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Cuban schools’ focus on ‘good values’ holds global lessons

José Martí’s teachings are found in all Cuban classrooms – and on Havana’s walls. Emmanuel Huybrechts/Flickr

Cuban schools’ focus on ‘good values’ holds global lessons

This article is a foundation essay. These are longer than usual and take a wider look at a key issue affecting society.

Cuba’s education system is incredibly successful. But not much attention has been paid to the philosophical structure underpinning this system: the idea that education can be more effective, meaningful and successful if it’s informed, accompanied and guided by an appropriate values or belief system.

A number of philosophical studies have raised global awareness about a list of values that transcend time, space, cultural and social systems. These are usually called core universal values and include – but are not limited to – the following:

  • the pursuit of happiness;

  • human freedom, dignity and respect;

  • honesty and truthfulness;

  • peace, justice and fairness;

  • human equality; and

  • the concrete enactment of compassion and solidarity.

In the context of schooling these collective values, and others, offer students an all-embracing facility to judge or know what is right. It also equips them with the capacity to care deeply about and embrace what is right.

Finally, it gives them the tools to do what is right – acting always in the interest of the collective and humanity as a whole. These, many believe, are among the most fundamental goals of values education.

Cuba offers a fascinating example of values education that’s deeply embedded throughout the school system, in universities and in teacher training colleges. A great deal of this thinking originated from one man: José Martí.

Martí, who was born in the Cuban capital Havana in 1853, remains an enduring presence in the country’s classrooms today. His way of thinking about education lives on in the school system. It is an intimate connection between philosophy and practice which may explain more conclusively why Cuban education is such a success story.

The Cuban model shows that the rewards of meaningful and effective values education can enhance not just the broader educational experience but human development as a whole.

Martí’s ideas and place in Cuban history

So, who was José Martí?

The principles of human equality, dignity and solidarity are pronounced in Martí’s writings. He also promoted the unity of the Cuban nation and all other Latin American states. His political outlook positions him as a revolutionary bourgeois democrat. He operated at the height of Spanish colonialism’s brutalisation of the Cuban nation, from the mid to late 1800s.

Though he admired Marx, Martí never became a Marxist or an outright socialist.

Martí’s deep distress about his homeland’s occupation started in his teens. His growing anticolonialist stance saw him incarcerated and subjected to hard labour when he was 17. As an adult he was repeatedly banished to distant lands, including Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, and Uruguay. While exiled to Spain, he obtained a PhD in philosophy and humanities.

After spending more than a decade in New York City, he returned to Cuba in 1895 – the year he was killed in battle with colonial forces.

His death made him a martyr. His ideas have lived on. Former Cuban president Fidel Castro has said that Martí’s revolutionary thought and action laid the basis for oppressed, struggling classes to take up the socialist cause.

Modern Cuban revolutionaries were deeply inspired by Martí’s principled example. They saw it as their unavoidable duty to take ownership of their land, industries, banks, sugar fields, tobacco farms, nickel mines and public institutions. This, they believed, would direct the nation’s economy towards fulfilling Martí’s most cherished dream: restoring the well-being and dignity of the poor and marginalised masses.

Merely disintegrating Fulgencio Batista‘s tyrannical regime would not automatically guarantee a better life for all. Martí never explicitly advocated socialism. But his moral thinking set the ethical foundation for the inevitable development of Cuba’s socialist governing system.

An enduring legacy in education

It may not be obvious to first-time visitors, but Martí remains omnipresent in Cuba. Residents, and governmental, cultural and educational spokespersons alike will frequently explain how his thinking shaped not only their approach to classroom instruction but also their cultural policy goals.

Cuba’s 2015 International Pedagogia Conference attracted nearly 4,000 delegates from around the world and opened with a moving dedication to the prevailing, universal significance and meaning of Martí’s life and ideas. Here’s an extract translated by Laura Efron:

We inherited from José Martí, the apostle, the teacher, our national hero and the most universal of all Cubans, a multitude of ideas that expresses an emancipatory culture and defines the norms for the most profoundly human duty of teaching and educating. His ideas, still in force, assist us in addressing the educational challenges in the complex world we live in today.

