US Building a Wall along Its Australian Border?

Dmitri Prieto

Cuban school children. Photo: Caridad

A curious Cuban documentary is being passed around from hand to hand on USB memory sticks.  Made by young people here, it consists of short interviews of people ranging from adolescents to middle-agers, a variety of people, with most of the film related to Cuban education.

What’s especially engrossing are some of the “instructors” or crash-course teachers, meaning kids around 16 to 20 years old who’ve been fast tracked to serve as teachers in the general educational system (elementary and secondary schools), precisely where most Cuban youth are studying today.

There is a tremendous need for teachers, but little interest in for the difficult yet underpaid work. This was why in the framework of a number of social programs collectively dubbed the “Battle of Ideas,” an approach was taken to train young teachers and to give them certain social advantages.  In return, they were asked to commit to being assigned to teaching for a number of years as their post-graduation social service obligation.

In Cuba there has been constant criticism (sometimes public, though more often concealed) concerning the quality of education provided by these fast track educators.  It’s said, for example, that kids who are almost the same age as those they’re educating cannot be good educators because they cannot win the respect of their students.  Other critiques point to the poor preparation of those “profs.”  The documentary serves to bolster such criticisms.

What happens in the film is that interviewers make up a group of questions that are elementary if not downright dumb.  For example: “How many world wars have we had?”  Who wrote who Homer’s Iliad?”  “Why are Hiroshima and Nagasaki famous?”  People then try to answer them.

In one scene a bicycle-taxi driver responds quickly to the last one, mentioning the US atomic bombings.  Likewise, an older woman quickly passes the test concerning the world wars.

But the most surprising cases —some in which elementary education instructors stand out— are those where the interviewees are totally incapable of making any coherent response.  A primary school teacher doesn’t know where the Cuban anti-colonial hero Antonio Maceo was born, and another confuses the world wars in a big way by asserting that they were fought by the people of Cuba against the Spanish mother country.

The climax of the video takes place when an adult woman who is full of anti-imperialist solidarity and fervor expresses her deep repudiation of the construction by the USA of a wall “on its border with Australia”; her response came after the interviewer asked for her opinion concerning such a dramatic fact.  “The Yankees have always wanted to control us Latin Americans, but they’ll never succeed at it, and not this time either with that disgraceful wall,” she explodes. (I can’t guarantee the complete accuracy of this, but that was indeed the sense of her response.)

Perhaps there are other countries where the historical-geographical knowledge of their citizens is pathetic.  Maybe most Cubans know that Homer’s Iliad was written by…Homer (though Jose Marti also crafted an essay for children that he titled “The Iliad, of Homer,” which is why the answer “Marti” would have also been correct).

Perhaps elementary school education in Cuba is in fact something wonderful, as has been repeated so many times, and that the cases appearing in the documentary are atypical.  But when viewing this short documentary —which concludes with a fragment of Fidel Castro’s historic victory speech delivered in 1961 when the flag of the “First Territory Free of Illiteracy in the Americas” was hoisted over the Cuban capital’s Revolution Square— I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or scream with rage.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.


8 thoughts on “US Building a Wall along Its Australian Border?

  • April 24, 2010 at 7:21 pm
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    Whether in Cuba or up here in Yuma-land, the poor quality of public education is a perennial topic. Many teachers, whether of the crash-course variety in Cuba, or from the state teachers’ colleges up here in the States, are uninspired mediocrities; still, new generations somehow manage to acquire the knowledge they will need. In both places, at least some of the mediocrities will grow into good teachers; others will mark time ’til they retire. I’ve grown skeptical of the generalized solutions to this problem. Every few years a new program of reform is offered by members of the educrocracy, only to ingloriously sputter out some years later. I suspect there are many roads to knowledge and wisdom, and that it is a life-long journey. If a student has the potential for learning beyond mere training, s/he will find a way to overcome the limitations and the handicaps imposed by limited teachers. In the meantime, the imperfect systems we have are better than what we had before.

  • April 23, 2010 at 7:22 pm
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    Dmitri

    Isaac Asimov a compatriot of yours who is one of my favorite science fiction writers defined a unit of measure of beauty the milihelen as the unit of beauty so

    1 millihelen is the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millihelen#Beauty:_Helen

    Incidentally I have tried to defined a unit of dictatorship
    called the Castro in honor to Fidel!

    So Stalin may have been 5 maybe 10 Castros. Hugo Chavez may be so far a .7 Castro’s etc. 🙂
    Hope Fidel Castro does not get mad at me. 🙂

  • April 23, 2010 at 6:23 pm
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    9 CUCs a month in Havana for an elementary school teacher just doesn’t allow for ends to meet.

  • April 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm
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    Even the Homer person. Some people doubt he existed.
    It may have been a pseudonym by a group of people
    Just like Bourbaki is for a group of french mathematicians!

  • April 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm
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    Then one could now ask even other questions

    Could it be possible that the Helen of Troy that has been described as the face that launched a thousand ships was a real person or was she just a narrative device by Homer?

  • April 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm
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    With regards to the question about who wrote Homer’s Iliad
    It is actually badly phrase question or maybe a very deep question depeding on who is asking and who is responding !

    We really do not know who wrote it.
    We attribute the illiad to a person name Homer but many believe that Homer gather poems by many different people under his own name. This opinions are still subject to debate and maybe we will never know.
    At that time there was an oral tradition of transmitting knowledge.

    Originally people though that the Trojan war and the Troja described by Illiad was mainly fiction until Heinrich Schliemann began to take it literally and the surprising thing is that Schliemann appeared to be right!

    Troja seem to have been a real thing!
    He found a city in the place described by Homer that matches the description of Homer’s epic poems.

    What a surprising twist! See here for info
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_war

  • April 22, 2010 at 9:34 pm
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    S
    You are correct. Many think that the education provide by any state is sufficient. The sad reality is that is not.
    There has to be a parents involvement in the education of their own children.
    There is a direct relationship between the performance of a child in education and the educational level of their parents. Some will think it maybe gene related. I think is got more to do with an environment that fosters education and learning.

    Did anyone ask what happen to the real teachers? Before they had to get this “instant teachers”?

    Not sufficient compensation? Why not? Is that the reason? Or did the real teachers got exported to Venezuela or some other countries as a Cuban national product?

    What I am trying to say is that this is a problem that was and is created by the current regime.
    Since education is part of the “free benefits” now Cubans find themselves short-change by the regime.

  • April 22, 2010 at 7:02 pm
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    I heard much of the same criticism when I was in Cuba last…particularly during the Havana book fair. Most of the books available in cuban pesos were of very poor quality and very uninteresting…at the worst they were pure state propaganda. All the more interesting and “beautiful” books were sold in convertibles at prices out of reach of most cubans. My friend’s daughter is now 5 years old and attends pre-school in Havana, she does not know basic shapes, colors or other very simple information. Her parents both work full time and trust the education system to help educate their child….but they are at a loss and feel like sending her there is more like day care than actual education. I stayed up late one night helping my friend make a notebook out of cut out shapes, drawings and stickers to help her learn these basic things. Of course it is up to parents to also educate their children…but more and more I think people feel like the system is failing their children.

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