Public Education in Cuba

To appreciate properly the wonderful strides that have been made in public education in Cuba during the American military occupation of the island, it is absolutely necessary to know something of the educational conditions and privileges that existed in the Spanish colonial period. The casual observer of the public school system of Cuba very naturally compares it immediately with his own model that is usually the system of public schools with which he is most familiar in the United States, and from this comparison forms his conclusions as to the progress that has been made. If in such an unfair judgment, formed from so narrow a view, there is found much that is truly complimentary for those who have developed the work to its present state of perfection, it is evident that a more comprehensive study of the question, showing the starting point, the difficulties that have been encountered on all sides, and the unorganized and inexperienced body of workers that had to overcome these difficulties, will reveal much that is worthy of the highest praise, and assist in that full appreciation of the truly wonderful work that has been accomplished by the military government, which will not be attained until long years after the occupation has ended and its events have become history.

It is difficult, at a time when public education is almost as free as the air we breathe, for those who have known no other condition to form a proper conception of the abandoned state of public education in Cuba prior to the American occupation. Only those who grew to mature years under these conditions of absolute lack of educational advantages and opportunities are able adequately to appreciate the changes that have been made. Any statement except the unqualified one that there were no public schools under the colonial system is misleading; yet statistics and records are not wanting to show a system of schools attended by varying numbers of children, but on close observation and study it becomes perfectly evident that most of them existed only in name, and that in those that existed in fact the results obtained were a minimum. The official census of the island taken in 1899, and with such care that its data inspire confidence, shows that out of a total population over ten years of age of 1,215,810, there were 690,565 illiterate. There can be no sadder commentary on the educational darkness of the island than these few figures, and nothing could indicate more clearly the narrow policy of the colonial government of perpetuating a despotic and arbitrary form of government by preserving the ignorance of the mass of the people.

In giving a brief history of the public school system of Cuba prior to the American occupation it shall be my aim to be faithful to facts, but at the same time to paint the picture with as few dark colors as may be, and with as many bright. It shall be the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth. I shall give figures just as they are to be found in musty records, without any comment on their authenticity. Higher education in Cuba, as in Spain, was always given more attention than primary instruction. It was for the few and favored, while the needs of the many were either not recognized at all, or if known were not heeded. Thus Havana had a university in 1728, when all Cuba had but 150,000 inhabitants, although it was not until almost seventy years later that public primary instruction was even considered. The few seminaries and convents and private schools furnished the preparatory training for this university. Diplomas were secured from this latter institution with such ease that we find the number of such graduates ridiculously great at a time when the whole number of children attending schools in the island did not exceed 1500. To quote a noted Cuban writer, “The island was flooded with priests, physicians, and lawyers, but the mass of the people could not read.” And for nearly three centuries after the discovery and settlement of Cuba, the government did not establish a single school for the free public education of the poor. Fortunately, during this period of darkness, there lived a few public-spirited, charitable persons, whose efforts on behalf of public education should always be remembered with gratitude. Had it not been for their work the colony would have reached a state of educational abandonment difficult to conceive of in a civilized country.

The appointment of General Luis de las Casas as governor of Cuba in 1793 marks the beginning of a new era in the educational history of the island. For the first time statistical information was secured, which showed thirtynine schools in the city of Havana attended by about 1700 children. At this time Havana was practically the island; in fact, the remainder was of such little importance that it was not even considered in this attempt to secure information for educational reorganization. Some idea may be formed of the slowness of progress being made and of improvement that was considered flattering from the praiseworthy mention that is made in official records of the establishment in Havana in 1803 of two free schools, one for boys, the other for girls.

