Cuba: Dead Poets Island

Kabir Vega Castellanos

HAVANA TIMES — Though the issue of school brings me unpleasant memories, I watched and enjoyed the film Dead Poets Society. I liked it even more than La Educacion Prohibida (“Forbidden Education”), one of the best documentaries about education I’ve seen.

The film shows us how all forms of independent thought can be stifled, how creativity can be replaced with mechanical thinking, in the harshest and most absurd way, through everything from parents who fail to understand their children to the deliberate robotization of students.

It follows a noble person who seeks to cultivate and encourage free thought and portrays a society which, programmed a certain way, rejects him and seeks to eliminate him at all costs.

The film was on my mind for weeks. It made me wonder how a world where new ideas aren’t considered taboo would be like.

Criticisms about Cuba’s educational system, to the effect that it doesn’t encourage creativity (among other things), are common. Ultimately, however, every country, every system of government, allows creativity to flourish only up to a certain point.

There is no place that unbridled creativity can express itself without meeting with reprisals, as governments have devised a strict procedure to ensure their comfort, to cancel out anything that can represent a threat to their stability.

For me, the saddest point in the film isn’t the moment when the young man who wants to become an actor and feels asphyxiated by the life his parents have planned for him commits suicide. It is, rather, the way in which everything is twisted so as to end up blaming the only person who had understood the young man and earned his trust.

The one true teacher, who had managed to awaken a spontaneous interest in poetry in his students, the desire to look at life through their own eyes, the one teacher who had given them something more important than the degree they were to receive at the end of their studies, precisely this teacher is shamefully expelled from the academy.

Of all the teachers I had in my days as a student, the only one who inspired something similar in me was my sixth-grade teacher. I regret having arrived in his classroom by mid-course, after switching schools.

I only had a few months with him. I remember I would be eager to attend class, that I would make an extra effort to ensure my assignments were among the best – and because I wanted to, not out of a sense of obligation or commitment.

I felt we could converse as friends, despite the age difference, and that he respected me. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, all the kids liked him. When he told the school that was the last class he would teach, because his salary wasn’t enough to live on, the principal didn’t know what to do to convince him to stay. She even offered to make him vice-principal, but he turned down the offer.

If wages in education are notably raised in Cuba one day, this will doubtless incentivize teachers and improve their work some, but it won’t change the fact it is a system designed to kill creativity and the curiosity needed to learn (and not only course materials).

As is the case nearly everywhere else in the world, they will continue to kill that very special thing that one’s calling can be, or, quite simply, the peculiar way of looking at life we have, our individuality.

9 thoughts on “Cuba: Dead Poets Island

  • I will break my resolution and reply to what Moses wrote, but my audience is those who read this page with an “open mind.” I just went and rewatched the film “Dead Poets Society” and clearly you misunderstoon the film and it’s attraction to American students. In the film the expensive, private school teacher is not the norm, he is not likely a common stereotype. In fact he is exceptionally different and not just because he is portrayed by the manic and unusual Robin Williams. I have been to a private school for one year and attended almost 20 different public schools, from Virginia to Connecticut and 5 colleges, some overseas, so I have a fair first hand experience. I have also studied educational methods and systems for over 50 years, and all of this persuades me that finding a teacher in the US system that will teach outside of the local curriculum and cultural box is unusual, not the normal experience. That is that even without having seen it first hand, Kibir is correct, the Robin Williams’ experience is quite uncommon. However, the film is correct in showing that students, if given such an opportunity do respond, and in part with enthusiasm built up by prior stifling intellectual repression. But note that in the film, the teacher loses and one student commits suicide. In American public schools, all too often the students lose before they even enter school. The exceptions are wonderful and greatly needed and that is why the film spoke to a real need, in the US. In Cuba? Well, I applaud Kibir for his efforts and as I wrote, I hope he will look for ways he can improve education in Cuba – which necessarily excludes turning it back into a satellite of the US.

  • The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by a committee of politicians formed by the Norwegian parliament. Aside from the name, it is unrelated to the Stockholm Nobel Prizes. For this reason, in recent years there have been a number of dubious the recipients of that prize.

    The Nobel Prizes for literature, economics, medicine, chemistry and physics are awarded by panels of experts in those fields who examine the actual accomplishments of the candidates for the award.

    The quality of schools in the US range from excellent to abysmal. In Cuba the schools are all of low quality and falling further. The adherence to dogma and political indoctrination is overwhelming in Cuban schools. Teachers will be fired if they deviate from the highly politicized curriculum and students who fail to do well on the required political courses receive a black mark which goes into their official records.

    It must be asked, what is the value of an education if there are few real jobs in the field you were trained for? Engineers and scientists will make more money waiting tables and driving taxis than they will in their professions. The value of literacy is degraded when so many books and magazines are banned and there is no free press and no freedom of speech.

  • “he only world class leader who has called for all nations to do their
    moral duty to “avert” or prevent catastrophic climate change is the
    exceptional leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro.” Wow. What a nonsense!

