Whilst holidaying in Cuba I stumbled across a primary school. Obviously, I went in (thinking that if I took enough pictures I could get the trip paid for by my employer claiming that the whole holiday was in fact ‘professional development’) where I was met by the school’s Headteacher. The children were on holiday but I was welcome to look around if I had any money to donate as the school didn’t have enough money for pencils. ‘Welcome to my world’ I laughed in slow English as I patted her on the back and got her to pose for a selfie.
Cubans value education enormously. You can tell from the fact that whenever you’re in a taxi the driver will excitedly point out any school or university that you pass with levels of patriotic pride generally reserved for national monuments, of which Cuba, let me tell you, is not short of (you can barely move for statues and murals of men with beards – if you don’t know your communist history you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a national hipster convention.) Some drivers asked if I wanted to stop so I could take a photo of these beacons of education and, to show respect, I said I’d love to-as long as the photo could be taken with me sitting in the driving seat of their classic American car with the school, university, whatever, in the background.
I also went on a tour of ‘real Cuban life’. You know the drill, where you see real Cubans off their maracas on white rum, smoking cigars and dancing the Rumba. Actually, this tour was a little different. It mainly consisted of walking into ‘quota’ shops to see everyday Cubans queueing up to spend their government issued tokens that entitled them to their weekly allowance of flour, eggs, meat, butter and fruit. As I took a selfie of me, posing with a confused looking elder standing in front of the shop’s counter, I was asked by my Guide if there are such places in England. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘We’re a rich capitalist democracy. We have food banks instead.’
As we continued along the tour I found out that my Guide was in fact a teacher himself. Well, he was, but he gave it up as he found he could make more money as a tour guide than he could as a teacher at the university. ‘It also became frustrating,’ he said. ‘The government expected more and more from teachers but they refused to give us any more resources or money to achieve their demands.’ He continued to explain how he could not afford to live in the main part of the city, where the university was, meaning he had to spend hours traveling to work, sometimes by horse and cart, to teach an ever-expanding curriculum in order to hit an impossibly high set of targets. ‘Welcome to my world’ I laughed in normal English (he was a professor in English and throughout our tour kept on correcting my appalling diction and frequent misuse of the formal vernacular) as I patted him on the back and took a photo of him next to an Instagramily decrepit building that was ‘so’ Cuba.
I asked him about the curriculum. Children learn a lot about Cuban history and the Cuban way of life. This is very important. Through direct instruction they are taught exactly what the government wish them to learn. I asked my Guide if children could question the information that they were presented with by their teacher. ‘Everyone has freedom of thought,’ he explained. ‘But this does not equate to freedom of expression.’ A child asking questions or showing curiosity that may prod the expected norms or challenge the natural (national) order of thinking is not something that you would see in a traditional Cuban classroom. It’s not ‘not allowed’ but it is unlikely it would occur as it would be perceived as getting in the way of the teacher’s knowledge and, therefore, the truth. ‘There are signs that this is changing though in higher education as more young people are asking more questions that challenge the status quo.’ He asked me about education in this country. Four hours later he said that although he still didn’t understand what a progressive teacher was, he did understand that they were a threat to national security.
Cuba has changed much in recent years. Since 2008, Cubans can now run their own businesses, travel more freely, own a mobile phone and stay in hotels. These changes have come as the country has battled with its economic sovereignty and it is likely that, after 2018, the country will see more economic and social changes that will alter the Cuban way of life immeasurably. Some, mainly the older generations, do not yet have Cuban-Fever over this prospect. You can’t blame them. They’ve already gone through one bloody revolution and are satisfied with the circumstances they now find themselves in. The younger generations however want more freedoms, a wider set of life-experiences, the opportunity to question the world they live in so that they may improve it for future generations, and, the ability to face-time whenever they want.
I shook my Guide’s hand and, as we posed together for a final selfie in front of a statue depicting Ernest Hemmingway propping up a bar dribbling strawberry daiquiri all over his beard, I wondered, out loud, whether Cuba might one day be as great as Great Britain. The Guide patted me on the back and said ‘Eres un hombre inglés muy divertido’. I smiled at the compliment and he continued. ‘Yes, there may be some similarities between our two countries,’ he said. ‘Both our governments may value education but not its educators; many of our schools may be so under-funded that they are forced to beg for pencils; teacher retention – due to a combination of increased workload, higher expectations and unaffordable housing – may be at an all-time low. But, at least in Cuba, our country is widening its economic trade borders and making it easier for its people to travel to other countries. At least we are starting to move away from the tight grip of a knowledge only curriculum delivered through robust direct instruction, as we recognise that this can lead to unquestioning indoctrination. And, I think you’ll find, my government has been openly critical about the abhorrent views and policies of a certain world leader that threaten the peace and democracy of the entire planet.’ After that he paused, waiting for a reply. So, as I had done throughout all my time in Cuba when I found myself in a tight spot, I smiled and told him that I was awfully sorry but that I didn’t speak any Spanish.
As we parted, he gifted me a copy of Fidel Castro’s 1953 four-hour speech and eventual manifesto. I haven’t read it yet but it’s got one heck of a snappy title: History will absolve me.