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:
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.