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A Pedagogical Battle Plan to Check the Spread of Skepticism in Cuba < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
A Pedagogical Battle Plan to Check the Spread of Skepticism in Cuba
(Lecture in Havana, 1991)
By Bertell Ollman

When I was in Moscow for a conference last Christmas one of the people from whom I learned most about what was going on was not a Russian but an American. He was a professor from a Bible college in the South. When I met him he had just returned from a two week visit to Novosibirsk, a small Siberian city that contains a half dozen scientific institutes and a university, where he was arranging for an exchange of high school students on behalf of the Christian fundamentalist high school that is attached to his college.

One of the things that pleased and surprised him most about his visit with all these "science Ph.D.s" (his expression) is that he didn't meet any atheists. It seems that all the people who had been atheists up to a couple years ago were now agnostics and those who had been agnostics were now believing Christians. He assured me that he was as puzzled about this as I obviously was, so he asked many of his contacts there why this was so. The answer he got most often and which he finally came to accept was this: people started to believe that God existed, because Stalin had told them God did not exist. That's right. It's because Stalin and the government under him told them one thing that they decided the opposite must be true.

I couldn't help but reflect that the list of reasons people don't believe in God that I was given by my first philosophy professor many, many year ago did not include this one. Yet, it should have, because it turns out to be the most convincing: that someone in whose veracity you have serious doubts tells you one thing is enough to make you believe the exact opposite. In Russia today, and indeed throughout the whole of Eastern Europe, one sees this mechanism operating not only in regard to religion but in regard to other subjects as well, including almost anything to do with capitalism.

Given the character of Stalin in particular and Soviet socialism in general, I am inclined to think that this reaction was largely inevitable. At the same time, I am also convinced that the authoritarian, unimaginative pedagogy with which most subjects were taught in schools and universities also played a part in producing such a skeptical population. Marxism, for example, was generally taught as a kind of catechism in which Marx's rich philosophy was reduced to a series of propositions that students were asked to memorize.

In starting my talk with this story I do not mean to equate Russian conditions or pedagogy with Cuban ones. Nor am I suggesting that the Cuban population has arrived at anything like the skepticism that one finds in Russia. Instead, I only wish to stress that even a modest degree of skepticism, particularly among the young, can be a serious threat to a regime that depends on their conscious and active cooperation, that in conditions of growing economic hardship and intensified propaganda coming from the U.S. such skepticism is likely to increase, and that the kind of pedagogy used in schools and universities can have a major effect on how it develops.

With this in mind, I want to offer some pedagogical suggestions that are intended to help students at all levels in the educational process to better understand the true nature of capitalism and also, by the same means, to better understand and appreciate their own society. Given that virtually no one in Cuba today has not heard at least some of the lies and distortions emanating from Washington and Miami, it is clear that censorship can play only a limited role in these matters. Once the genie that spreads these lies and distortions is out of the bottle, you can't put it back in. You can only conquer it with a superior genie, one that speaks the truth, and help people to develop the critical ability to distinguish one from the other. So...WHAT IS TO BE DONE?...pedagogically that is. (I am not an expert in Cuban education, so some of what I will propose may already exist here. If this is the case, Cuba can start the work of reform with a running start).