The following table shows the number of pupils enrolled in the schools of the entire island of Cuba in the years given. It will show in a brief and expressive way the meagre and insufficient progress in education made during the first half of the nineteenth century: —

White. Colored. Total.
In 1817 4,500 500 5,000
In 1836 8,442 640 9,082
In 1845 11,033
In 1851 12,936
In 1860 17,519
In 1863 21,283

The population of the island in 1817, when there were but 5000 children attending school, was a little more than half a million, so that but one child for every hundred inhabitants was receiving any instruction. In passing it might be mentioned that to-day one child for every six inhabitants is receiving some instruction. In 1836 the yearly revenues of the island were more than $11,000,000, more than one half of what they are now, yet only 9000 children were in the public schools, and more than half this number paid for their tuition. They were public schools because they were under government control, but they were not free schools except in certain cases. In 1863 the allotments from the public funds of Cuba were as follows: —

Department of Justice $847,623.37
Department of Public Works 980,467.52
Department of Government 2,098,062.50
Department of the Navy 3,637,904.45
Department of War 7,779,032.66
Department of Finance 10,279,938.76
Sent to Spain 3,495,770.00
Sent to Island of Fernando Po 343,573.00
Total $29,462,372.26

It is indeed astonishing that of this bountiful revenue not a penny was allotted or expended for public instruction. It is not remarkable that General Concha, when Governor-General of the island, wrote to his home government : “ Your Excellency knows but too well, and does not require my proving this to him, that the school statistics of very few civilized countries show such poor and saddening results as those of the island of Cuba. And such a situation is the more to be deplored, inasmuch as public instruction is extremely flourishing in the neighboring states of the American Union, a circumstance from which very unfavorable comparisons may be deduced that might exercise a damaging influence on the minds of the inhabitants of this colony.”

The first attempt at organization under a well-defined system was made in 1843, when the first school law was enacted. Twenty years later a new law was promulgated, which departed widely from the first, and again in 1880 the second law was substituted by a third, which was in force at the beginning of the military occupation. The first of these statutes removed the schools from under the control of a private corporation, and placed them under the direct control of the government. By the second, the schools were to be supported by the incomes they had, which, in fact, were practically nothing; by the amounts that they might receive from the state or municipal governments, which were even less; and by the fees that were paid by the pupils attending them. It was from the last of these that they received their greatest support, and this made them, not free public schools, but a poorly paying business adventure of private individuals supported by the few fathers that were able to pay for educating their children. In the course of studies of the third law enacted we find Christian doctrine and sacred history; instruction was free to only those who could show inability to pay tuition. To be eligible for appointment as teacher it was necessary to be a native born Spaniard. None of these laws was adapted to the necessities of a free public school system, and even less intelligence and energy were displayed in enforcing than in enacting them. In framing the present school law they were disregarded entirely. They did not contain a single feature that was worth copying.

The latest statistics that can be found are for the year 1893. This was two years before the outbreak of the last revolution, and five years before the beginning of the American occupation. They show 35,000 children receiving instruction in the entire island, in 898 schools. The abnormal state of affairs which was produced by the revolution of 1895, which terminated with the American intervention and the evacuation of the Spanish army, rendered it impossible for the most of these schools to continue, if they ever existed, and at the beginning of the American occupation the truth is most nearly expressed by the statement already made in this article that there were no schools. If there were any they exerted no appreciable influence on the average intelligence of the community. The teachers were chosen by favoritism. A certificate could be gotten or not for the asking, depending on the name or connections of the applicant, and not on his qualifications. The teachers’ work was so poorly paid, and so devoid of attractions that would invite competition, that it often became a last resort for those who had been unfortunate in everything else. They were promised good salaries, which were never paid, from which they were expected to rent a building for the school, and were moreover expected to furnish it with desks and books from a monthly allowance which also was never paid. From the first, it resulted that the school was established in the teacher’s house, as a rule in the most undesirable room; and from the second, as may be inferred, it resulted that the school had no furniture except such as the child might possess, and the textbooks, if any at all were possessed, were of the crudest and most antique editions.

