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Alternative Doctoral Program Seeks Democracy

It’s not your average doctorate.

The Ph.D. in alternative thought offered by San José’s private La SalleUniversity is part weary schoolkid’s dream, with no classes, teachers, exams, or fixed schedule; part high-powered book club; and part revolution. Sixty students per year, all of whom must have at least 10 years of career experience as a prerequisite, are encouraged to bring their background to the table as they read philosophy, quantum physics, educational theory and other disciplines, and create group and individual responses to the texts.

At the end of the approximately three and- a-half-year course, participants earn their “Doctorate in Education with Emphasis on Pedagogical Mediation” – and, according to founding director Francisco Gutiérrez, return to their careers with a new way of seeing the world.

“Well, that’s what we hope for,” the lifelong, Spanish-born educator told The Tico Times. “There’s a change in their attitudes toward their professional performance…

some more than others. Some are teachers and immediately change their texts, their classes, their focus. There are (other) people who have left their jobs because it doesn’t coincide with what they’re feeling.”

Why this drastic change? Gutiérrez, who recently sat down for an interview with The Tico Times along with program graduate and former presidential candidate Rolando Araya, whose doctoral thesis was recently published by Grupo Editorial Norma, said that although both students and the authors they read come from a variety of fields, the common thread is questioning the existing order.

“It’s a critical vision of what’s happening, the old paradigm… confronted with the emerging paradigm,”Gutiérrez said, explaining that the ‘old paradigm’ refers to a vertical or pyramidal society in which a few powerful people at the top have all the knowledge and power. Through his program, now in its “fourth generation” of students and building partnerships with similar programs in other Latin American countries, participants are encouraged to find their own voice and self-organize.

Another key element of the process is getting participants to take a broader view of their work, during an age where professionals such as doctors or lawyers “know more and more and more about less and less.

“Another characteristic of today’s society is that it’s fragmented. They don’t see problems in a holistic manner,” Gutiérrez said.

Though a description of these concepts may conjure up images of an absent-minded professor expounding endlessly, or beret-clad 20-somethings seeking the meaning of life, the opposite is true in University La Salle’s program. Students must have a minimum of 10 years’ experience in their field to gain admittance, and most participants have much more, said Gutiérrez, who is 78. Once enrolled, students learn from each other in small discussion groups, not from professors.

At the start of the course, the students form groups of four based on factors from common interests or careers to previous friendships or where they live. The groups then set meeting times to discuss the readings and create a group reflection, culminating in an individual project like a thesis.

They might meet weekly over dinner or monthly during long weekends, depending on participants’ schedules.

All 60 students reunite once per month.

The flexibility and lack of professorial oversight might make the program seem like a cinch, but Gutiérrez and Araya both agreed that’s not the case.

“People think it’s easy, you know? But it’s not,”Gutiérrez said. “This is a doctorate that seeks democracy.”

Araya said that group members must rely on each other to be prepared, which creates pressure – a factor no doubt heightened by the fact that all students have careers and families to juggle and can’t waste any precious discussion time.

Student Marisol Bonilla, who’d spent 14 years as a high school and college educator before entering the program and felt “tired of the routine,” said the discussions and readings, far from draining her of energy, have brought a new spirit to her career and life in general.

“It’s transformed me, revitalized me,” said Bonilla, whose focus within the program is on conversation as a path to learning.

The key to students’ success: bringing their personalities and experiences to the table. In the unique language of the program, outlined in Gutiérrez’s book “En Busca del Sentido” (“Searching for Sense”), this individual lens is referred to as a student’s “chifladura,” a word a Spanish-English dictionary defines as the state of being, well, off one’s rocker.

“How would you translate chifladura? Madness?” laughed Araya, who published his thesis, “El Camino del Socialismo Cuántico” (“The Path of Quantum Socialism”), as the result of his time in the program. In the book, Araya, who has served as a legislator, Cabinet minister and the Mayor of San José – his brother, Johnny Araya, is the current Mayor – outlines a new social order based on ethics.

Araya had been working on the book for several years when he joined the La Salle program after talking with Gutiérrez during a chance meeting on a plane. The program helped him bring the work to fruition, he said.

As a seasoned politician who saw the readings from the vantage point of his field, Araya is the kind of student the program seeks to attract, explained Gutiérrez, who added that he ensures educators make up no more than 25% of each class so the groups will have a mix of health-care experts, scientists and students from other fields.

Featured authors include Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, U.S. physicist Fritjof Capra, Italian biologist Humberto Matarana and others. One of the program’s goals is that graduate’s texts, such as Araya’s book, can become part of the reading list,Gutiérrez said.

Though students and authors represent a wide range of career paths and academic disciplines, a common theme of questioning the establishment runs throughout.

“In every field, this is present: a critique of the existing order,” said Gutiérrez, who once directed the La SalleHigh School next to the university.

His Web site,, provides links to similar programs in Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, as well as Spain and Italy. Gutiérrez said some of these programs began at about the same time as the La SalleUniversity doctorate, while some, such as a Nicaraguan program that may begin in the near future, have been inspired by the Costa Rican alternative doctorate.

Bonilla said Gutiérrez’s model helps make doctoral studies accessible to busy professionals who wouldn’t otherwise be able to fit in such a challenge.

“Five or 10 years ago, only those who went to university and were sent to Europe could access a doctorate and that knowledge, but not ordinary professionals like me,” she said. “This opens the door.”

For more information on the program, visit or La SalleUniversity’s Web site,



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