Whatever Happened to University Reform?

Erasmo Calzadilla

Havana Park.  Photo: Caridad
Havana Park. Photo: Caridad

Lately I’ve become a Wikipedia junky.  I have a downloaded version that entertains, solves problems and expands my knowledge in all directions.

Browsing through this encyclopedia, I found an article on university reform that suddenly made me think about the call that was ignited in Cordoba, Argentina and exploded in Cuba as student struggles extended throughout the first half of the last century.

One would suppose that a mass-based socialist revolution such as the one that triumphed on January 1, 1959 would carry those demanded reforms to term, but real-life events took a different turn.

As a result of the Batista dictatorship, the institutions of civil society were so battered they could not resist the new force that swept the nation. Sooner or later they were all overwhelmed by this momentum.

The university was no exception.  Everything fell under the influence of the “revolutionaries,” to such a point that from then on (and according to words of Fidel) these would be exclusively for revolutionaries; that is to say, for those who enthusiastically adhered to the moral codes and tasks emanating from above.

The new university in fact echoed these reforms and it did so in an exemplary way, though not in all of its points: only those attractive to the poorest of society (like open and free admission). Notwithstanding, these did not affect the yearnings of an ideology anxious for hegemony.

Massive access and Latin American solidarity is a great thing, but what is the merit of massive access if it’s not accompanied by freedom? – other than indoctrinating the greatest number of people.

Those issues of university reform were aimed specially at preventing control by the thinking of the powerful then in place (an indispensable condition so that the central agency of knowledge could enjoy some credibility).  This control was eliminated at the initiative of the new university that was born. I am thinking of:

– University Autonomy

– Departmental Freedom

– Parallel Departments

– Free Departments

– Co-governance

The pretext was to prevent the university from remaining in the hands of a powerful bourgeoisie and its ideologists, but in the end it fell into other powerful hands – though not exactly those of an empowered people.

It doesn’t seem to me that many students and teachers in higher education in Cuba even know what university reform was.  Accordingly, I don’t believe there is anything here resembling an environment of struggle to achieve what our predecessors fought for almost a century ago.

But what else is there to do but continue working – even against the current and at great risks, at least to disclose the experiences of those conflicts.

All things big begin small and fragile.

Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

Erasmo Calzadilla has 408 posts and counting. See all posts by Erasmo Calzadilla

8 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to University Reform?

  • Don’t beat yourself up, Luis! Although each and every human being has the potential for thinking for himself or herself, nevertheless, the keys for unlocking these potentials are unique to each individual and, in the end, each must find find it for himself (with, if they are fortunate, the assistance or “midwifery” of a good teacher) just as Socrates showed the way to the slave boy in The Meno (I think).

  • … more complicated ones. I almost cried in despair from this situation. Was I a bad teacher? Is the kid simply stupid? I truly don’t think so – the sad thing is that nobody ever though him how to think, let alone ‘critically’. And he studies in a reasonably ‘good’ private school.

    I just couldn’t believe that 25 years after the military ‘gorillas’ stepped away from office, and the ideals of great educators like Paulo Freire finally taking a chance to prosper, the teaching of even the most basic reasoning abilities would be lacking in our educational system.

  • Mark G,

    I don’t think the first sentence of Marce’s post is ‘patently false’, it is in fact quite debatable. Even today the concept of ‘free-will’ is not quite yet philosophically ‘resolved’ (as if such thing exists).

    Goethe once said that ‘None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.’ This has always disturbed me.

    You speak proudly of Canada’s educational system, I cannot judge it, but in Brazil the teaching of ‘critical thought’ is marginal at best, even at the so-called ‘best’ schools, both public and private. Some people develop it, the vast majority don’t.

    Once I was asked to help the son of my mother’s friend in math, sixth grade. Simple equations. I thought him the old-school procedure of ‘isolating x’ and analogy of a equation with a balance. All my explanations were in the book, and the kid had read it, he solved the most simple equations but he still wasn’t able to apply the exact same procedure to slightly…

  • marce, your first sentence is patently false, and the rest of your entry frankly chilling. Students are not indoctrinated at Canadian (or Australian) universities. First of all, universities don’t teach, professional faculty teach. In my experience, most university professors (especially those teaching in the humanities) are decidedly more on the political left than the average Canadian. Nevertheless, students are taught to develop critical thinking skills. By thinking for themselves, students will hopefully question rather than accept at face value what they are told by those in authority.

  • Mark G,

    There are software tools that can rip entire sites. Anyway, I myself tend to avoid Wikipedia, too much (as they call it) wikivandalism – I once read an article about ‘synchronous motors’ that mentioned their sexual behaviour (!!!).

  • Indoctrination, meaning the imparting of a system of ideas or a doctrine, takes place in all educational institutions. What is wrong with Cuba’s universities seeking to indoctrinate students in the values and the ideology of the Cuban Revolution? Does Erasmo think Cuba’s universities should be “free” to teach capitalist values and ideology? I don’t. Should Cuba’s university departments be free to decide what they teach without regard to the needs of the society? If that’s what is meant by “autonomy”, then the universities become self-serving, detached from the society that created them. That’s a recipe for academic self-indulgence, not universities at the service of building socialism. Finally, why put inverted commas around the word “revolutionaries”? Does Erasmo consider that the revolutionary leadership around Fidel Castro was not revolutionary?

  • I didn’t even know Wikipedia could be downloaded, since it is designed to be viewed and updated online. Only in Cuba I suppose.

    All major Canadian universities are public institutions which receive most of their funding from government. One way to safeguard the independence of universities from the dictates of government is to split the administrative governance of the institution from the academic governance (perhaps this is what Erasmo means by co-governance). Administrative governance is done by appointed government boards. However, academic governance is the responsibility of a General Faculty Council made up of senior administrators, academic deans, and elected leaders of faculty associations and student unions. There’s also a pretty strong tradition of academic freedom for professors and students.

    Not a perfect system by any means, but vastly preferable to the authoritarianism of the Cuban system.

  • As long as there is no real attempt to discuss these reforms, let alone implement them, universities both in Cuba and in the U.S.A. will continue to graduate students unprepared to address our social, economic and environmental problems. While there are some smaller (mostly undergraduate) institutions of higher education up here who have tried to implement these reforms, for the most part these exist in a rarified and isolated atmosphere, like the “Thinkery” of Aristophanies’s satire. It sounded like your philosophy classes at the University of Habana were, for a short time, a rare opportunity for students to think on their feet and use more fully their potentials in exploring ideas. This threatened the inertia of spoon-feeding them a stale pablum left over from the Soviet era. Despite temporary set-backs, I admire your tenacity of struggling on, accomplishing what good you can. Since I believe in Reason and Wisdom, I have faith that, in the end, you will win over the…

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