by Bill Greenshields

HOW IS IT that a small developing nation, subject to political hostility and economic embargo for 50 years, can have eradicated illiteracy within a two-year period, gone on to meet and surpass the UN’s Global Development Goals before they were even formulated, and to have built a free, comprehensive and lifelong education system with better outcomes than that of the USA?

Professor Théodore Macdonald’s authoritative and comprehensive work on the Cuban education system is not only one for those involved in international, solidarity or global development work.  It is one that should be read by all those who are concerned for the future development of systems of education anywhere in the world that are designed to meet the needs of ordinary people rather than the demands of “powerful and predatory entrepreneurial interests”, as Richard Langlois, consultant economist to Education International, has called them.  It is a book that all teachers should read.
MacDonald’s central premise is that the massive achievements of Cuba in the field of education since the revolution of 1959, recognised by UNESCO and just about all other educational bodies (with the exception of a very few loyal to the US State Department), cannot be understood without the context of that continuing revolution and the social and economic policies of the Cuban government.  They are, he says, “inextricably entwined, and mutually dependent” and again “... we see an example of reform in the society reflecting itself in reform in the schooling system and this, in turn, leading to further social reform.”
In his first few pages he asserts, with convincing contextual evidence, that “Neoliberalism ... has always tended to regard health and education as mere commodities, with the well-off (and well-placed) naturally having better access to both than the less well-off ....  But Cuban social policy regards neither education nor health as commodities, but as inviolable universal rights and twin linchpins of human dignity and of social harmony.”
He quotes a 1975 UNESCO Report as saying, “So much in the Cuban educational system constitutes a break – not only with the past – but also with what exists elsewhere.”  As part of their 2009 Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO again celebrates Cuba’s “remarkable achievements”.
Professor MacDonald explores in detail the success of the mass Literacy Campaign of the 1960s which now acts as a model in many developing countries and in some more developed such as New Zealand.  He analyses its organisation – a massive mobilisation of 250,000 volunteer literacy workers – and its materials, and shows that its success was based on the fundamental respect shown to the students.  “Many of the steps taken in the campaign reflect the fact that it did not have as its sole aim the teaching of illiterates how to read.  It was, from the first, an essentially revolutionary undertaking, with the objective of bringing about a fundamental change in social attitudes and relationships.”
He quotes Mier Febles, one of Cuba’s senior educators as saying, “The peasants discovered the word.  The young literacy workers discovered the poor.  Together, they all discovered their own patria”, and Mercedez Benitez Cabrera, one of those literacy workers who says, “They were people just like us, but because they thought they were nobodies, they looked at life completely differently.  Literacy changed all that.  The new literates could now see that they had power – or could go about getting it.  I tell you, comrade, we were teachers then!”
The great educational and social success of the Literacy Campaign has, MacDonald argues, been important in shaping all subsequent educational policy. For example in discussing ‘pupil achievement’ and ‘school accountability’ in Cuba, he says, “A society which spawned an educational system that undermined its values would not survive long.  Thus the choice as to whether to use competition or emulation as the driving force in a school system depends less on considerations of cognitive psychology than of politics.”  Turning its back on individual competition and the resultant creation of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, Cuba promotes ‘emulation’.  “Emulation,” explains MacDonald, “… is essentially a group process and is not based on beating other people but on overcoming an obstacle.  Thus, a Grade 6 primary school class might be involved in learning decimal fractions.  The idea is to demonstrate, by sitting a test, that they as a class have mastered the topic.  It is therefore to each individual pupil’s advantage for everyone else to do as well as possible. The emphasis is thus on co-operation, not competition; the more able feel compelled to help the less able; no satisfaction can be gained by one’s relative performance.  A wholly different train of psychological processes is thus set in motion.”
MacDonald’s point, again, is that a competitive society based on self-interest and personal gain could not allow such an approach to ‘achievement’, despite its demonstrable success.  It would “undermine its values”.  Similarly, a society based on collective activity and the social good would be undermined by competitive approaches.
MacDonald explores many other approaches, programmes and priorities of the Cuban education system in the same way – and in so doing challenges many of the assumptions and conventions that we as British teachers might have grown up with and operated.