Such was the condition of the department of public education that confronted the military governor at the beginning of the American occupation. When the present military governor early in his administration definitely decided to place a free and generous education within the reach of every future citizen of the republic which he was to create, whatever the sacrifices he might have to make in other departments of the government in order to do so, he adopted a policy, the wisdom of which can never be doubted, a policy which has done more than any other one thing toward making possible the establishment of a free government in Cuba, and with it the successful termination of his task in the island. That policy, begun in the last days of 1899, has been consistently followed for more than two years, not always without a struggle, and not without at times sacrificing other interests which were wisely decided to be of less importance in their ultimate influence. We have seen that Spain in 1863 collected and spent $30,000,000 of the island revenues, not one penny of which was expended for public education. In contrast to this, $16,977,239.68 were collected in 1901, and more than $3,000,000 of it were expended in public instruction. In 1863 there were 21,000 children receiving instruction in the schools, while in 1901 more than 250,000 Cuban children were registered and taught. It should be plain that to create a school system under the conditions that existed and with the appliances and assistance that were obtainable was to hew a mansion out of the standing timber, without saws or planing mills, and with no other tool than the adze.

The work began with the framing of the school law. There have been two such laws enacted during the occupation. The first a few days before the present military governor took possession of his office, and the second about six months later. The first served its purpose well, which was to tide over a period when schools were being established at the rate of a hundred per day, and when the most important consideration was to get the children into the schools. It fulfilled its mission in a very short time, and was replaced by the present comprehensive and democratic law, and under it the thousands of schools that sprung up in less than six months have been gradually organized into a system, remarkable for the discipline that is observed in all its departments, and for the smoothness of its operation.

This law was framed not only to meet the ordinary requirements of a public school system, but also to meet the unusual conditions that existed in the island of Cuba at the time it was enacted, and which in a large part still exist. While the authority of the chief executive officer of the school system under the law extends to all branches of the school administration, yet the technical work connected therewith was separated as far as possible from the pure executive work, and the details of the work of the schoolroom were placed directly in charge of a board of superintendents, composed of a superintendent for the entire island, who is the president of the board, and superintendents for each of the six provinces, who are members of the board. The island was divided into three grades of school districts, namely, the municipal districts, the city districts of the second class, and the city districts of the first class. At the time of enacting the law there were 121 of the first, nine of the second, and five of the third. These numbers have been changed somewhat since that time, and at the present time the city of Havana constitutes the only city district of the first class. The schools in each of these districts are administered by a board of education elected by the popular vote of the people, excepting only those of the city districts, where the present boards of education have been appointed by the military governor to serve until their successors are elected, as prescribed by the school law. The details of the school administration in any particular district have been left as far as possible to the local board of education, although there is probably a greater degree of centralization than is to be found in most school systems of the United States. The nature of the work and the governmental system in the island render this necessary. While this arrangement has thrown more work upon the central offices, the better results of this central supervision and control of certain details have more than repaid the increased work. Instead of a loss of local interest due to this centralization there has been a gain; and mistakes and inefficiency being brought to the attention of the higher authorities at the earliest possible moment are corrected with a minimum of delay.

The law provides for a complete system of statistical reports beginning with the teachers, and after passing through the various intermediary offices, ending in the office of the Commissioner of Public Schools, it provides for the yearly enumeration of the school youth; it provides that the yearly school session shall be for nine months; it establishes the school age as from six to eighteen years inclusive, and provides for compulsory attendance during twenty weeks of the school year for all children between the ages of six and fourteen years. This part of the law is very complete, and was made as simple, in the way in which it was to be enforced, as was possible under the judicial system of the island. It establishes the minimum and maximum of teachers’ salaries at $30 and $100 respectively; it provides for yearly teachers’ institutes, which shall continue at least four weeks during the summer vacation period, and for the enforced attendance of teachers at these institutes; it provides for the yearly examination of teachers, and the granting of certificates to teach for varying periods. The law, since the date of its promulgation, has been modified in a few particulars, and as occasion demanded it has been added to and made more perfect. The latest additions of importance were certain regulations placing the private schools of the island under government supervision, and providing for their proper organization and improvement.

