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.