"Education Week", March 5, 2003
A Revolutionary Education
By Robert C. Johnston
Havana--It is 4:30 p.m., more than eight hours after classes began at
Manuel Bisbe Secondary School here, and Yoel Sanz Muñez can't get his 12
industrial arts students to put down their hammers and turn off the
Finally, the exasperated, silver-haired classroom veteran barks out,
"You stay, I'm going." It works. By 4:45, the 7th graders are heading
home. "You just can't get them to leave," Muñez says. Once the room is
quiet, he inspects a metal strainer the students are making. Nodding his
approval, he notes that the holes are drilled at precise angles
according to his charges' technical drawings.
Calling it a day, the 65-year-old Muñez wheels his weathered black
bicycle to the front of the school, easily mounts, and churns the pedals
for the 40-minute ride home.
Another school day has ended in Cuba, the enigmatic Communist
island-nation just 90 miles across the Straits of Florida. A political
pariah in the eyes of the United States for more than four decades, Cuba
has long drawn notice for its schools. Interest has heightened, though,
since a 2001 study by an international task force reported that Cuban
3rd and 4th graders, based on UNESCO research, easily outscored all
their Latin American peers in language and mathematics.
The Bisbe school provides a glimpse into Cuba's educational
Muñez is a popular and skillful teacher with 42 years in the classroom.
But, when he retires this year, he will join legions of colleagues also
retiring, or defecting to Cuba's growing tourism industry, where tips
for taxi drivers and waiters can far surpass the monthly teacher salary
of about $15.
The shop equipment at Bisbe, while functional, is old, Russian-made, and
would be costly to upgrade. To be sure, Cuba is spending millions to
improve schools and equip them with computers, televisions, and video
players. All are in use at Bisbe. But many schools are dilapidated, and
materials often are in short supply.
Then there are the students. Eager. Bright. Hard-working. Assertive. And
increasingly exposed to pop culture and consumerism—forces at odds with
the revolution's "New Man," who is supposed to put the needs of the
state over those of the individual.
Such influences pose new challenges to the Union of Young Communists and
the Organization of José Martí Pioneers—pro-revolutionary youth groups
with nearly universal participation.
When a visiting American asks a biology class of 35 students at the
elite Lenin School of Sciences who wants to be a teacher, a single hand
goes up. Young people, explains one, "want more possibilities" than a
teacher's salary affords.
And, while Cuba's reverence for learning is strong, it is at times
Cubans, who can be jailed for anti-government activism, fondly quote
their national hero José Martí. The writer-activist orchestrated Cuba's
revolution against Spain before dying in 1895 in the first armed
conflict. Celebrated in mass rallies by flag-waving students, Martí
expressed an oft-cited sentiment about education: "To be educated, is to
Walfriedo Cabezas is one of those taxi drivers foreign visitors hope to
meet. He is charming, speaks enough English to help with directions, and
drives a cool 1956, candy-apple red DeSoto Diplomat—an antiquated
workhorse and a clichéd exemplar of Cuban ingenuity.
But Cabezas is part of another Cuban legacy. In 1961, at age 12, he
joined more than 200,000 young people responding to the call of the
nation's leader, Fidel Castro, to saturate the countryside and teach
literacy. "I cried because my dad would not let me join the brigade
against illiteracy," he recalls. "He said I was too young."
The young Cabezas prevailed and spent five months living with a family
several hours from his home.
According to official accounts, the campaign succeeded in virtually
eradicating illiteracy. As a final test, Cabezas says, members of the
family he taught wrote a letter to "Fidel" to demonstrate their progress.
To this day, many credit the campaign with essentially wiping out
illiteracy. Others, though, point out that it also planted the seeds of
an education infrastructure that exists to indoctrinate students in
Cabezas does not doubt that the campaign put education at the front and
center of the new regime: "This was the battle for education. Without
this first step, we could not have had the education we now have."