From this brief résumé of the present school law it will be seen that it does not differ materially from the laws governing the schools of any well-organized modern system. It was said at the time of the enactment of the school law that it would not be possible to enforce it, and at first glance the difficulties appeared to be well-nigh insurmountable. The territorial division of the island into municipalities was not one that lent itself readily to the necessities of an efficient school administration. It was necessary, however, to assume the municipal boundaries as the limits of the municipal districts. There was no authentic map of the island showing the actual positions of these boundary lines, and they frequently overlapped. The appointment and organization of the boards of education of the city districts were easily accomplished. It was in the municipal districts that the greatest difficulties were encountered. The law provided that these districts should be divided into sub-districts, and that a director should be elected in each sub-district by the popular vote of the people to represent the sub districts in the boards of education of the municipal districts. Elections were held in more than 2000 different sub-districts. Under the law which preceded the one we are considering the board of education in a municipal district was composed of the mayor and four other members appointed by him. The work of dividing the municipal districts into sub-districts and providing for the first elections was under the new law intrusted to this old board of education, which was to cease in its functions on the election and qualification of the new board.

If the task of enforcing the law had not been undertaken in the most practical way, it is quite possible that the attempt would have been a failure. A special inspector was appointed for each province of the island, and was thoroughly instructed in the proper method of procedure to faithfully enforce the law. These inspectors went from district to district in their provinces, taking personal charge of the division of the districts into sub-districts, the holding of elections, etc. It is not within the limits of this article to give any details of the numerous and ludicrous mistakes that were made before the organization was finally extended all over the island. With the election of the boards of education, the most difficult part of the enforcement of the school law was accomplished, and from that time to the present the work has been one of instruction in the letter and spirit of the school law, intended to impress the school officials with the idea that all of the school law was enacted to be enforced, and that no part of it is supposed to be a dead letter. Two general elections have been held under the school law, and arrangements are now being made for the third. It was not expected that a law so vastly different from anything of its kind previously enacted in the history of Cuba would be thoroughly understood in all its details until actual experience had furnished opportunity for understanding its mechanism, and it is not remarkable that in the first elections there was a certain lack of public interest which permitted the school administration in some districts to fall into the hands of inexperienced or unscrupulous persons; but as the people appreciate that under this democratic enactment they are the guardians of one of their most valuable personal interests, they become more zealous in their attendance at the school elections, and in their efforts to secure the best possible boards of education.

The first school law enacted by the military government, in the last days of 1899, provided that every city or town of over 500 inhabitants should have at least two public schools, one for boys, and another for girls, or a single one for both sexes, and left to the discretion of the boards of education the organization of such other schools in their districts as they might deem necessary. In a remarkably short time the number of authorized schools in the island grew from nothing to more than 3000. These schools were not equipped with any of the necessary furniture or material until some months after they had been authorized. The instruction given was necessarily mostly of an oral nature. The growth of the schools was so rapid that it is not surprising that they escaped almost completely from under the control of the school authorities, and that disorganization and lack of system reigned supreme. This sudden development produced an abnormal state of affairs, not only in the school department, but also in the financial department, and it was some months before a system was arranged which secured regular and prompt payment of teachers’ salaries and other school liabilities. The important consideration, in the opinion of the military governor, was to place the maximum number of pupils in a condition to receive some instruction, although it might be the minimum, and although the teachers were poor, the schools lacking in books and furniture, the houses badly selected, and the administration not as economical as it might have been under a more perfect system. It was left to the future to introduce discipline, system, proficiency, and economy. Within four months from the beginning of the educational movement there were more than 100,000 children attending the public schools of the island, and in the remaining few months of the school year they probably received more instruction than they had had in all of their previous lives.

