February 22, 2012
HAVANA TIMES, Feb 22 — Some time ago I saw a Cuban documentary about
elementary school education here. To teach the pronunciation of the
letter "f," the teacher used the word "firearm" – not flower, or fiesta
or fun…words that are closer to children. With an emphatic pause, she
pronounced: FIRE-ARM, and proceeded to make those innocent students
repeat those same syllables.
Just recently my teenage son showed me his math book, in which he had
noticed a recurring — coincidental? — focus. Let me give a few examples:
"If a box has 100 bullets, and you use a quarter of them in a shooting
Another begins: "In a military maneuver, a truck is carrying seven
crates of rifles…"
A third gives the example of "the tenth regiment from the Camilo
Cienfuegos Military School (EMCC)" in order to finally ask how many
sacks of potatoes were collected by the students.
This made me wonder what the relevance of it being a military school
was. Are cadets the only students who harvest potatoes?
Why can't figures come from situations that are more immediate to the
students themselves? For example: "In a fashion show, 17 young people
filed across the runway…" Or: "Outside of a discotheque are 200 young
people…" I'm sure that this shift in perspective would catch the
students' attention and make classes more fun.
However, not to underestimate the magnitude of the subliminal message,
there appeared the following: "Of the 20 students in a classroom, 5 are
members of the Young Communists League…"
In this same vein, his school is saturated with political murals
(standardized murals in which the interests of the students are absent),
while the walls are covered with photos of revolutionary heroes, and
there's a hymn that they're required to repeat daily "with all the
enthusiasm it deserves" (as if enthusiasm can be commanded).
Similarly, the nation's historical figures have to be memorized.
But where is the space for perceiving history for themselves, or their
Do we know how to think?
A friend whose teenage son immigrated to Canada told me that one of the
culture shocks he is facing is his "having to think."
For example, when studying a historical event or figure in school, they
aren't given any prior assessment. He is only asked his opinion, which
he described as making him feel as if he were "in the air."
One detail that caught my attention when I visited several schools in
France was not seeing busts of martyrs anywhere, not even outside of
schools. Nor were the walls plastered with pictures of national heroes.
The most political statement I saw was in the lobby of one school, it
was the inscription "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." The murals are made
by the students themselves and are around issues of interest to them or
ones related directly to their classes.
From the people I met on my book tour, I got the sense that politics in
French society is for those who choose to be involved in it. The rest of
the population simply leads their own lives, not even the frequent
strikes are "nuanced" with ideology.
In Cuba, ideology is the first thing that appears in schools, on the job
and even in neighborhood groups.
The dull meetings of local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution
are essentially political (though carefully timed so as not to conflict
with the evening soap opera, because then they'd be that much more
"Volunteer" work, which is tacitly imposed, is carried out with complete
apathy and done only to avoid being branded negatively (in a political
In the neighborhood Report-back Assemblies with our elected delegates,
it's common for a complaint or an expression of dissatisfaction to be
prefaced with a proclamation of political loyalty, as if only such
people have the right to speak.
It's as if politics were a safe-conduct pass when actually it's the
obstacle, one that stupefies and separates us.
No country is constructed with ideologies or wars. Ideologies are (at
best) expressions of the inevitable changes in the evolution of
Wars are the expression of conflict, purging and destruction, where the
ultimate aim is to build civility, without silhouettes of guns and
rifles in our children's books or in their games or dreams, like
The aim of civility must be pursued without the eternal invocation of an
enemy that — in our case — has only served as a goal and refuge for a
shameful and endless exodus.
We require civility with schools and children who think of life and not
death, of peace, not war. Words have weight, a psychological and even a
biological impact, already demonstrated in experiments like in Water
Secrets and in the evidence of parapsychology.
Gandhi said: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." I'm sure that
peace makes it possible to build a just civility, which is the desire of
a good part of humanity – including Cubans.