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History & Background

From the first Spanish settlements in 1511 through 1898, Cuban education was typical of Spanish-speaking Latin America: a combination of parochial and secular institutions supporting and supported by the affluent Roman Catholic Spanish colonial elite. The first institution of higher education, the University of Havana, was established in 1728. However, as the Royal Economic Society reported in 1793, learning was confined to private tutoring (for elite families) and church-based schools with limited curriculum and poorly-trained teachers (de Varona 1993). The Society called for a secondary education curriculum that included mathematics, physics, chemistry, natural science, botany, anatomy, and drawing; this sparked the founding of the first secular schools in Havana.

Nineteenth Century Government & Colonial Church: In 1816 the government created an agency that introduced new methods, selected texts, created standards, and employed school inspectors. More than 90 secular schools existed in 1820, but these elite institutions relied on student fees and patron donations. By 1833, Cuba had 210 schools for whites with 8,460 students but only 12 schools for 486 black students. Few poor or minority students received free instruction in public or religious schools. An 1842 law required the construction of public primary and secondary schools on the same site, mandatory attendance for children aged 7 to 10, and control by provincial committees, a seeming democratization of learning (de Verona 1993). However, home-tutored students of the affluent were exempted from sharing facilities and conditions with the children of small business owners, workers, and peasants.

An 1863 law enabled the government to operate public schools and to oversee private schools, obligated attendance by children aged 6 to 9, and specified fines to be paid by parents who failed to comply (de Varona 1993). Major upheavals of this period—freeing of slaves in 1868 and the Ten Years War, the first War for Independence—rendered these decrees moot. These conditions ripped social life asunder, impoverished the nation, and left minimal funding for education. For example, only $1800 was budgeted for all school inspectors in 1880 to travel throughout the country to enforce compulsory attendance. Also, schools averaged only about 1 teacher per school and approximately 34 and 40 students per class in private and public schools, respectively (Perez 1945).

During the 1890s, calls for reform of the corrupt education system and for "educational emphasis on practical, utilitarian instruction instead of classical studies" became major issues for Cuban nationalists (Paulston and Kaufman 1992). As a result, dissent was especially strong on university campuses and support for educational investment was minimal.

Equally as important was the Roman Catholic Church. It controlled about 46 percent of Cuba's schools, but its influence and the larger imprint of colonial domination extended to the public schools. Local priests held seats on school boards, were legally entitled to review and approve the hire of teachers, and were legally entitled to provide weekly religious instruction in the public schools. They used this "second pulpit" to promote religious orthodoxy, stereotypical gender and racial hierarchies, and to sanctify the dominant means and relations of production. Thus, poor and minority students had a curriculum that stressed morality and religion, but were not provided with a means to rise above their economic status (Paulston and Kaufman 1992). As a result, few students remained in public school beyond age 10. In sum, the segregated system established by locally unaccountable colonial elites was reflective and supportive of the slave and hacienda system of Cuba's sugar economy.

U.S. Intervention: The ostensible motive for U.S. intervention on the side of the dissidents in 1898 was to free Cuba from Spain and to create democratic, locally controlled institutions. However, the U.S. government established military control in 1899, followed by a pseudo-independence that veiled U.S. control. The Platt Amendment, creating a permanent U.S. military presence in Cuba, solidified that control in 1901. While the rationale for intervention was a facade, the United States did succeed in transforming a marginal education system.

Cuba's educational system included 541 primary and 400 private schools. About 60 percent of the population was illiterate, and only one percent of the literate population had attained higher levels of education. Only about 90,000 out of 550,000 Cuban children attended school. In the five largest cities, about 30 percent of children attended school—elsewhere, only 11 percent attended (Thomas 1998).

An overarching administrative structure was established when U.S. military governor John Brooke issued Order No. 297, series 1900, and modified Order No. 368 in 1900. It included a Commissioner of Education, a Board of Superintendents (comprised of a general and provincial superintendents for each province), and local education districts with separate school boards (Turosienski 1943). The law also mandated schooling for children aged 6 to 14.

