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WORD VIEW: A Cuban experience


Esther Phillips

WORD VIEW: A Cuban experience

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We’re heading towards a fortress built by the Spanish around the 16th century.
These structures are positioned on a cliff overlooking the sea and stretch across what seems like miles.
Thousands of people have converged on this area, a high percentage of them, young people. It takes us a while to get through the bottleneck at the main entrance. Why is the crowd so eager to get inside the compound? What is the event? It is the 21st Havana Book Fair held in Cuba.
I am a book-lover myself, but had I not seen it with my own eyes, I might have found it difficult to believe that an opportunity to acquire books could generate this much excitement anywhere. Once inside the compound, people join the long queues waiting patiently in the sun in order to enter the booths and buy books.
Thousands of writers, publishers, book-sellers and literary agents from all over the world attend the Havana Book Fair annually. The crowd, therefore, is mixed with people of various nationalities. The book fair, however, will be taken all over Cuba in the next few weeks, reputedly generating the same kind of response from nationals.
To make comparisons between Cuba and Barbados has some inherent difficulties. It can also be misleading or even dangerous to arrive too quickly at conclusions drawn from only one experience of a country. Furthermore, I have made no exhaustive study of Cuba’s educational system, although the country’s intellectual tradition is well established.  
My emphasis in the remaining discussion, therefore, is not necessarily on making comparisons between the systems of education in Cuba and Barbados. I merely wish to make a few observations.  
It is a fact that Barbados boasts one of the best educational systems anywhere and is accessible to all, up to tertiary level. Cuba also provides free education to all its citizens.
Perhaps a fundamental difference between the two systems, however, is the conscious and deliberate decision on the part of the Cuban state to produce a particular kind of individual through the means of education. According to Jose Marti, one of the founding fathers of the Revolution, “to be cultured and educated is the only way to be free”.
Therefore, some of the most architecturally beautiful buildings in Havana are given over to training in classical ballet and music, including classical, jazz and other forms. Great emphasis is also placed on the visual and performing arts. There are several museums. Culturally, Cuba is way ahead of the rest of its Caribbean neighbours.
In addition, the state places great emphasis on the sciences and related disciplines. Felix Varela, referred to as the father of the founding fathers, was not only a parliamentarian, but established the physical sciences in Cuba, having written three volumes of experimental physics. Universities and colleges abound throughout the country.
The Casa de las Americas is one of the institutions that has acquired a worldwide reputation for ensuring the continuation of the country’s strong intellectual tradition.
The purpose of education in Cuba is rooted in the idea of the people’s sovereignty.
As it relates to Barbados, and having been involved in education for many years, we do not seem to have a commonly held philosophy that guides our concept of education. What, would we say, constitutes an “educated” Barbadian? What do we mean when we refer to a Barbadian as “educated?” What kind of individual becomes the end product of our school system?
I am not so naïve as to believe that any political system is without its flaws. The question will always remain as to the impact of social forces on the way we think and our resulting attitudes and behaviour.
But I cannot help but wonder how it is that with all our educational opportunites in Barbados, we still have not developed a true intellectual tradition.
We are still not a reading public; books are not a priority for most of us.
The matter of sovereignty, political or cultural, is still a grey area. When Lamming speaks of the sovereignty of the imagination, he is making the point that if nothing else, we have the capacity to think, to feel and to conceptualise our own destiny as a people. Yet, as Barbadians, we so easily fall prey to the ills of cultural penetration, the lure of easy consumerism and a fluctuating sense of our identity.
Perhaps it is time for us to see the distinction between having academic qualifications and being educated.

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