Opening Their Cage Doors

Erasmo Calzadilla

Havana park sculpture.  Photo: Caridad
Havana park sculpture. Photo: Caridad

Do you know what Cuba’s municipal universities are?

From the high command, there one day came down the idea of creating branches of the University of Havana in each of the country’s 169 municipalities.

The idea was that these would be an incentive and an opportunity for thousands of youths who had been in the streets (neither studying nor working) and without the prospect for developing themselves, given the continued economic crisis the country is experiencing.

This was how the idea of these branch universities arose at the beginning of this decade.

In one of these municipalities, that of Plaza de la Revolución, I’m working this year as a history of philosophy teacher.  This subject is the most open of the group of subjects of a political-ideological nature that are mandatory for students majoring in the humanities.

The experience of standing in front of a group of students to discuss or orient them on the history of philosophy shifts between the agreeable and the absurd.

At times I feel like I’m making a real contribution to the spiritual or cognitive development of some of them, but in most cases I sense that the message is falling flat – and despair becomes my companion.

There are many things I still have to learn about how to improve my communications with students, but most of the difficulties I experience in the classroom have to do more with the environment than with myself.

As I see it, the problem resides in that teaching philosophy requires a general atmosphere of freedom; but neither the professors nor the students are ready for it.

I tell the students that I will not champion any concept, that no one possesses the absolute truth, that a definitive answer doesn’t exist for most questions, that for their final they’ll be able to choose an issue freely; and that in defending the one they choose they should do it based on reason.  However, as I try to open the doors of their cages, I find they don’t want to or can’t get out.


I believe this is because by the time they get to the history of philosophy, others before me have already taken charge of fixing in their minds, often through dictation, that dialectical materialism is the current that allowed philosophy to enjoy the status of science, that the fundamental problem of philosophy is the relation between being and thinking, that the struggle between materialism and philosophical idealism constitutes the axis that transcends the entire history of thought, and many other unjustified propositions.

Clearly, I’m not exempt from risk either.  I say this because though the basic bibliography of the history of philosophy is in the three volumes of Nicolas Abbagnano, an existentialist thinker of last century, our study program is from the Soviet school and possibly “emanates” from the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.  It continues insisting on the struggle between good and evil; that’s to say between philosophical idealists and materialists, a focus that I try to get around.

I want to think I can do this because things are changing; I want to imagine that the philosophers of the Central Committee are now better prepared and have understood that philosophy has nothing to do with a fixed idea imposed from above, and that the socialist revolution doesn’t benefit from this.

Meanwhile, I continue doing my work the best I can.