Reports from Cuba: Forming Citizens is Not a Task for Dictatorships

By Miriam Celaya in Translating Cuba:

Forming Citizens is Not a Task for Dictatorships

miriam 1-octubre-nin?os-con-raul1-300x217HAVANA, Cuba, September, www.cubanet.org – Official statistics, as accommodating as they are misleading, have led to international recognition for Cuba’s educational system, but they mask the poor quality of teaching our schools, the insufficient qualification of the graduates, a state policy of automatic promotion from grade to grade, and the general corruption that contaminates teachers, students and parents.

Each educational experiment implemented by the regime has been crowned by failure, however, the authorities continue to deny public participation in finding solutions to a problem that affects the whole of society and political interests beyond the hallways of power.

The Revolutionary teacher

Contrary to what the government preaches, Cuba’s Republican period was marked by remarkable development and diversification in education. There was also progress in overcoming illiteracy.

According to the census of 1953, 23% of Cubans over 10 were unable to read and write, a figure favorable to the standards of the time, and although there was a sharp contrast between rural (41%) and urban (11.6%) illiteracy, educational levels were much higher than those of many countries which today are among the most developed in the world.

The Law on the Nationalization of Education (June 6, 1961) established free public education and suppressed private education. With it all private schools and their property were transferred to the State, charged from that point forward with educational programs.

Also in 1961, the literacy campaign sent hundreds of thousands of young people into rural areas as teachers. The Handbook of literacy was to guide them “technically and politically” [1], with the Learners Booklet containing “24 themes on core issues of the Revolution, with definitions of the words used.” [2]

It was the beginning of the indoctrination of the masses and of the teachers, and the start of a trend that would be harmful to Cuban education: the improvisation of “educators” through brief courses, with no real training or vocation, in spite of the previous long and rich pedagogical tradition. The era of the Revolutionary teacher had been born.

Schools of education

In the ‘70s, specialized pedagogical schools emerged, such as the Manuel Ascunce Contingent and the Salvador Allende Primary Teacher Training School, for the training of secondary and primary teachers, respectively, and by the end of that decade, the Enrique José Varona Pedagogical Institute, which in its glory years came to graduate high-level teachers with a specialized instruction in all branches of education.

Also in the ‘70s the Schools in the Countryside became widespread, a boarding school system for secondary and pre-university levels, along with several technological specialties. Official policy replaced the role of parents in the education of the children, for that of the State, dealing a devastating blow to the family as a source of ethical and moral values.

At the same time, the educational process, subject to official ideology, promoted the teaching of an apocryphal national history and a false cultural identity in terms of legitimating “Revolutionary” power rather than the formation civic values, thereby burdening the culture and eroding national values.

Despite its limitations, the school system was able to extend instruction to all layers of the population, increased access to historically disadvantaged social groups in the population and created awareness of education as a right, but in exchange for a unprecedented ideological indoctrination in the nation.

After the demise of the Soviet Union and its subsidies that supported the educational plans of the government, the economic crisis of the ‘90s caused high levels of student dropouts and the exodus of thousands of teachers to more profitable occupations. Dozens of schools in the countryside where they formed the “New Man” were closed, ending abruptly the most spectacular failure in the largest educational experiment in the history of Cuba.

Before the crisis

Currently there are no traces on the Island of what was once a relatively developed educational system. In the last decade, the successive courses for “emerging” teachers, also known as “instant teachers,” have exacerbated the deterioration of education.

Government policy continues to address the education of an entire nation as if it was about war campaigns and battles and tries to overcome the problem through improvised measures, such as the return of more than 2,000 retired teachers to the classroom, or the authorization of tutors, usually retired teachers.

The superior results of students whose parents hire the services of professional educators demonstrate the superiority of the private sector. These ‘informal’ education pathways, with their successes and limitations, signal the beginning of a return to the coexistence of a network of private educational instruction, along with the public education system accessible to all.

The myth of social equality

The myth of “social equality” has been broken in the creation of differences of access opportunities between students according to whether they can or not afford this tutoring from the private education sector.

One of the factors hampering the recovery of the quality of education in Cuba remains the constant emigration abroad of both teachers and professors, along with thousands of professionals and technicians who once were the backbone of the training of students.

It is estimated that just in the last 30 years around 15,000 doctors, 10,000 engineers and more than 25,000 college graduates have emigrated, as well as a large number of technicians and skilled workers in a permanent process of disinvestment that affects educational base of numerous technical specialties, many of which have even disappeared.

In addition to emigrating, tens of thousands of teachers were sent abroad on “internationalist” educational, depriving many Cuban classrooms of the better qualified teachers, replaced by “emerging teachers” barely literate themselves, with disastrous consequences for the quality of teaching.

It is not the task of dictatorships

Currently, Cuba has returned to specialized teacher training for primary education, a four course career with approved secondary studies, as in the Normal Schools before 1959. In the capital they have taken over the former headquarters of the Normal School teachers.

There is a long road ahead before any recuperation of the education system can begin, as there must be the investment of substantial financial resources as well as the participation of all interested stakeholders and the opening of alternative forms of education, including the return of private, secular and religious education, without undermining public education.

There have been proposals from spaces within civil society to overcome, to some extent, the profound challenges of the education of present and future generations, but they have been rejected by the government .

However, sooner or later the educational system will be forced to transform itself with the changes that are occurring in the Cuban reality. The growth of independent sectors will end up influencing the renewal of education in the nation.

Half a century of experiments have proved that forming citizens is not a task that belongs to dictatorships.

[1] Garcia Gallo , GEORGE GASPAR . The Fight Against Illiteracy in Cuba. In: Socialist Cuba, No 2, Year I, October 1961, pp. 69-81

[2] Ibid

From Cubanet