  1. Make the comparison of capitalism with socialism part of the curriculum for every discipline at all levels in the educational process. Each discipline would deal with aspects of the comparison that fall under its rubric; while the complexity of the problems treated would vary with the age of the students. By "capitalism," I don't only mean the capitalism of the U.S. but also that of Mexico, Jamaica and even Cuba itself before the revolution. The range of societies treated should help students to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant comparisons. And by "socialism," I mean socialist ideas and ideals as well as the many attempts to realize these ideals at different times and places under a variety of conditions. Of course, Cuba today would occupy a privileged position in the discussion of socialism, but any adequate understanding of its achievement, problems and potential requires that some attention be given to the broad family to which it belongs.
  2. Learning must begin at the point students are in their thinking about such matters, in their knowledge and understanding of them, and that includes whatever biases they may have in favor of capitalism or doubts they may have about socialism. As much as possible, discussion should begin with the students' own questions and concerns in the broad areas covered by the course. For this to work, it is essential that students do not feel any pressure to take (or not take) any particular position. If badly handled, skepticism can begin right here.
  3. Wherever possible, students should also help to decide what is the reasonable way to go about finding answers to the questions they raise. Particularly for older students, this is an important step in helping to establish the credibility of the teacher.
  4. Because this work will strike many students, at least initially, as irrelevant to the main subject matter of the course, great care should be given to making the first few lessons especially interesting and even fun. Where possible, one should use games, skits, songs, movies, jokes and field trips in these early classes. This will also help to relieve the anxieties and break down the inhibitions that interfere with the kind of give-and-take that this curriculum requires.
  5. Most of materials on capitalism should come from unimpeachable capitalist sources. The New York Times and the Washington Post often contain anti-capitalist stories, facts, and statistics in between their far more numerous defenses of the status quo. As the quotations in Das Kapital make clear, Marx knew better than most how effective it was to use the words of capitalists and their scribblers against the capitalist system. It would also be very helpful if Cuban newspapers ran a page of stories garnered from the U.S. press showing how inhumane and irrational capitalism is at least once a week.
  6. In choosing materials about both capitalism and socialism, look especially for stories and facts about people with whom the students can easily identify, that is young people, Hispanics, people of color, etc.
  7. Ask students to keep a scrapbook in which they collect these materials. Re-read some of these stories as new ones are added to help establish the more obvious connections between them. As a rule, stories in the capitalist press give us just a part of the picture separating it from the whole. That is the main way the American media keep people from seeing the need for systemic reform. An adequate understanding of capitalism, on the other hand, requires a grasp of the patterns that emerge from the relations between facts.
  8. The comparative study of capitalism and socialism that I am proposing offers the ideal opportunity to introduce students to dialectical thinking. Great care, however, must be taken not to teach dialectics in a mechanical way. In the last analysis, a critical dialectical outlook—more so, in my opinion, than "socialist values" (though, of course, the two cannot be wholly separated)—offers the best guarantee against being infected by any of the social diseases that are currently being spread by U.S. propaganda.
  9. Set up small group projects, so students can explore and discuss aspects of the subject without the teacher present. Have them report back to the whole class on what they have found or concluded. This technique helps to develop self-confidence in individual students as well as cooperation and a sense of solidarity in the group as a whole
  10. After students reach their conclusions, examine why some people in Cuba as well as the U.S. believe just the opposite. What interests, experiences, arguments, evidence (or lack of) are responsible for their views? No understanding of our subject is complete without knowing why some people do not—perhaps, even cannot—understand it as we do. The critique of ideology, which is what I am talking about here, should occupy an ever-larger part of the curriculum as students get older.
  11. After every big step forward in understanding something new, some time should be given to integrating this conclusion into what is already known and understood. Again, it is not the individual bits of knowledge that are decisive but the patterns that they make up. It is also at this point that dialectical concepts are best introduced to help keep a particular process or relation in focus, making it easier to think with and to communicate to others.
  12. Try to end the semester with some kind of collective action that is suggested by one of the main conclusions to which students have come during the term—for example, demonstrating in support of workers on strike in the U.S., collecting names for a petition against a gross injustice elsewhere in the world to be sent to the U.N., a mural, a letter campaign, or street theater to share students' new understanding with others in the community, etc.

This list of pedagogical suggestions is not meant to be complete, and some of the ideas are obviously more important than others. But my purpose here has not been to present a finished program but to give just enough detail to trigger your imagination and, hopefully, your interest in this project. Finding ways to apply these tactics in different disciplines and for schools at all levels will also be very difficult, but with sufficient commitment I have no doubt it could be done. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing confusion about the future and the very meaning of socialism, Cuba can ill afford not to make such a commitment.

While setting up such an educational program will not solve all of Cuba's ideological problems—I am not that undialectical (or that idealist)—it would be of enormous help in checking the spread of skepticism that so undermined the regimes of Eastern Europe. More specifically, it would help to produce young adults who are less vulnerable to the siren calls of capitalist media and culture, who better appreciate the system in which they live because they have examined the alternatives, who know how to use both evidence and reason in arriving at their conclusions, who can think critically and dialectically, and who—knowing the benefits of cooperative intellectual work—are in a better position to apply and develop it in other life activities. Not an insignificant list for a society that hopes—against terrible odds—to build a truly human home for human beings.