HAVANA TIMES — Till recently, school and repression were for me synonymous. At least, this is how I felt about Cuba’s educational system, which devotes arduous efforts to inculcate distorted values in you from the time you enter pre-school, urges you to follow in the footsteps of someone you don’t yet know from the first grade on, and, when you’re still a kid, forces you to join an organization that begins to train you for the fraud of a democracy you will live under later in life.
And the whole process is managed and legitimated by a whole army of high-level psychologists and pedagogues in the name of the common Good.
I was a university professor for a number of years and a high school teacher for some months. During this time, I never once heard anyone say anything about libertarian teaching methods. I met dissident teachers, disaffected teachers, teachers who didn’t give two shits about anything, students who were delinquents, students who were rebellious, unstable or alienated.
But I never came across anyone who was coherently and systematically in favor of any of the following principles:
- Respect towards the psychological individuality of the child or youngster, of the kind that abhors emotional coercion and the inculcation of values.
- Co-management of school affairs by the students, as a form of training in freedom and responsibility.
- Condemnation of sexual repression and competitiveness.
The song by Pink Floyd where I found the title for this post had given me reason to think that, somewhere in the world, there had to be a movement opposed to traditional, repressive education. I was seeing a ray of hope, but didn’t know where it was coming from. Only many years later would I discover the libertarian pedagogy movement.
One of its founders had been the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer y Guardia. Around 1901, in Barcelona, Ferrer y Guardia had founded the Modern School, an institution where children of both genders and of every social class (something revolutionary for the time) would learn at their own pace, through different games.
The initiative was so disturbing for the owners of the country’s spiritual monopoly at the time (the Church and State), that they led a war against Ferrer y Guardia and did not stop until he was lying dead in a mass grave somewhere.
Three of the martyr’s reflections can help us get a sense of what his enemies were so afraid of.
- “We have no fear to stress this: we want men and women who are capable of evolving constantly, who are able to constantly tear down and renew their environment and themselves, people whose intellectual independence becomes their chief driving force, who will never cling to anything, and who are always willing to welcome what’s best, happy to see the triumph of new ideas and who aspire to lead multiple lives in the span of one life. Society fears such people. We cannot, thus, expect it to ever want a system of education capable of producing them.”
- “Just as science admits no demonstration that isn’t supported by facts, so too is there no real education other than that which is free of all dogmatism, that which allows the child to direct his/her own efforts and only sets out to aid in this journey. There is nothing easier than altering this path and nothing harder than respecting it.”
- “(…) may the student’s own intelligence, influenced only by what he or she sees and documents, aided by the positive knowledge he or she acquires, reason freely, without prejudices or any sectarian coercion of any sort, with full autonomy and with no other restrictions than those imposed by Reason itself.”
Fifty years later, in revolutionary Cuba, Ferrer y Guardia would not have been put before a firing squad, true, but he could well have been imprisoned or harassed. What’s certain is that he would never have been able to create a school or to publish anything that Fidel Castro could not agree with.