The task of introducing system into this rather chaotic state of affairs has been a most difficult one, requiring unlimited energy and perseverance, and firm determination to be guided only by a consideration of the best interests of the island. More than 100,000 desks and other school furniture in proportion were purchased and judiciously distributed to the most remote parts. In three provinces the means of communication could scarcely be worse. In the other provinces railroad communications are somewhat better, but communications to interior points are by way of trails or well-nigh impassable roads. Thousands of these desks were hauled by bull carts, or packed on the backs of mules.

Good Spanish textbooks did not exist, and to supply them it was necessary to begin with their compilation and publication. Inside of six months after the first movement was made, hundreds of thousands of Spanish textbooks were published in the United States, shipped to the island of Cuba, and distributed in the same manner as the school desks. The textbooks of the school systems of other Spanish-speaking countries were examined, but none of them were accepted. It remained for the educational department of the island of Cuba to prepare and place on the market textbooks of all the branches commonly taught in the first four grades, as good as those to be found in any language, although they are susceptible of certain improvement. The first orders given for school furniture and textbooks amounted in all to nearly a million of dollars.

At the beginning of the American occupation there was not to be discovered in all Cuba a single public building which had been constructed for or was being devoted to public school purposes. Every town of any importance contained a church and a jail, and hospitals and barracks were plentifully scattered all over the island. Public funds had been lavishly expended for this purpose, but not a penny had been devoted to the construction of public school buildings. It was necessary, therefore, to rent private dwellings for use as schools. The style of architecture prevalent in the island rendered these buildings almost worthless in their original design, and partitions had to be knocked down in some instances, and in others built up, and their sanitary arrangements underwent a thorough remodeling. After two years of such constant changing and moving from one building to another as opportunity presented itself to secure more desirable locations, the schools of the island are as well located as it is possible for them to be under the circumstances. The military governor very soon recognized the necessity for constructing school buildings, and a little more than a year ago the work of remodeling public buildings and of constructing new school buildings ad hoc was energetically begun. Almost every available barrack, hospital, or jail in the island of Cuba has been thoroughly renovated and converted into a modern schoolhouse, with the very best pedagogical appliances and equipment to be obtained. Up to this date, more than $400,000 have been expended for this object alone. Almost every city of any size or importance in the island has today at least one school building of which it may well be proud, and which will serve in the future as a model for the entire surrounding neighborhood. In the city of Havana, for example, an old hospital was converted into a school giving space for thirty - three classrooms, a drawing academy, kindergarten and manual training departments, gymnasiums for girls and boys, shower baths, and other arrangements in proportion. It is safe to say that there does not exist in the entire United States a more perfectly equipped school, if, indeed, there are any that are so complete. In other places where this work has been done it has been in the same thorough way. In some towns and cities of the island which were fortunate enough during the colonial period to have no necessity for jails, hospitals, or barracks, entirely new buildings of stone, concrete, or wood have been constructed. The first harddressed stone building of any kind erected in the island of Cuba during four centuries is a schoolhouse in the city of Santiago de Cuba, now nearing completion.

There are employed to-day in the island of Cuba, in round numbers, 3600 teachers. The great majority of them have had about two years’ experience in the public schools of the island. The results that are now secured in their classrooms are the product of this experience, and were it not for the fact that they possess a natural fondness for teaching, and are peculiarly fitted by nature and disposition for the teacher’s work, it would have been an utter impossibility to have wrought such wonders in the field of public education in Cuba. In the months that witnessed the marvelous growth in the number of schools the teachers were selected with very little reference to their ability and efficiency for such work. They had had no previous experience, and it is quite probable that many of them knew only a little more than the child they were going to teach, but they possessed the exceptional power to teach all that they knew. After two years’ constant efforts of the head of the department and his assistants, boards of education which hold the power of appointing teachers have, with a few exceptions, been led to see that the selection of teachers is the most important duty imposed upon them, and there has been a slow yet constant weeding out, and only the fittest have survived. The teachers’ institutes of two different summer vacations have furnished instruction to approximately 4000 teach ers yearly for a period of six weeks. These institutes have acted as a stimulating influence upon teachers, and have secured wonderful improvement in their work. There was a well-organized and stubborn position on the part of the teachers to all attempts to compel them to be examined. For more than a year they occupied their positions with no other guarantee of their fitness than that which may have existed in the minds of the boards of education that appointed them. The author of this article was equally stubborn in his determination that they should submit themselves to examinations, and now no teacher may be employed in the public schools of the island if he has not previously demonstrated his fitness to teach before a duly appointed board of examiners. There are, in Cuba,more than 4000 young men and young women holding such teachers’ certificates.

