By Dimitry Prieto
Many Cuban professionals these days, in addition to our principal jobs, also work as teachers at what are called Municipal University Sites. This form of community college responds to a program of the Revolution called the “universalization of teaching.”
I began to give classes at the Community College in the town of Santa Cruz five years ago. Like many of my colleagues, I had to take some special classes to become an educator and be able to receive the supplementary income for that extra work. Just like most of my co-workers, university instruction was a new type of work for me.
In my case, it’s been a great experience. The College in my town graduates specialists in law, social communications, sociology and socio-cultural studies. Their diplomas are equivalent to those that the students receive from the “big” universities. It’s claimed that the level of preparation is also comparable, although the reality-as always-is more complex than the plans.
Among other subjects, I teach the History of Philosophy (over two semesters, from the ancient Greeks to post-modernity) and the History of Sociology (in three semesters, from Comte and Spencer to Bourdieu and Luhmann), which is the course I like most.
I like them because, among other reasons, I’ve to work hard. Before beginning a class with a new group, I always make a little survey, and I’m constantly surprised by the cultural makeup of my students. Many point to Harry Potter as their favorite book, or the Cuban children’s classic The Age of Gold, by Jose Marti. Some refer to the Bible, but there are those who mention Tolkien.
Among the movies mentioned are those that range from Jaws to Cuban films (there’s a certain infantilism that reigns among the younger generation). The more mature ones are more “traditional” in their upbringing: they might recall Jules Verne or mention Che Guevara.
The students come from different backgrounds: some are grown-ups, workers who finished their previous studies decades ago, while others are younger. For some, unfortunately, books are alien objects, almost as exotic as wild African animals, and they steer clear of them.
Yet the university is the university, and you have to study. Interests vary from one to another, but I’ve been lucky to have in each one of my classes several people who study to learn, and not just with the idea of obtaining a degree. University diplomas in Cuba are traditionally printed on very hard paper, a metaphor that I usually use in my classes.
I learned in Great Britain-where I shared the rent of my London apartment with Laura (an Irish secondary school teacher and a beautiful person)-that the educational crisis is global; in this “virtual” and “digital” era, student motivation has been affected in all countries. In Cuba, however, this same problem has acquired unique features, though I find the mission of facing the challenges particularly fascinating.
Thus, in the History of the Philosophy, I’ve had to “reconcile” one program (written basically according to the canons used to contrive that subject in the former USSR) with the use of a detailed and profound three-volume tome written by an Italian existentialist in the 1950s; it was designed for professional specialists of the discipline.
What can these say about the topic of “post-modernism”? – obviously nonexistent in those times! Yet that’s the material provided the students. Along with them, I have to learn to calm the fear of prickly philosophical terminology. I recognize that I’ve preferred to compile my own selections of readings, and in them-just like in conferences-I try to bring each topic closer to the real-life experiences and current problems of the students.
Struggling with the History of the Sociology is easier, because that discipline was absent in Cuba’s “gray decade” (the 1970s). Today we have a book that fits well with the program. It’s a Cuban paperback edition of a recent text by a US professor (though I doubt that even he knows that his books are being used by Cuban students!). The more advanced students understand it without difficulties. The style is also different, but even with that, a lot of basic concepts still have to be explained to many pupils.
I am enemy of rote memorization and the mechanical use of summaries and study guides. My objective is that the student be able to understand the content, which in these days (in these digital times), I still consider important. Because in this way they get used to the exercise of understanding the hidden connections between phenomena, to understand the very reality in which they live. Only if that occurs we will be able to say that the universalization of teaching has been a success.