BY ARMANDO HART
From then on, education and culture were placed at the center of political and social activity and of the challenges facing a nation located “at the crossroads” of the world, which had adopted as its own the highest values of Western culture placing itself irrevocably on the side of the poor.
In those days of January 1959 I arrived at a building in Old Havana that had been the seat of the House of Representatives during the initial years of the Republic and later the Ministry of Education. I was twenty-eight years old. Inspired by Martí’s idea, “To be educated is the only way to be free,” I assumed the responsibility for guiding the radical transformation of education in Cuba on the basis of these objectives:
• Extending instruction to the entire school-age population, and eradicating illiteracy in the adult population.
• Promoting a general reform of instruction based on offering a scientific and rounded education combined with training in ethical and patriotic values inspired by Cuban culture rooted in Martí’s ideas.
• Facilitating communication and strengthening ties between the family, the school, and the community as a central element of the educational process.
• Promoting and fostering the people’s participation in the tasks of the ministry. Developing close relations with social and mass organizations.
• Having administrative and technical decentralization in order to achieve these purposes.
In Cuba more than a million people were illiterate; 50 percent of the school-age children had no access to education; high school and university education were far more limited. That is why one of the first measures taken by the Ministry of Education of the revolutionary government was the creation of classrooms all over the country. Five thousand classrooms for nine thousand unemployed teachers could be created just with the financial resources available in the long list of “botellas” (bottles) formerly handed out by the Ministry of Education of the old regime. When I told Fidel I was going to devote myself to creating five thousand classrooms, he pointed out that we should talk to the teachers and ask them to cut their salaries in half and thus create twice as many classrooms — ten thousand — with agreement that their salaries would then be raised gradually in a short number of years. That’s what was done.
Broadening educational services was a priority from the very first moments, clearly exemplified by the creation of the ten thousand new classrooms, the conversion of garrisons into schools, and the nationalization of private schools.
I called on the specialists and educators of the country to cooperate in all these endeavors. The patriotic tradition of Cuban education inspired our policy. In fact, from my post as minister, I had the privilege of becoming a pupil of the best teachers in Cuba.
In 1960, at the United Nations General Assembly, Fidel announced that a national campaign against illiteracy was being organized, and that in 1961 Cuba would be free of that scourge that humanity suffered and still suffers today.
An entire generation of young people, students, and teachers, of cadres of mass organizations, began their revolutionary lives, and their historic contributions to the country, in that literacy drive, which had its most immediate antecedents in the literacy efforts conducted by the Rebel Army during the insurrectional struggle.
During the 1961 campaign 300,000 Cubans were organized, among them more than 100,000 student brigadistas in the Conrado Benítez brigades, 121,000 popular literacy teachers, 35,000 teachers integrated as cadres and specialists, and 15,000 workers in the “Patria o muerte” brigades. To this we must add an untold number of workers in all areas, as well as administrative and service personnel, whose efforts were indispensable to assuring the material and organizational success of the campaign.
The high proportion of young people among that impressive mobilization of literacy teachers was an extremely important fact. That campaign became the first great mass undertaking by a new generation. Youth who were too young to participate in the struggle against the tyranny were given a no-less-heroic task at the triumph of the revolution: that of defending the country and the revolutionary program, one of whose points was the elimination of illiteracy. A legion of these youth went to every corner of the country — workbook, textbook, and lantern in hand — to teach reading and writing. They learned the first political lesson of their lives as literacy teachers. Our young students and teachers taught more than 700,000 Cubans, as they simultaneously learned from them that being rooted in the people as a whole is the fundamental thing in order to create and advance in a revolution.
The literacy campaign, in short, was an educational and cultural act that created revolutionary consciousness in new generations. It was part of the intense popular movement, with deep aspirations for the radical renovation the country was living through in the revolution’s early years. In those beautiful days, centuries of ignorance and exploitation came crashing down.
With the noblest of passions, the people brought tumbling down the old economic and social structures, the old customs, and the decrepit ideas that had accumulated over centuries of history but had no roots or strength in the consciousness of our nation. They were thus unable to withstand the growing momentum of the socialist revolution.
Chicago brigadistas report back from Cuba (photobox)
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