By Aurelio Pedroso (Progeso Weekly)
HAVANA TIMES – Not long ago, we were visited at home by a 13-year-old boy who had gone through six years of elementary education and was in his first year of junior high school (seventh grade, in other words).
The young boy surprised me by his deportment and good manners. Also, by the way he behaved at the table, holding the utensils in the proper manner and not talking with his mouth full. To top it off, he thanked us for our hospitality. Truly, a rare individual nowadays.
Impressed, I chose to quiz him about subjects that, in my opinion, he should know at his age. Unfortunately, my first question was also my last. I asked him to name three Cuban rivers.
Without hesitation, he answered, “the Mississippi.” Then he fell silent.
I was hoping against hope that the boy, who otherwise seemed smart, was pulling my leg, but – to personal and national shame – he had spoken with total sincerity.
Cuba, I admit, is not an exception when it comes to the status of worldwide education. Blunders similar to placing that mighty river in our insular geography have appeared in answers to college tests in the United States and Spain. But, as a Cuban, I’m hurt because for years we had an enviable educational system.
That is why I’m neither relieved nor placated by the realization that we’re manufacturing local donkeys who, with adult-sounding brays (a 22-year-old girl), explain that when the Berlin Wall fell, the Hitlerian fascists who lived in East Germany fled to the other half of the country.
The reader should not think for a moment that I was a brilliant student. On the contrary. The competition was fierce for the science-preparatory curriculum so, thanks to a deputy minister of adult education who was an uncle of renowned singer Pedro Luis Ferrer, I took the literature curriculum (we had to study Latin as if we were seminarians) and gained admission to the University, which had rigorous standards.
I still remember some of the courses I took at school of the Marist Brothers in Camagüey, the post-Revolution classes in geography using the textbook by Capt. Antonio Núñez Jiménez, and so on. That’s when teachers were addressed as “sir,” had gray hair and inspired inviolable respect.
Though it may grieve those who loudly defend the success of public education in the past 50 years, we must admit that education today is ailing and in therapy and that it wouldn’t do much good to stand the responsible (irresponsible) people at the back of the classroom with a dunce cap on the head, staring at the wall.
As the saying reminds us: “No use crying over spilt milk.”
Education is not excluded from the current process of renewal that the island is undergoing. That awesome task has been assigned to Minister Ena Elsa Velásquez Cobiella, who, sources tell me, knows well how to straighten up the years-old education mess because of her experience. May she succeed, I pray from here.
Against Ena Elsa is the fact that the necessary complement for a well-rounded education – family support – is insufficient for historical reasons, i.e., the education given to Mother and Dad. I’m talking about adults from 20 to 50 years old who, rather than students, were lab mice in an educational process that boasted of being “leading edge” and one of the best in the world.
Recently, Minister Velásquez Cobiella was challenged by the readers of Granma in the Letters to the Editor section of the daily newspaper, suggesting specific subjects and tests that could be given to the students. She was convincing when she replied that “elementary and high school education are in a process of improvement.”
Let us strive to improve, then, so that a child or a teenager can learn, for example, where we live and who our Caribbean neighbors are. After all, we have no illiterates here, and everybody can print or scratch his or her name in full. Never a thumbprint.