Others mirror and complement our own professional priorities – for example the emphasis laid on early-years education, which he describes in detail.  He shows again that this development relies very much on the organisation of society in general. “Provision for pre-school education became a matter of revolutionary principle, almost synonymous with the recognition of women’s rights – largely due to the work of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC).  The FMC ... did not allow revolutionary political rhetoric about the ‘dignity of women’ uttered by the leadership to pass by without seeing that it had social impact.”
He quotes Clementine Serra, a Director of the National Programme of Childcare Centres.  “The programme has two main objectives; to liberate women so they can become an active part of the productive work force, and to aid in the social development of all children ....  The main focus of the circulos infantiles is the formation of the New Man and New Woman, with their own concepts.  We want an individual, we don’t want a mass of people who all think alike and accept everything.”
Throughout the education system the parents and community are centrally involved in the decision-making and development process.  He shows how, “By example and experience, children learn in school how to interact with a broader range of people than the family provides.  Thus there is a strong bond between school and community and between child, family and school.”
Of course, Professor MacDonald identifies problems too, some of which he identifies as “The Perils of Success”.  Not only do all Cubans have a right to free schooling, with free uniform, two or three meals a day and free school based health care – they also have a right to education and vocational training throughout their lives.  They also have a statutory right to employment.  As MacDonald says, “Cuba’s successes ... caused administrative snarls in the sense that the county’s economy had to be flexible enough to provide meaningful employment for masses of highly articulate and well educated Cubans ... the fact is that its workers were often too well educated for the jobs they were doing ....  This presented the revolution with a political-philosophical problem which could only trouble a society that claims to be socialist.  Socialist theory regards education as a vehicle for enhancing the dignity of every person by exploiting her or his potential for development.  Thus education should not primarily be a means of training people to fit into slots critical to the economic survival of the society.”
In part to tackle this issue, the Ministry of Education launched Perfeccionamiento.  Macdonald says, “Teachers, students, people from all walks of life were encouraged to comment on how the educational system might be improved.  These were instrumental in determining the Ministry’s responses ....  In general, Perfeccionamiento envisaged a continuing rise in educational levels for the Cuban population as a whole.
“This raises the question of political intervention and whether it is moral or just for each student to choose what they would like to do by way of training.”
This has become part of what is known in Cuba as ‘The Battle of Ideas’ – Cuba’s reaffirmation and recommitment to socialism.
Professor MacDonald ends his book with this and how it relates to the structures of modern day Cuban education from pre-school to university and worker-farmer lifelong study and development.  He is interested in how these formal structures relate to other ‘mobilisations’ such as the recruitment of 28,000 young ‘social workers’ to fight for the further development of New Man and New Woman, “making contact with disaffected young people in their local communities, offering them advice and support to deal with personal and social problems, encouraging them to engage in employment, education and volunteering opportunities, kindling fresh enthusiasm for the ideals of the Revolution.”
But in the process of this work the young social workers also “identified 37,000 elderly citizens living alone and in need of social support.  The Government responded … by raising the state pension and introducing targeted programmes of assistance.”  Then the young campaigners discovered corruption in some enterprises – such as petrol stations – and took them over to make their point.  MacDonald says, “They are widely lauded as ‘heroes’ for contributing so effectively to Cuba’s economic recovery and the socialist redistribution of wealth to deprived sectors and people.”  He illustrates the link between education, society and the Battle of Ideas and comments particularly on “the increasing enthusiasm with which youth are becoming politically involved.”
Professor Macdonald’s excellent book is packed full of observation, evidence, analysis, comment and argument on all aspects of a very well developed education system, its complex, symbiotic relationship with the wider society and the continued social developments known simply in Cuba as ‘The Revolution’.
It’s a ‘must read’ for all progressive educationalists – and a ‘you must read’ for educational reactionaries in our very own continuing ‘battle of ideas’ in Britain.

Bill Greenshields is a former President of the National Union of Teachers