BY JO WILLIAMS
HAVANA — Critics continue to say that Cuba is undemocratic, closed off, repressive, and that critical ideas in general are suppressed. An investigation of the education system and the young people in Cuban schools paints a very different picture.
Although on the surface Cuban classrooms appear more or less similar to those in Australia, they are worlds apart in terms of their approach to education and to young people in society. There are students sitting at desks and teachers strolling around answering questions, but that is where the similarities end. Very quickly the dynamics of the classroom reveal a vastly different approach to learning.
Cuba's education system places great emphasis on creativity, on critical thinking and research skills and on co-operative learning. On paper, at least, many of the same values are upheld by the education system in Australia. However, the social and political context of education in Cuba means that these values are not only espoused as abstract goals but are able to be realised in life, as opposed to Australia where even the most well-meaning ideas are impossible in the context of a generally alienating and stifling experience under a capitalist education system.
A continuing slogan of the Cuban Revolution is "our weapons are our ideas", and the people most clear on this are Cuban school students, who are taught from the circulos (childcare centres) right through to university that their most important social responsibility is to develop their own ideas and the ability to critically and constructively analyse the world around them.
Those familiar with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire would perhaps recognise his problem-posing education theories at work when speaking with these young people. The passion, confidence and opinionated nature of Cuban school students is particularly striking to anyone working with adolescents in Australia's school system.
Cuban school students demonstrate an ability to generalise and to place themselves in the "big picture", at the same time confidently understanding the role they have to play as individuals in a revolutionary democracy. This is directly at odds with the individualistic and self-centred outlook the Australian education system inculcates into young people.
Teachers in Cuba
Cuban students and their families suggest that teachers have a lot to do with this. Although plenty of overtime and an average professional wage are shared by both Australian and Cuban teachers, their social status is not. Like medicine, teaching is a highly respected profession in Cuba.
Prior to the 1959 revolution, the Cuban education system reflected all the gross inequalities common to underdeveloped capitalist countries. Wealthy Cubans usually sent their children to elite private schools or to study abroad, while children of the rural workers attended vastly inferior public schools or lived too far from any school to attend at all. Children living in the countryside whose parents were agricultural labourers were five times less likely to finish primary school than were those who had parents with non-manual, salaried jobs.
In recognition of the enormous task involved in turning this around, many immediate emergency programs were put into effect in 1960-61, and despite obvious inadequacies, internationally recognised outstanding results were achieved. Cuba's overall illiteracy rate was reduced from 23%, according to the last census taken before the Revolution, to 3.9%, a rate far lower than that of any other Latin American country.
To overcome the remaining inadequacies, over the last 40 years there has been an incredible commitment to the professional development of teaching staff.
The documents prepared as part of this teacher training program have always been widely available to the public in general, who are encouraged to be actively involved in the education system.
The central task of education in Cuba emphasised in all of the documents prepared by pedagogical scientists with and for teachers is to create thinking, critical, independent and confident young people. The students refer to this as the "exchange of ideas" in the classroom, pointing out that teachers are not always correct but always keen to learn from students.
When asked about positive learning environments, the first thing mentioned by students and teachers was always the reciprocal and collective nature of discussions in the classroom. While this occurs in some classrooms in Australia, it is far from the norm.
As a result, a positive and strong relationship exists between teachers, and students and their families. The students speak of their teachers with respect, and consider them among their most important influences in life. It is completely normal for teachers to visit students in their homes and to have a friendly relationship with their parents — not simply as a last stop disciplinary measure or as a token "check-up" on academic results (as is often the case in Australia) but as part of a process to involve the student's parents in the education process and to understand all aspects of the student's life.
It is also significant that there are some teachers in schools today who were among the 11- and 12-year-olds who participated in the first literacy brigades in the early 1960s which went to the countryside to teach elementary literacy skills to more than 700,000 peasants and rural workers. Struggles such as these remain an inspiration for students today.
Democracy for students
The Cuban education system mirrors the country's system of genuinely participatory democracy more generally, in a way probably unimaginable to most education department officials and school principals in Australia.
Connected to the experience of schooling in Cuba are the mass organisations which, although voluntary, are almost universal in membership. The Pioneros (Pioneer Movement of Jose Marti) represent students from Grades 1 through 9. Membership of the FEEM (Federation of Middle-High School Students) is open to all secondary students. Students from Year 9 onwards can also elect to join the UJC (Union of Young Communists).
These organisations, while completely independent of the public education system, provide school students with opportunities to directly participate in and impact on the education system in general. For example, once a month Pionero members in each class in every Cuban secondary school hold a meeting, directed by the elected class student representative.