Governor General Leonard Wood, who succeeded Brooke, initiated programmatic reform. Wood augmented Brooke's efforts by giving substance to the Spanish reforms—creating a nationwide system of primary schools, training teachers, and instituting changes identified by dissidents. He reorganized secondary and vocational schools and promoted practical knowledge in universities by introducing engineering and architecture. Seeking to infuse attributes of the American educational system into Cuba, Wood hired Cuban educators and administrators versed in the U.S. model of education. Access to education increased across racial and class lines, and attendance rose—a seeming realization of the dissidents' goals.

Despite these educational advances, general dissatisfaction with the government led to instability and, in 1906, the United States dispatched additional personnel to establish order. Among those dispatched was Judge Charles Magoon who directed efforts in Cuba until 1909. Magoon's educational accomplishments were "less sensational than Wood's, but in some ways more effective" (Thomas 1998). Sharp penalties were established for violations of mandatory education; school-age children found in the street during school hours were arrested, and factory owners employing child laborers were fined. In 1908, the school enrollment was reported to be 200,000 pupils in the public system and 15,000 pupils in the private system. However, problems remained as Magoon ignored complaints of corruption and nepotism in the educational system.

Batista Period: Under dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, roughly 50 percent of the school-aged population did not attend school, and expenditures were concentrated in urban areas to the exclusion of rural provinces (MacDonald 1985). The average child progressed only to the second grade, and only 17 percent of students attended high school. More than 1,000,000 people—half the adult population—were illiterate. The curriculum had regressed to a "classic Hispanic education with a great emphasis on memorization" while ignoring practical issues and modern conditions (Padula and Smith 1988). As Arthur Gillette discussed in his book Cuba's Educational Revolution, reaction against the inadequacies of pre-Revolutionary education (a dynamic of class inequity and reproduction, a labor force unsuited to the modern economy, and societal alienation) shaped the revolution's educational goals.

Castro Period: Educational reform in Cuba took root following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, though Castro had called for educational reform as early as 1953. As Castro's supporters won control of various regions of the country, they taught peasants to read as part of the revolutionary strategy. After the 1959 Revolution, two major education-related goals emerged: making education available to all and connecting this new educational system to socioeconomic development (Gillette 1972). Achieving these goals required a new national educational system that could educate a largely illiterate population.

The Great Literacy Campaign of 1961 sought to instill basic literacy skills to citizens in the poorest and most remote regions of the country. Junior and senior high schools were closed for an entire year as the campaign mobilized an unprecedented 274,000 volunteer literacy workers, including students, workers, women not in the workforce, and trained teachers, who taught an identified 979,000 illiterate people. Of the 979,000 illiterate individuals, 707,200 gained basic skills of reading and writing (MacDonald 1985). Tutors used manuals designed to teach subjects related to the Revolution; Alfabeticemos, the instructor's manual, was composed of lessons dealing with "such subjects as the revolution, Castro, land reform, nationalization of foreign property, industrialization, and imperialism" (Padula and Smith 1988). Similar topics were included in the student text, providing both a point of departure for literacy instruction and educating the masses about the foundations of the new social order. Volunteers worked individually with learners using progressively more challenging reading and writing exercises. This campaign brought a new sense of unity to the country.

Following the 1961 campaign, illiteracy fell from 25 percent to 4 percent and, unlike other Third World efforts that rendered short-term benefits before reversing, have remained low. While curriculum and methodology are set nationally, local councils, teachers, administrators, and parents contribute to policies within particular schools. Many parents support the school by volunteering at extracurricular events.

Cuba remains an outpost of socialism in a "nonsocialist world" (Lutjens 1998). The nature of its socialism has changed, but the commitment to universal education remains a point of national pride. With a literacy rate of approximately 99 percent, Cuba is unique within Latin America and the Third World in general (UNESCO 1995).

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceCuba - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education