The Path To Learning, Paved With Politics

Páginas del libro de primer grado. (Lilianne Ruiz)
A first grade history book in Cuba. (Lilianne Ruiz)

“On the path of Martí, with the guidance of Fidel, for the homeland and socialism:  Moncadistas* always ready.” With that motto the school day begins every morning for Claudia Martinez, a fifth grader in Havana’s Plaza district whose parents try to soften at home the ideological excesses of Cuban public education.

The girl learned to read with stories of combat, biographies Sierra Maestra fighters and anti-imperialist slogans. Of the 222 pages in the current edition of the first grade reading book, 21 pages are dedicated to teaching the official version of the Cuban Revolution and its political figures. Guns and olive green uniforms abound in its illustration, although few would expect such a profusion of military themes in a children’s reader.  

When she reached the fourth grade, Claudia was already skilled in repeating slogans and phrases taken from Fidel Castro’s speeches. The book that perfected her reading in this grade started with some words spoken by the former Cuban president and another similar fragment was waiting on page 215 of the same volume. Overall, 10% of the reading book is dedicated to recounting the exploits of the figures in power or praising the system. Here, “The path to learning is paved with politics,” said Claudia’s mother, wryly.

Education in Cuba is “a function of the state and is free,” according to the Constitution, which also, in Article 39, calls for “promoting the patriotic and communist education of the new generations and preparing children, youth and adults for social life.”

“Why does education promote values associated with communism?” whispers Claudia’s father, who dreams of being able to choose the education his daughter receives, but sees this as “impossible for now.”

Now 34, and also schooled under the same education system, this Little Pioneer’s mother recognizes that “it’s true that the teachers have a program they must follow.” However, the parents have never been able to meet with the methodologists “to influence these programs,” she complains. She is aware that in the current circumstances, the parents “have no involvement in the design of the curriculum.”

Daniela, a young schoolteacher who prefers not to give her last name, says that using the schools to promote an ideology “is normal” and adds that the teachers are trained to “include elements in every class that develop the students politically.” In her classroom she talks to them “about socialism, the Revolution, and all the past history that none of them have experienced.”

By hiring private teachers and tutors, many families not only try to improve the academic performance of their children, but also to reduce the level of ideology in the teaching. “I’ve spoken with the math teacher who comes here to the house,” says Claudia’s grandmother, “so that the math problems don’t keep putting political examples in front of the child.”

In one of last year’s schoolbooks, the student solved an arithmetic word problem that said, “If Rene Gonzales, one of the  Five Heroes, was sentenced to prison in 2001 and released in 2011, how many years did he spend in jail?”

“We give her a lot of fantasies, fairy tales, and craft books to read, to offset what she receives in school,” says her grandmother.

Claudia dreams of becoming a lawyer someday, but her parents are more concerned with the present. “We fear she will become someone who shouts slogans and lose this desire to debate and search for the truth that we teach at home,” explains her mother. “I have a dilemma,” she confesses, “I know that we are raising her to cause trouble for herself.”

As the children advance to the higher grades, ideology becomes even more present. Leo studies technology in Pinar del Rio where, a few weeks ago, the teacher lashed out against a dissident. He called him a “millionaire, traitor and enemy of the country,” although he didn’t know that Leo knew the man through his family. The young man stood up in the middle of the classroom and shouted that it was all lies. When he told his parents, they supported him, but this is an isolated case.

As a general rule, teenagers listen passively to the political harangues delivered in the classroom and their families call on them not to contradict the official discourse. “I warn him to say yes to everything they tell him, because why set himself apart?” says Layren Lopez, the mother of seven-year-old Harold who already knows how to read and write. “This is nearing its end,” says the woman.

Recently, Harold’s parents obtained Spanish nationality, through the so-called Spanish Law of Grandchildren. “I have a contact who will help me to enroll the boy in the school for children of diplomats,” says the mother. The school, in an exclusive area of Havana’s Playa district, has its own curriculum, which in no way resembles the education system on the island.

“We will have to pay tuition in convertible pesos and his grandmother will take him there in the car, because it’s a long way from us. But there he will not have to say Viva Fidel!” says the relieved Lopez, who receives financial support from her father, who lives in Barcelona, to avoid what he calls “the brainwashing of the child.”

Ideology reaches its highest levels in the teaching of history. At the Tenth Congress of the Young Communists Union (UJC), several delegates called for teaching the subject “creatively, in order to make the class ideal place to promote patriotic and revolutionary sentiments,” and, in particular, to develop youth leaders for the organization who are well trained “politically and ideologically.”

Classes on national history do not support nuances. The Cuban Republic was not sovereign and was “corrupt”; José Marti is the “intellectual author” of the assault on the Moncada barracks; the armed struggle in the Sierra Maestra is “a continuation of the wars of independence” and, “before 1959, children in Cuba had no schools or shoes.” Deviating from the script could result in a note of disapproval.

*Translator’s note: Moncadistas  refers to those who launched a failed assault on Santiago de Cuba’s Moncada Army Barracks on 26 June 1953, generally considered the start of the Revolution.

 


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