- Education, one of the pillars of the Cuban Revolution, has over the past 55 years experienced transcendental moments of learning, investigation and renovation
- Granma reviews some of these
LISSY RODRÍGUEZ GUERRERO
According to the writer Eduardo Galeano, the Hindu god of intellect Ganesha teaches that the first words of a book are as fundamental as a house or temple’s first bricks. This can likewise be said of the first incipient steps taken in the construction of a society; just as the foundation of a carefully erected building must be laid, in order to later reap the benefits anticipated.
In the case of Cuba, education was one of the areas prioritized as the victorious Revolution was consolidated.
Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro described education in the country before the Revolution during his 1953 defense statement, known as History will absolve me, saying, "Attending the little public schools in the countryside barefoot, poorly dressed and fed, are less than half of school-age children," reflecting the truly alarming situation, also evidenced in statistics which indicate that there were more than a million illiterates in Cuba, with a population at that time of 5.5 million.
Within days of the January 1, 1959 victory, the National Literacy and Basic Education Commission was created and on April 22, 1960, Fidel called on Cubans to form a Volunteer Teachers Contingent. The volunteers were trained at the Minas de Frío camp in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and went on to impart literacy instruction in classrooms established around the country
For those who today remember this experience, it was a transcendental moment in Cuban education. Dr. Lesbia Cánovas, president of the Association of Cuban Pedagogues, who as a young woman joined the country’s original literacy campaign, said, "The literacy campaign was a mobilization of the Cuban people. We don’t know who learned the most, the literacy teachers, the families of these teachers or people in the countryside."
"It wasn’t the workbook or the manual. It was learning to live, learning about our country, rural life, its richness and natural resources. It was an encounter with very particular expressions of the same culture in different contexts. The girls had to leave their homes very young. How quickly the impact on behavior appeared, and on the mentality of people, in their ways of viewing reality!"
The Ana Betancourt Plan for young women in rural areas, the Pilot and Conrado Benítez Brigades and the Patria o Muerte Brigades of working women exemplify how the broad social mobilization was realized.
"Cuba will be the first country in Latin America to be able, within a few months, to say that it does not have a single illiterate…" Fidel reported to the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, 1959. The literacy campaign, from January 1961, through December of that year, reduced illiteracy to 3.9%, and initiated a battle to subsequently reach higher levels of education throughout the Cuban population.
In his Educational Message, delivered November 30, 1959, Minister of Education Armando Hart affirmed that reform could not be limited to the eradication of illiteracy, but should be "an effort to elevate the intellectual level and quality of educators, a question of improving teaching technique, elaborating plans and programs, of progress in relations between teachers and students, of constant pedagogical experimentation, study and perfection." The Educational Reform Law was approved by the Council of Ministers on December 21, 1959.
TECHNICAL, PHYSICAL AND ART EDUCATION
With the triumph of the Revolution, technical-professional education became especially important. In a presentation at the University of Camagüey in 2013, Dr. Aker Aragón, former national director of the sector, said, "The development plans implemented by the nascent Revolution in power, required a qualified workforce."
The Educational Reform Law emphasized the importance of vocational training in Cuba, of trade schools and those focused on agricultural occupations. The nationalization of education in 1961 supported the creation of technical schools to support the country’s industrialization and economy.
"Those were years of many ideas," Aker commented to this reporter, "In 1964, a body called the Technical Education Planning Council emerged, devoted to training workers and technicians for agriculture. More than 20 centers were created throughout the country, until it was incorporated within the Ministry of Education."
Aker, who also served as director of agricultural studies, described the 1980’s as a "golden" age, "The schools became veritable factories, producing millions of pesos worth of replacement parts, accessories, equipment and furnishings. Diverse specialties and entrance levels were offered."
With the collapse of the socialist bloc, however, this educational subsystem faced a difficult situation. Aker recalls two projects undertaken during these years, "One was the assembly of 750,000 bicycles which the country acquired from the People’s Republic of China. More than 30 centers across the country developed assembly lines, with which the lack of practical training was partially alleviated. The other was the creation of some 160 Agricultural Polytechnical schools (IPA), which had the land as the foundation of their studies. In these IPA, 15 guidelines emerged, which were nothing more than the objectives for achieving organic, sustainable agriculture."
Culture and sports were also impacted by educational change. With the creation of the National Cultural Council in 1961, and the emergence of important cultural institutions, the National School of Art was founded, along with a network of institutions of this kind across the country. Additionally a non-professional movement was promoted, which by 1975, included some 18,000 groups.
Among the artists who benefited from the early years of artistic education in Cuba is painter José Antonio Rodríguez Fuster, who additionally volunteered as a young literacy instructor. He commented, "I entered a school for arts instructors in February, 1963. I was there until December, 1965, in some of the new courses Fidel created, where workers and campesinos taught art and culture. I had the best teachers there. When I left, I was an artist."
A similar path was followed in sports. With the creation of the Sports, Physical Education and Recreation Institute (INDER) on February 23, 1961, the Manuel Fajardo National Physical Education and Sports Center was founded to train the country’s first Physical Education teachers and athletic coaches. Another important development was the creation of the Sports Initiation Schools (EIDE) and the National School Games.
CUBA’S ESSENTIAL UNIVERSITIES
When the national reform law was approved, the National Educational System had as its leading institutions three universities: The University of Havana; the Marta Abréu, in Las Villas province; and the Antonio Maceo, in the country’s eastern region.
During the 1970’s, the Central University Council was created to undertake a series of educational reforms, presented in a document entitled Fundamentals of Higher Education and approved January 10, 1962.
Measures were taken to move toward the elimination of repetitive, didactic methods of teaching. Scientific investigation was emphasized as an element essential to the academic process and scholarship programs were developed to allow more humble layers of society to access higher education.
Medical schools were gradually established to train health professionals and subsequently, Pedagogical Institutes, as well.
The Communist Party of Cuba, in its 1975 1st Congress, proposed the reorganization of higher education to extend university studies across the country.
In 1976, the Ministry of Higher Education was established and with it, 18 universities. This government body was charged with implementing the country’s policy of developing higher education. There are currently a total of 68 universities in Cuba, sharing the mission of preserving, developing and promoting human culture, through the academic process, in conjunction with society at large.
Another significant event in the promotion of universal education was the creation of 169 municipal university sites – directed by centers of higher learning - in 2000, as part of the Revolution’s Battle of Ideas.
CURRENT CHALLENGES & ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Cuba’s accomplishments include the development of special education for children and adults; pre-schools and círculos infantiles, for day-care and early childhood education.
The country’s educational system is also facing challenges. For some time now, schools have been confronted with an exodus of professional educators; the need to improve the quality of instruction and to value teachers, both within society and materially by providing better salaries and conditions. Educators are fully aware of these problems, which are often the focus of debate in forums held for this purpose.
During the most recent session of the National Assembly of People’s Power (December, 2013), Minister of Finances and Prices Lina Pedraza confirmed that the continued provision of universal education, free of charge, for Cuba’s children and youth, is guaranteed. This is not, however, sufficient. Work must be done to address shortcomings, which will depend on the efforts of every educational institution. Strengthening the ties between families and schools, for example, is a much discussed, critically important issue.
According to Lesbia Cánovas, schools learn from communities, and vice versa. Local schools must become the community’s most important cultural center, no doubt one of the many challenges which Cuba education must address.