My matriculation at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) in Havana, Cuba has proven to be less romantic and demystifying as many red-blooded North Americans might imagine.
An example of this would be a scene from our medicine and history class last week. The professor, a scholar in every meaning of the word, was lecturing about the crisis in the feudalist system of Western Europe that occurred from 1400’s to the 1500’s. He was illustrating the situation with clear logic and enunciated words (only about 50% of my peers in the class speak Spanish as a first language).
We, the students, were informed that new forms of trade created a demand for skilled labor to produce products. This turned local commerce into regional commerce and put a huge pressure on regional specialization of goods that drained the feudal system of land and exploitable labor.
Now, usually at this point in any history lecture one can observe most of the students in various states of attentiveness. More often than not the majority are not so taken by the professor’s years of accumulated wisdom and noticeable effort to accommodate those of us with a less than fluent comprehension of Spanish.
Perhaps like most young people in any history class in the world, they are thinking about where they would rather be. Then, without anticipation, a moment passed that elevated the attention of all, and all the professor did was drop a name.
In his clearly logical and general explanation of events 500 years past he hit a nerve with a simple aside. He had just made the point that the shift of local to regional commerce led to the first manufacturing of specialized goods with the sole intent exportation. Then he said the name: Karl Marx. Karl Marx said this type of post-feudal western European manufacturing was the human race’s first real try at capitalism. As soon as I heard Karl Marx I perked up, and in my newfound perkiness I saw that almost all of my other classmates had verve among them as well.
As the new majority of the class were now attentive in hearing the name of Karl Marx, I remember with clarity what conclusion I drew almost instantly at evaluating this dynamic in the classroom: That this is the first time in 5 weeks of medicine and history class in Cuba, in Revolutionary Cuba, that I have heard any name remotely associated with what someone from the U.S.A. would probably think Cuba history class was composed of in its entirety. That is, socialist, communist, and revolutionary figures. And my very next thought was: this will change the class, this is what has been missing, those elements that everyone assumed would be here. People will want to pay attention and be active learners.
No sooner than I had made this conclusive observation to myself then my classmate to my immediate right, an intelligent and curious guy from the Dominican Republic, leaned over and asked me a question. “What time is it?” It was 5 minutes until class let out. And then the obvious became clear: my classmates were not contemplating the impact of Marx on our interpretation of history; they were fidgeting and waiting for the bell to ring to leave class.