    Is that why the Cuban government has run down public transport, failed to build public transport links to airport or remote communities, so that more and more taxis can pollute and burn petrol? The whole Cuban system lacks imagination to see an alternative to oil. Cuba could dbe energy self-sufficient with renewable energy. Only it is not. Instead of sticking to a system of returnable bottles, Cuba sells its hard currency drinks in cans that most Cubans are happy to dump away at beaches or in the street. Your world class leader has no concept of sustainability nor did he ever intend to instil it in the Cuban people.

  • Like many Castro sycophants, you ascribe undeserved intellectual attributes to Fidel Castro. He is not credited with even one original precept which has advanced society as a whole. On the contrary, as Cuban dictator, he controlled a bully pulpit to restate failed Marxist-Leninist quotes ad hominem. His utterances were uncontested as there is no forum for intellectual debate in Cuba. Anyone who is free to go on and on speaking to a national audience for more than four hours at a time is bound to sound smart once in a while. Yet nothing he has said is anything you would not hear any one of those Cubans in Parque Central’s ‘hot corner’ stumble upon if given the platform that Fidel controls. He has written about the benefits of Moringa and Yoga for goodness sakes. In my ‘hood, we call guys like Fidel “blowhards”. Fidel is absolutely not the first nor only world leader to come out against climate change. Former US Vice President Al Gore has done more in one year than Fidel has ever accomplished to battle the ignorance that resists the science of climate change. The studies on US education that you referenced are contradicted by many other equally valid studies. One of which is linked here. In as much as this is HT, the focus should remain on the lack of innovation and critical thinking in Cuba. On this issue there is little debate. At the expense of free thinking, the failed revolution sought to shape young minds towards a totalitarian and socialist mold.

  • Moses, I hesitate to reply to you, since I am convinced you are a sincere believer and apologist for US imperialism, but since this is a public page, I will offer my view on US education – which is diametrically opposite yours. For example, you continue to confuse anecdotes with sociological measures of probability. The fact that there are “exceptional” students and thinkers in all societies, doesn’t in any way determine the general achievements. Two specific examples; Obama received a Noble for his Peace work. Obviously this doesn’t necessarily describe him or the US accurately. 2nd, the only world class leader who has called for all nations to do their moral duty to “avert” or prevent catastrophic climate change is the exceptional leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro. You think he doesn’t represent a positive intellectual trend in Cuba, I think he represents an exceptionally high intellectual achievement in Cuba and is world class. Your parents and your wife’s opinions are just that, opinions unless you can show they were formed scientifically and are peer reviewed. If not, then they remain opinions, just as my thoughts are mine, and I do not claim the ability to know or describe the “freedom” and alleged exceptionalism of the teachers in either the US or Cuba. However, I can tell you that a brief survey of teaching in the US from the “founding fathers” to the present will show that the US academic institutions and practices include many exceptional individuals, but also a huge amount of study and evidence of false and manipulated educational content. Check out Teaching For Change at or “Lies My Teacher Told Me” at or any of the other efforts to expose the hidden history we in the US have suffered. I would respect your opinions more if I saw either balance or acknowledgment of the continuing efforts to propagandize and dumb down US school curriculums.

  • Walter, a key component of “American Exceptionalism” is our capacity to think outside the box. In large measure due to the relative newness of our system, American curriculum has generated more Nobel prize recipients than any other country in the world. As a child of a lifelong educator, I can tell you that American teachers are underpaid, underappreciated and ‘unarmed’ yet continue to produce world leaders in science, technology and humanities. My wife’s sister is a teacher in Guantanamo and I have a pretty good idea from her about how education is done in Cuba today. Cuba could learn much from the freedom of thought permitted in the US.

  • Kabir, perhaps you can become one of those exceptional and inspiring teachers? A good social studies teacher would not make subjective claims based on bias or assumptions, but would suggest that research might show examples and approaches to education that better avoid instutional dumbing down. Like the article on the Cuban community representative Adela, good examples of teachers and leaders can be found almost everywhere. But good education is not only based on being able to be creative artistically but also being able to think creatively which requires among other things not confusing anecdotes with probabilities.

    Education in the United States, for most of our history has been incredibly stifling and biased. Even today, money and conservatism rule the curriculum of most US teaching. There are wonderful exceptions of course, but the reason Hollywood makes an occasional film about a brave and inspiring teacher who goes against the grain is precisely because that kind of teacher is still much too rare in the US.

    I don’t know the potential or statistical facts of teaching in Cuba today, but I know in the United States we need much more freedom of thought and instruction in our schools.

  • I think of all the great Cuban poets who’s work will never be taught in schools so long as the Castro regime rules the island. Reinaldo Arenas, Guillermo Infante, Angel Santiesteban and Pedro Juan Gutierrez are the “dead poets” of Cuba.

    Are there teachers in Cuba brave enough to teach these poets to their students?

  • This young man certainly thinks like a Cuban. Several times in his post he writes of “nearly everywhere else in the world” using the same tactics to contain free thinking as used by the Castros in Cuba. On what basis does he make this claim? The movie “Dead Poets Society” was critically successful in large measure because most filmgoers could relate to having a teacher like the one played by Robin Williams. Outside of Cuba this is not uncommon despite Kabir’s cynicism. I am thankful that my kids are not being taught “to be like Che”. Instead, they are taught to be like Martin Luther King, or Miles Davis or even Steven Jobs but mostly just to be the best that they can be.

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