Motivational Crisis in Cuban Education

Reforms in higher education will take hold after the summer vacations.
Reforms in higher education will take hold after the summer vacations.

By Dmitri Prieto

The question posed by Raul Castro – “Who can put the bell on the cat?” – alludes to the courage and decisiveness needed to implement the impending transformation of the Cuban model of socialism.

A wide popular debate has been announced on such transformations, but the guidelines for the immediate future have already been issued by one minister in his respective sector: higher education.

A few weeks ago Granma newspaper reported recent statements made by the Minister of Higher Education, who assumed that post only a few months ago.  The official asserted, “Achieving greater political and ideological preparation and improving the educational process is becoming today’s priority for higher education.

This is based on the increase in the enemy’s subversive activities directed against the academic environment, the insufficient preparation of students and educators, and the inadequate structure of degree programs at Municipal University Centers, among other problems.”

The conclusion that the “university is for revolutionaries” will be demonstrated not through a campaign or a purification process, but by shaking up the classrooms with deep and systematic political-ideological work, said Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, a member of the Politburo and the minister of Higher Education.

Another official of that ministry, according to the same source, expressed that in teaching “Professional training prevails above educational development.  The challenge lies in situating both at the same level, in which an essential element is the preparation of the teacher, who should bring values to their classroom, in addition to knowledge.”

As a teacher at a Municipal University, I am perfectly familiar with the problems the officials were referring to.  Although these facilities offer the same diplomas as the daytime programs, it has been obvious that the real level of instruction is below that of “conventional” universities.

Among the proposals of the ministry are the carrying out of labor activities (work in agriculture, construction, or sectors related to the students’ specialties) for one month of every academic year (for political-ideological purposes), as well as the institution of entrance exams throughout the entire system so as to admit only those people capable of facing the rigors of higher education.

I’m familiar with both proposals “in the flesh.”  With regard to production work, my experience with this wasn’t really so bad, though I question being able to say I acquired “values” in the process.

Sometimes learning to focus your attention on books and research work under the guidance of a good teacher helps you to become more of a professional with a social commitment than working in a potato field.  While this latter activity is unquestionably useful (at least when not turned into a mere formalism by ideological bureaucrats), it can wind up being a mere passing experience.

Likewise, entrance exams often evaluate ones memory more than the ability to think.  Frankly, I cannot conceive of a revolutionary or a professional who is not endowed with critical judgment, and to achieve such ability it is necessary to exercise the intellect.

In addition, legislation was also approved recently allowing for multiple employments, which will permit working-age students to get after-school jobs to earn an income honestly and independently.  It would be highly recommended that, just as in my time, work incentives in farm labor be not only “moral incentives” but material ones as well.  And it would be great to achieve the integration of that labor with later professional work, although I sometimes deeply doubt the future potential of this new endeavor, given the current situation of the country.

The worst in the “real story” behind what affects the intellect and the values of our students I see as being the motivational crisis that confronts Cuban society, especially its educational system (starting from the earliest of ages).

The school year usually starts in Cuba in September.
The school year usually starts in Cuba in September.

Looking at society as a whole, the crisis is related to the difficulty of conceiving of a future for each one of us: youth, adults or whole families.  Today, we are now awaiting previously announced changes, but those whose essence is still unknown. However, what is basic is that there are few spiritual or material opportunities for conceiving life projects as well as for day-to-day self-realization, and it is very difficult to actively create new opportunities by ourselves (both personally or collectively).

In terms of the educational system, this is clearly seen in what our students at various levels aspire to become, in their role models, in how they see the future possibility for earning a living and achieving social success, in what sense they view commitment, and in how they have come to internalize the values of capitalist globalization (with which they are bombarded through all possible forms of the media – including state TV.)

In addition to capitalist globalization per se, there are tons of homegrown examples of opportunism, repression of criticism, and discrepancies between speeches and facts.  It is difficult for a student not to perceive that.  The situation sometimes reminds me of the USSR before the perestroika, and frankly I don’t know which one is the most critical side of the comparison.

The other concern is the structure of teaching as such and the whole universe of “common” intellect in Cuba.  It’s very difficult for one to find motivation through interesting pursuits, through the notion that learning can be pleasurable.

What prevails is a quasi-medieval concept of “duty,” particularly the “duty to study” as something that is imposed from the outside, unrelated to the pleasure of learning or the sheer curiosity about what is occurring in the world.  To that is united the extensive use of memory, from the earliest ages to the university itself.

Memorization without understanding, together with practices of propagandistic indoctrination, will not help to solve the problems of Cuban education.  Imposition of will does not generate “values;” on the contrary, it places them in doubt.  Some teachers, myself included, have tried to subvert these tendencies; attempting to establish new teaching-learning dynamics.

But we know that the problems have deep roots, and that our struggle will be a long one.  Again, the problem is “who can put the bell on the cat?”