Cubans of my generation were offered a range of educational alternatives. I studied at the Lenin School, which in my days was a specialized college-prep high school that focused on science.
Along with the core curriculum, we studied arcane subjects characteristic of each of the specialties: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and electronics. As a biology student, I was taught everything from how to set up a microscope to how detect the AIDS virus (or, better said, how it used to be detected, back in the 1980s).
The electronics students walked around proudly with their microchips hanging from their necks, while the chemistry students rigged up laboratories in their homes. A strange elite was emerging that ventured beyond the boundaries that divided the specialties. There were computer geeks who used to lock themselves up in the laboratories all night equipped with Panasonic smart keyboards with 64 kb of RAM.
At that time, there also existed “conventional” boarding schools (non-specialized and requiring farm labor to supplement study) and urban high schools, which were not boarding schools. In addition, we had pedagogic, technical, sports and nursing schools.
Then came the hard times, as we all know. In the ´90s the Lenin School abandoned the whole system of specialization that set it apart; it became “just” a very good school. The elitism remained, though without an expressly distinct course content.
Changes were announced recently – finally! – that will diversify pre-university education. For those students interested in the exact sciences, a new program has been created, different from what I experienced. During their last year of high school, those students will be housed in universities together with college students and professors. There, they will study the conventional high school curriculum in addition to their respective specialized courses.
The number of boarding schools “in the countryside” will be gradually reduced – finally! This has been a model that has wasted tremendous amounts of fuel on the transportation of teachers’ (daily) and students (weekly). Likewise, these have contributed to separating youths from their families precisely at the time in their lives when family guidance is most needed (a fact that has been proven by several Cuban social research institutes, which have been advocating that action for years).
Of course families will now have to face the challenge of how to feed their children at home, as well as how to deal with their other needs. Nonetheless, in my opinion, the waters are rising to their proper level.
The junior high model remains of “general integral teachers,” whereby teachers are only a few years older than their students and which requires these instructors to become veritable know-it-alls. While this system has been severely criticized by parents and society in general, it seems that the increased rigor in the university system will gradually change that perspective.
I realize that all these changes are controversial (in addition to their not getting at the root of the problem), but I’m pleased that they’re taking place. I believe that the key is the diversification of the educational system in conformity with the interests, aptitudes and motivations of the students.
A better solution might be to initiate a few highly diverse educational prototypes, and especially to apply self-management principles to students, teachers and parents in the organization of their own schools.
This would involve the community itself – which ultimately funds any educational effort with its labor – in applying the corresponding management measures. This could serve to spur the development of educational practice more in accordance with democratic participation.