These meetings discuss and vote on everything from the food offered for lunch in a school, to the way a particular unit of work has been presented by the teacher. The decisions and outcomes of these meetings must then be addressed by the teaching staff, and form the basis of much change at the local school level — a point the students are keen to emphasise.
All of the mass organisations also have regular delegated congresses at a national level. Any educational proposals which arise from these discussions are taken directly to the National Assembly and the education ministry.
It is clear that the students take these meetings and their role in them very seriously, and feel that their voices are recognised as important not only in theory but in practice.
Young people are taken seriously
The seriousness with which Cuba takes the capacity of young people to contribute meaningfully to society is evident in many social programs.
One example is a new teacher training initiative which involves highly motivated Year 11 students participating in an accelerated six-month teaching course with a further two- month supervised practical component. After completing the course, the graduates work as primary school teachers for one year while completing their final year of secondary school on Saturdays. They can then elect to continue studying teaching or another profession.
In part, the motivation for such a program remains the continuing shortage of teachers, although its specific aim is to reduce all primary school classes to a maximum of 15 students per teacher as soon as possible. Once achieved, Cuba will have the best teacher-to-student ratio in Latin America, and a ratio better than the existing figure and projected target for Australian schools.
Although the accelerated teacher training program is considered temporary and far from ideal, there is a genuine commitment to offering the young people who participate in it the best chance to become good teachers. The successful results to date prove this confidence to be well-founded, with primary school children relating very positively to their young and enthusiastic mentors.
A current discussion in education theory throughout the developed capitalist countries is the question of how education systems can prepare students for life as citizens in a "participatory democracy". This is a response to the general lack of interest among young people in these countries' bureaucratic political systems and of their mistrust and dislike of politicians of all persuasions.
To Cubans, it is obvious that an undemocratic education system under the direction of an undemocratic political system — which excludes the vast majority of people from real involvement in decision-making save putting a piece of paper in a ballot box once every three or four years — will have this effect on young people.
As an alternative, Cuba offers a number of examples of how "civics and citizenship education" (as it is often described) can and indeed must work.
One example is the involvement of the Pioneros in national, regional and local elections. It is their responsibility and theirs alone (i.e., no police or government officials are present) to oversee the collection and counting of the ballots at each voting station. This enormous responsibility is taken most seriously by the Pioneros, who are trusted completely by the Cuban people.
Another example is the voluntary work which is carried out by the majority of Cuban school students. Alongside a strong curricular emphasis on social responsibility, Cuban students take on a range of social tasks inside and outside the classroom. In recent times, these activities have included municipal inspections as part of the campaign to rid Havana of the Dengue-fever carrying mosquito, preventative preparations for the cyclone season in July and the regular tasks of repairing books and cleaning the school and municipality.
Creating the new human being
In the now famous text Man and Socialism in Cuba, Che Guevara referred to education as a fundamental aspect of human liberation, and the key to unlocking all the creative potential of the human race. These ideas continue to frame the task of education Cuba today.
Education is understood by Cuban students to be a profoundly collective task, evident in their approach to learning and their activities in the mass organisations. As opposed to the competitive nature of schooling in Australia and other capitalist countries, in socialist Cuba students reward and admire most those who consciously help others to understand as well as they do. During the process of electing delegates to the mass organisations, the candidate speeches often refer to the overall success of the classes they represent, and to the candidates' capabilities to help and set an example to others, rather than to their individual achievements.
A striking feature of any conversation with Cuban school students is their spirit of internationalism. When asked about their thoughts on the future, the common responses revealed optimism about the possibilities for global change, but a deep concern for the people suffering in the world today. Several referred with pride to Cuba's internationalist actions such as the training of doctors from Third World countries and aid relief to sufferers from natural disasters in South and Central America.
Generally, any public mention of Cuba's education system refers to the impressive statistics which have been gathered by such organisations as UNICEF, and which refer to such things as academic results, and participation and retention rates. Impressive, because they are consistently better than the average in Latin America and in many cases, even than the United States.
However, it could be said that the most important achievement of the Cuban education system is its success in providing the opportunity for the development of motivated, confident, articulate and highly conscientious young people.
This is a very different situation to the problem-riddled education systems under capitalism, which are faced with alienated, unmotivated and often "hope-less" young people.
Of course there are examples of such young people in Cuba, but these are clearly the exception. Even the most critical and anti-social Cuban citizen, while hustling tourists in the streets of Old Havana, will happily tell you of their wonderful schooling experience, and all that they learnt from their classmates and teachers.
Although there are many uncertain aspects of Cuba's future, those who suggest that the country would be leader-less without Fidel Castro, have clearly not spoken to any of the future leaders currently in Cuban schools.
[Jo Williams is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party and a secondary school teacher in Melbourne, currently in Havana researching the Cuban education system.]
From Green Left Weekly, July 3, 2002.
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