Education in Cuba

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Mar 6 07:59:58 MST 2003

"Education Week", March 5, 2003

A Revolutionary Education

By Robert C. Johnston

Havana--It is 4:30 p.m., more than eight hours after classes began at 
Manuel Bisbe Secondary School here, and Yoel Sanz Muñez can't get his 12 
industrial arts students to put down their hammers and turn off the 
drill press.

Finally, the exasperated, silver-haired classroom veteran barks out, 
"You stay, I'm going." It works. By 4:45, the 7th graders are heading 
home. "You just can't get them to leave," Muñez says. Once the room is 
quiet, he inspects a metal strainer the students are making. Nodding his 
approval, he notes that the holes are drilled at precise angles 
according to his charges' technical drawings.

Calling it a day, the 65-year-old Muñez wheels his weathered black 
bicycle to the front of the school, easily mounts, and churns the pedals 
for the 40-minute ride home.

Another school day has ended in Cuba, the enigmatic Communist 
island-nation just 90 miles across the Straits of Florida. A political 
pariah in the eyes of the United States for more than four decades, Cuba 
has long drawn notice for its schools. Interest has heightened, though, 
since a 2001 study by an international task force reported that Cuban 
3rd and 4th graders, based on UNESCO research, easily outscored all 
their Latin American peers in language and mathematics.

The Bisbe school provides a glimpse into Cuba's educational 
successes—and challenges.

Muñez is a popular and skillful teacher with 42 years in the classroom. 
But, when he retires this year, he will join legions of colleagues also 
retiring, or defecting to Cuba's growing tourism industry, where tips 
for taxi drivers and waiters can far surpass the monthly teacher salary 
of about $15.

The shop equipment at Bisbe, while functional, is old, Russian-made, and 
would be costly to upgrade. To be sure, Cuba is spending millions to 
improve schools and equip them with computers, televisions, and video 
players. All are in use at Bisbe. But many schools are dilapidated, and 
materials often are in short supply.

Then there are the students. Eager. Bright. Hard-working. Assertive. And 
increasingly exposed to pop culture and consumerism—forces at odds with 
the revolution's "New Man," who is supposed to put the needs of the 
state over those of the individual.

Such influences pose new challenges to the Union of Young Communists and 
the Organization of José Martí Pioneers—pro-revolutionary youth groups 
with nearly universal participation.

When a visiting American asks a biology class of 35 students at the 
elite Lenin School of Sciences who wants to be a teacher, a single hand 
goes up. Young people, explains one, "want more possibilities" than a 
teacher's salary affords.

And, while Cuba's reverence for learning is strong, it is at times 

Cubans, who can be jailed for anti-government activism, fondly quote 
their national hero José Martí. The writer-activist orchestrated Cuba's 
revolution against Spain before dying in 1895 in the first armed 
conflict. Celebrated in mass rallies by flag-waving students, Martí 
expressed an oft-cited sentiment about education: "To be educated, is to 
be liberated."

Walfriedo Cabezas is one of those taxi drivers foreign visitors hope to 
meet. He is charming, speaks enough English to help with directions, and 
drives a cool 1956, candy-apple red DeSoto Diplomat—an antiquated 
workhorse and a clichéd exemplar of Cuban ingenuity.

But Cabezas is part of another Cuban legacy. In 1961, at age 12, he 
joined more than 200,000 young people responding to the call of the 
nation's leader, Fidel Castro, to saturate the countryside and teach 
literacy. "I cried because my dad would not let me join the brigade 
against illiteracy," he recalls. "He said I was too young."

The young Cabezas prevailed and spent five months living with a family 
several hours from his home.

According to official accounts, the campaign succeeded in virtually 
eradicating illiteracy. As a final test, Cabezas says, members of the 
family he taught wrote a letter to "Fidel" to demonstrate their progress.

To this day, many credit the campaign with essentially wiping out 
illiteracy. Others, though, point out that it also planted the seeds of 
an education infrastructure that exists to indoctrinate students in 
Communist ideology.

Cabezas does not doubt that the campaign put education at the front and 
center of the new regime: "This was the battle for education. Without 
this first step, we could not have had the education we now have."



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