Cubans still recall Martí’s lifelong advocacy to bring education to disfavoured communities situated particularly in remote rural hinterlands. This was echoed in the country’s famous early 1960s literacy campaign that, along with later programmes, opened the doors of learning and culture to even the most isolated islanders.

José Martí’s likeness abounds in Cuba. Stone Center/Flickr

Though his writings are part of the curriculum at universities and teaching colleges, it is in Cuban schools that Martí’s philosophical footprint is most obvious.

Every school strives to exhibit a commemorative plaque, a miniature statue or a bust in his memory. Every classroom is encouraged to display significant, universal impressions drawn from Martí’s poetry, prose, speeches or anticolonial critiques. Crucially, schoolchildren not only learn about his ideas but are encouraged to emulate his values.

Cubans’ unwavering acknowledgement and adoption of Martí’s principles – both within and beyond the educational domain – appear to be intrinsic, sincere and spontaneous. This demonstrates, as Castro saw it, the undeniable relevance and persistent power of Martí’s ideas.

A storybook bursting with lessons

One of Martí’s most famous pieces of writing is “La Edad de Oro” (“The Golden Age”, 1889), which he wrote especially for “the children of Latin America”. As he put it:

We write for children because they know how to love; they are the hope of the world.

Though it occupies a special place in Cuba’s primary and high school curricula, its main ideas and principles remain treasured across the nation. It provides, on the one hand, deeper insight into the content and nature of Cuba’s values education programme. On the other hand, “La Edad de Oro” also advances better understanding of the island’s overarching belief system.

In sum, the official national aspiration is for young people to develop consciousness and understanding of – to embrace and enact – the values that Martí in particular espoused throughout his life.

“La Edad de Oro” seeks to instil in children a love for literature, the expressive arts and human progress generally. It goes far deeper: young readers are encouraged to feel concern for and develop allegiances to the plight of struggling human beings – everywhere.

Martí often addressed Spanish colonialism’s brutal treatment of indigenous Indian populations, African slavery, racism in the US South and Cuba’s historical struggle for sovereignty in his writings. Though it was explicitly composed for children, “La Edad de Oro” is, in the final analysis, no exception to this routine.

But it also offers, in most gentle and poignant ways, prospective responses towards arresting and overcoming human tyranny. Young readers and listeners come into contact with concepts ranging from love, devotion and care, to intrigue, wonder and fantasy. Underpinning these are universal ethical standards – human equality, dignity and solidarity – which also run as a golden thread throughout much of the work.

Cuba is not the only country illustrating the importance of values education. But its approach offers valuable incentives for struggling education systems across the globe.

Rewards of values education

Beyond the Cuban setting, there remain widespread misconceptions about what values are. This poses a serious impediment to effective, meaningful values education. A number of South African studies, for instance, highlight key theoretical, interpretive and practical issues related to the teaching of values in schools

Various celebrated scholars have illustrated how good, meaningful and effective values education can develop and enhance student behaviour, attitudes and emotions. This is all highly conducive to achieving and maintaining good schooling standards and outcomes

Australian educationalist Thomas Nielsen has produced some very significant, encouraging findings. He refers to 176 US schools where an inclusive, all-encompassing values education programme was incorporated into the curriculum. These schools recorded a 77% decrease in problems related to discipline, saw higher attendance and noted a marked drop in vandalism (64%).

Nielsen also highlights individual schools, such as Jackie Robinson Middle School in Connecticut. After three years of running such a programme, the number of student pregnancies at the school decreased from 16 to zero. When California’s Merwin Elementary School initiated a similar course its vandalism costs dropped from US$25,000 to $500 in a year. Disciplinary action at the school shrank by 80% – and attainment levels improved noticeably.

This seems to corroborate the premise that Cuba’s values education programme can and does assist students to become more civil, caring and conscientious and, in the long run, raise academic performance to heights often unparalleled elsewhere.