For many reasons it has not been possible to found normal schools in the island ; mainly, because of a lack of efficient personnel for such schools unless it is brought from foreign countries. To found a normal school in the island of Cuba with no more experience in normal school work than at present exists in the island would be to perpetuate the very evils which the school was founded to root out. Recognizing normal training, however, as one of the most urgent necessities for the proper development of the school system, arrangements were made with the state normal school of New Paltz, N. Y., for the training of sixty Cuban women teachers, who are now attending this school under contract with the island of Cuba, which secures their services in the public schools of Cuba after their graduation in consideration of certain privileges extended them while at the school. This is, it will be seen, a notable project in the history of public education. After almost a year’s trial the experiment has proven so preëminently successful that the creation is contemplated of yearly scholarships for thirty Cuban teachers, to be chosen from all sections of the island, for a two years’ course of instruction in this normal school at the government’s expense.

There are nearly 200,000 children attending the public schools of the island of Cuba to-day, receiving as good or better instruction than is given in the average public school of the United States. They are all graded under one system, and a child in the third grade at Cape Maisi is studying the same textbooks, and has reached the same point of advancement, as a child in the third grade at Cape San Antonio. The great majority of this vast number of children are in the first three grades. There are a few in the fourth grade, and still less in the fifth. Age is not an indication of the grade to which a child can be assigned. A boy fourteen years old may be in the same grade as one six years old. There is no better illustration of the complete lack of opportunity for free public education prior to the American occupation than these statements. These 200,000 children have learned all that they know in the last three years. If the present number of schools is maintained, and approximately one sixth of the population continues to receive some instruction in the public schools yearly, the next official census of Cuba should show a marked change in the percentage of illiteracy.

It is rather difficult to form an opinion as to what effects the change in government will have on the Cuban school system. Two points stand out prominently in their relative importance. At the present time, with the exception of the author of this article, all of the important positions in the school system are occupied by Cubans. They have had almost two years’ training under the law now in force, and are thoroughly familiar with its organization and with the policy that has given such splendid results up to date. If the services of these trained officials can be retained, it is a guarantee that this system will be continued as far as it is within their power to continue it. If, on the other hand, the change in government results in a change in the personnel of the educational department, placing its future in the hands of those who are not in sympathy with the present organization and have had no experience or training under it, it is conceivable that socalled radical reforms will be made, and so-called radical reforms mean the destruction of the school system. The second point is the possibility or impossibility of the new Cuban government being able to continue the present bountiful appropriation for public education. The military government has been expending between three and four million dollars yearly for this purpose. This has been done only with the greatest of effort, and not without sacrificing other important measures of public utility. For perfectly obvious reasons, which it is not important to mention here, it will not be possible for the new government to continue this appropriation unless there is a radical change in the economical condition of the island, and this does not appear probable. It can be stated almost without doubt, that the number of schools existing in the island will have to be materially reduced, perhaps one half. If the coming administration finds this imperative and attempts to maintain the present number of schools, teachers’ salaries will not be paid, necessary supplies will not be furnished, other liabilities will not be met, and there will be a speedy return to the conditions that existed in the colonial period. If, however, the inevitable is accepted, and expenses are kept within the appropriation, the number of schools may be decreased, but their efficiency will be maintained.

Matthew E. Hanna.