Cuba: July 4, 2011

My US Independence Day amounted to five meetings on the education system of Cuba, four of them official. And to assemble the eight hours of information is not my mission here; however, I am sensing a timely trend I wish to share tonight.

Our meeting with the Foreign Affairs Department of the Ministry of Education was, perhaps, an object lesson in the differences between policy and reality. We questioned educational theory and systems at length. The Cuban system, similar to those in many developing nations, is uniform and systemic for all teachers at all schools. All use the same textbook, the same national exams.

However, when I asked about national curriculum development, we were told emphatically, “Teachers, teachers, teachers.” Annual meetings of teachers inform the Ministry of changes that should be made. In Sept. 2010, for example, Cuba has rolled out its Curriculum D, apparently the fourth incarnation of a national curriculum since the Ministry began work in 1961. Cuba has no charter or private schools; 100% of its students are taught the same curriculum with the same materials.

When my colleague followed up to ask about viewing sample curriculum or even textbooks, the representative became evasive. Suddenly, since classes were out (though schools were not closed), materials were not available. The Ministry itself, apparently, did not have any copies or samples of its own national curriculum to view.

Further requests for textbooks or the internationally-marketed “Yes I Can” Spanish literacy program were met with the same answers.

It was unfortunate, disappointing, but not surprising. As the Ministry reported early on as an explanation for the importance of its literacy campaign, “National security depends upon education.”

But what of the claim, then, that teachers create the curriculum? How does the socialist ideal of the people creating community and policy really play out?

When asked about specific examples of this in action, our representative from the morning’s ICAP meeting (a social institution designed to encourage friendship between Cuba and the rest of the world) reported that she had spoken out for more cosmetic products for women of color and found some improvement in that area.

As one teacher told us, “Socialism is a plannified system.” Yes, it absolutely is. And while members of the educational associations reminded us that freedom comes from the security of community, it became clear that this meant that students could select to study a field only in areas and numbers for which the government has predicted job availability, a natural consequence of its guarantee of employment for all.

Perhaps it is coincidental that on our search for dinner, a few of us met Miguel and Maria, a young married couple, who immediately invited us to hear music and dine with them at a local paladar (family-run restaurant). Both spoke excellent English and were well-versed in American pop culture. Both also emphasized that what they have in Cuba cannot be freedom. “They do not want you (tourists) to talk to us,” said Maria. “I love Cuba, but there is no freedom here.” We spent the rest of the evening talking about what was and was not possible for Cubans.

And so we met, today, tangentially, the international system of education in Cuba, and we learned a lesson on freedom.

The Ministry of Education tells us that we cannot see the curriculum of Cuban social design, but we do each day we are here. We see the two national television stations and hear the one national radio station, “The Voice of Father Cuba.” We read a version of the Granma, the national newspaper, named for the boat which brought the Castro brothers’ Revolution here. We visit the Museum of the Revolution which reports a history and national identity for the people. And we find a nationalist symbolism pervasive in the barrios and hearts of Cubans everywhere.

There may be a difference between the agencies which fashion political policies for social(ist) engineering and the people who live those policies, who integrate them into a community of heartfelt culture and solidarity. Cuba’s agencies insist that a humanist center is at the center of their work.

For me, and for now, however, I see that Cuba’s teaching is not about testing the limits and potentials of students, not about academic freedom to create lessons from the dynamic culture about them, not about personal life choices for students. It is about a worker skilled at delivering a pre-designed product to achieve a prescribed effect. This is Cuba’s socialist revolution.

It is not about a dynamic process of exchange between teachers and policy-makers, not about best practices to meet local conditions, not about the involvement of parents as participants in the creation of curriculum. It is about a compulsion of a macro-design upon every student object. This is Cuba’s socialist revolution.

A belated Independence Day to everyone in the United States.

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