An Interview with “NO” Answers

Erasmo Calzadilla

Alfredo Fernández - photo: Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES, 18 abril — Alfredo Fernández, blogger on this Havana Times site, is also a History of Philosophy professor at a university in Havana; we are colleagues.  Related to so research I’m doing about the democratizacion of science I asked Alfredo some questions that he subsequently answered.  Without further delay I present the conversation.

Alfredo Fernandez: Hey Erasmo. I just looked at your list of questions for me, and I have to say this is going to be an interview of “NO” answers.  I can only respond to the last question with something other than no, given that it’s the sole enquiry that doesn’t ask for a yes or no response.

In any case, I’ll try to justify my “no” answer to each question with the arguments I’ve developed over my brief two year career as a professor of the History of Philosophy here in Havana.

Have you ever been asked to participate in any way in the design of the course you teach?   How often does such a consultation take place?

A.F. – Well, here you have my first no.  Never have I been asked to participate in the design of the course The History of Philosophy.  This is why you can find academic deterioration reigning across the island today, specifically in the area of ideas.  It’s almost reached the point of educational indigence, with the result being that anything not presented as Marxist is seen as monstrous.

In Cuba this ideology is the sole form of thought. If in your classes you don’t associate Marxism with the whole history of philosophy, you’ll be a poor teacher to those “academics” who designed the program. It doesn’t matter if you teach ancient or medieval philosophy, though these were ages when Marxism didn’t yet exist. The same is true with pre-Socratic philosophers, like the “Naive Materialistic” schools – this without caring that the pre-Socratics were also unaware of the concept of idealism.

So, our academics think the program they designed is excellent and very little or nothing should be changed.

Erasmo, what I’ve learned about how to improve my classes I owe to an experienced teacher, Professor Alexis Jardines, the head of my department at the main campus.  He has always assisted me over these two years as a teacher and a philosopher in assuming an outlook toward the history of philosophy that is creative and not at all dogmatic.

Do you believe that a philosophy program imposed by a head professor without communication with the teachers who teach it or the students who receive it is exercising its social function of helping to create free-thinking people? Why or why not?

A.F. – Here goes my second no.  In any Cuban educational forum you attend, you’ll hear people talking about “popular education” and Paulo Freire until they’re blue.  But what is popular education other than fomenting the active participation of students in the construction of the knowledge that they’ll learn, or just grasp.  However, students in Cuban universities today receive a quantity of knowledge —almost always excessive— that comes “pre-canned from above.”

When I say “from above” I’m referring to programs that are made with aims that are too specific. This being the case, the possibility of creating free-thinking people who can draw from the act learning itself is restricted. This is because the knowledge conveyed impedes the student’s creative search for it.  This is when they’re most like spokespeople of unconnected writings defending the “status quo.”

Alfredo Fernández - photo: Irina Echarry

All you have to do is listen to the answers given by students to elementary questions on the subject. Generally their answers are unnecessarily politicized.  For example: If you ask them about the Middle Ages, they’ll tell you about very bad Catholic priests who subjugated very good farmers, overlooking the influence of religious epistemology in Western culture and the introduction of the “being” (ontology) to philosophy during this period.

How do students view the current program?

A.F. – The answer I could give is a type of no, since it’s not positive.  The current history of philosophy program, if it’s taught like it’s designed, would put my students to sleep in class. It has converted into the most boring in all the courses, without adding that intellectually it won’t be of any use to them at all. I believe that philosophy has to be taught by philosophers, it doesn’t matter that in some cases the teachers belong to the same current of thought; two philosophers of the same school will not structure their thought in the same way, and that has to be made known to the students.

In terms of the current program on the course “The History of Philosophy,” there are so many deficiencies that it will have to be amended sooner rather than later, placing Marxism as a current of thought equal to any other one.  Only in this way will it be possible to create a course that is free of any form of dogmatism.

In the design of this new program, nor must we diminish the importance of maintaining constant criticism of the practices of producing knowledge and research in the terrain of ideas; we must always respect the plurality of perspectives and points of views that can emerge from the students themselves, moving away from the teacher’s desire to impose one or another perspective on others.

The amended program will also provide elements for continually assessing the scope and limits of approaches to thought, thereby maintaining a living reflection of the role of philosophy in unraveling the enigmas of reality.

In terms of the course “The History of Philosophy,” I believe its duration should extend over a period of four courses, as was proposed more than fifty years ago by Professor Jorge Mañach. In this way we would eliminate two unnecessary courses, “Philosophy and Society” (which are terrible at promoting a socialist society that won’t take place, at least not in that way). These will be turned into “The History of Philosophy (I),” and the name of the present course “Contemporary Philosophical and Social Thought” will be changed to “The History of Philosophy (II).”

The course “The History of Philosophy” has to be extended to technical majors as well, where currently in Cuba only “Philosophy and Society” is taught.  With these changes there would be an increase in the possibilities for engaging in “philosophy at 76 degrees Fahrenheit,” which was Professor Mañach’s desire.

3 thoughts on “An Interview with “NO” Answers

  • Those drinking from the honey of power prefer the safer road at least for them of the roads they already known and that keeps them in power enjoying of more honey. So the revolutionaries of 50 years ago are the reactionaries of today. They avert revolution that is change. To keep the status quo is their purpose.
    How much more honey of power would they need?
    It seems is insatiable their appetite for it.

  • What you guys are asking is for
    “Academic freedom” then why stop there?
    Why not freedom for all to think and to make conclusions on their own?
    Why is the Cuban regime so adamant to give that right back?
    What is really at stake if there is freedom?
    Who stand to loose power or to have less power that already holds today?

    All of those point directly like a compass needle to the source of all this mess
    The Cuban leadership infatuation with power. Something one of them calls
    “The honey of power”

    Is it right for a few to posses so much power over so many?

  • The pedagogical model for the University of Habana’s Philosophy Department sounds like that of Aristophanes’s “Thinkery,” or maybe on “Gradgrind’s Model School” from Dickens’s “Hard TImes!” What! They haven’t yet incorporated Gen. Kim Il Sung’s “Juche-thought”?!

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