the old argument of whether the academic glass is half empty or half full.
But the university is a serious institution, and entrance is by competitive examination. I was shown a booklet distributed by the university to help prepare students for the entrance examination in mathematics, and several of the examples were incorrect; that is, a problem would have four possible answers with none of the four correct.
In discussions at several levels, proofreading, not an ignorance of the mathematics involved, was given as the reason.
The student who showed me the booklet is completing his last year of secondary school and said he knows several friends at Simon Bolivar who started there last year. They report that the work is difficult, but not too difficult, but that they are disappointed at the lack of computer facilities and research opportunities.
While the university cannot offer the same level of graduate studies in mathematics as England or the US (for today's Venezuelans the preferred places for advanced work), the math department feels that the work in statistics and other applied math fields is very good but that in the present climate of "practical solutions," pure math is thought of as "elegant," and possibly an "adornment."
There is some concern that a university like Simon bolivar could be caught up in political struggles and suffer, too, with the loss of oil revenues. Hence, there is a sort of under- current, I was told, that keeps many of the members of the faculty with one ear to the political ground and one hand in on technical advancements.
One interesting problem for the students is that most of the text material is written in English, and most research reports are in English. But the teaching is in Spanish -- and that includes all teaching by the several members of the faculty for whom Spanish is a second or even third language.
The taxi driver who took me to the university made some effort to explain to me that no one could be at such a place who wasn't -- and here he touched his head and then pointed to heaven -- "very smart, OK."
That was his assessment of this univer sity up over the hill from traffic-choked Caracas.