Último Jueves

Culture and University

Fecha: marzo 31, 2022
Lugar: Sala Polivalente Héctor García Salas
UJ 31 de marzo 2022 english

(Held via Telegram from the Cuban Film Institute [ICAIC] on March 31, 2022)


Rafael Hernández: This panel has a lot to do with some others that we organized in the past and published in our journal in these twenty years of Último Jueves. They are directly related to culture, understood not only as our knowledge or information about certain areas of art and literature, which is culture too, of course, but also as something else constantly mentioned in conversations, speeches, comments and debates: how important and useful is it to have a general, integral cultural education. It is about having command of the history of art and literature, and of something else: how useful culture is to a professional who does not work in these fields, and how important it is to have a cultural education and to practice any of its many possible ramifications. We decided to focus on two of those issues: what has to do directly with cultural education and what deals with cultural practices, actions and participation role not only in its consumption but also in the production of culture.

Culture and University
Foto: Revista Temas

For this debate, we have five panelists: Rainer Schultz, PhD in History, whose doctoral thesis was about the history of education in Cuba and will soon become a book. For more than five years, almost seven now, Rainer, who is a German, has been the coordinator of study groups from several American universities gathered in an alliance called The Consortium, based at Brown University, to carry out studies abroad—including Cuba—and all these years he has done this with Casa de las Americas. That is, he also has links with Cuban institutions. We asked him to be here and speak to us from his perspective as a former student and someone who has taught both in Germany and in the United States.

Caridad Dailín López, a methodologist with the University Extension Division of the Ministry of Higher Education (MES). We always call attention to the fact that the most difficult thing is to get someone who has a responsibility in an institution to come and sit here. We thank her very much for coming and her institution for facilitating her presence in this debate so she can share with us her views about what specifically concerns the work of university extension, particularly in relation to the aspects mentioned here, and about those issues from the perspective of her experience.

Denia García Ronda, who needs no introduction to a Temas audience. For a very long time she was professor of literature and Cuban culture at the University of Havana (UH) and deputy director of the journal Temas, and now we are fortunate to continue to have her as a member of our editorial team, since she has devoted many years of reflection and analysis to this subject.

Alejandro Sánchez, a student at the School of Philosophy and History who is also president of its Federation of University Students (FEU) chapter. Obviously, a student’s perspective on these problems also has a very special value for us, since this is about exchanging points of view that cannot be the same and may be even conflicting eventually. That is to say, there may be a debate, and it would be very fruitful to have one at the table and among the panelists, in the good sense of the terms conflicting and debate.

Finally, also joining us—albeit remotely—is Yuleidis Gonzalez, a professor of socio-cultural studies at the University of Granma province, where she is in charge of the project La Cuarta Lucía (The Fourth Lucia). We thank them all for participating.

The first question is about what we understand by cultural practices, by cultural education, by getting an integral cultural education, and about the purpose of having students of any degree course, in any field, gain that experience, get that education and assume that participation.

Rainer Schultz: I would like to emphasize that I studied and worked in three different universities of three different countries: Humboldt University in Berlin, where I did my master’s degree, then a year here in Havana, and finally my PhD at Harvard University, and I consider that the university culture of the three schools is very different. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is the acronym HU/UH.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander’s brother, founded Humboldt State University in 1810 by as part of the Prussian reforms, twenty years after the French Revolution and the end of feudalism in Europe. At that time, this university meant the entrance to modernity, because for the first time there were aspirations regarding the unification of research and teaching in a single institution, freedom of science and academia—that is, from religion and the absolute State—and the formation of the character of the university students, which is what this panel is about. This university was a model to many others, first in Europe and later in the Americas.

Today, Humboldt State U has almost forty thousand students, four hundred and twenty professors, two thousand other academics, one hundred twenty-one degree programs, fifty-six Nobel laureates in its faculty, and a budget approaching five hundred million euros a year. However, unlike many private universities, for example, in the United States, it is practically free of charge for students. I am only saying this by way of introduction because the environment, the access to and, finally, the culture of the university also have play a role therein.

This university champions a humanistic and integral vision of the human being in which scientific and academic work contribute—as it did—to humanize German society and beyond. Academia and knowledge also entail obligations and responsibilities, as well as a permanent review of the objectives, contents and methods of teaching and the application of knowledge, which is important especially in the German context. Keep in mind that quite a few German academics were involved in what became the Holocaust and that Germany started the two world wars. That is why there is a very active awareness in that country about the use of science in society.

What I remember the most about those years in Berlin in the late 1990s and the 2000s, in those classrooms where great people like Clausewitz, Hegel, Marx and Einstein studied, besides the general studies that we could do off campus—and this was very important—was the freedom and the real possibility to participate as students in university life. It was not only as its representatives in the university council, as there is also a self-government of the students, with a budget that allowed us to organize activities with different central themes such as internationalism, anti-racism, and teaching and research, and cultural activities, or to assist students who had children. We had conferences and talks on current issues; at that time there was the war in Iraq, today it would be perhaps another war; we organized film discussion evenings, and we had our own publication. We also organized demonstrations against, for example, the neo-Nazi marches at that time. In other words, there were public, cultural and political interventions by the students of the university, which was at the center of urban and social life in Berlin back then. In my opinion, this was necessary for our integral formation as students beyond the academic content, as it is very important to reflect about the rightful place of professionals and the university in society, to what end we studied and how we put into practice and make the best use of our privileges. Of course, since I know that this changes over time and according to the circumstances of each country and culture, all this requires some space, conditions, and a shared vision to make this development possible for students, and they have to earn that.

I finish in Cuba, because as Rafael said I have been here for several years, also engaged in teaching and academic life. Since the Island is in the middle of a process of updating and reorganization, with a new Constitution and a political and economic context different from the 1980s and 90s, it seems to me that this search for a new, viable or fair model must also necessarily entail a different university culture. You must revisit, think about and reinvent viable practices and forms of organization within your higher education institutions.

Caridad Dailín López: We must start from the key word for higher education, conceived from fundamental processes such as professional qualification, science, technological innovation, and university extension, which in this case is the process I am representing. All of them have a common denominator: culture, from the standpoint of its preservation, creation or enrichment of the cultural level already attained, and from the standpoint of the promotion of that knowledge both within the university environments and in society in general.

Talking about the cultural education of university students implies thinking about that system of diverse, heterogeneous knowledge based on the fundamental objective of each of those processes that we have mentioned, to provide society with competent, committed, innovative, and above all humanistic professionals. That is, we cannot lose sight of that humanistic vision of our professionals and the values promoted from each of the university spaces.

They are important because if we make a segmentation here, we could talk about integral practices or integral cultural practices understood as all the knowledge that emanates from a classroom or a laboratory—which can be for technological, but also a community—and from the sort of vision that every one of those students may have. This is because the fact that they decide to be doctors does not mean that they are not interested at all in topics of art and literature, nor that all those factors are incompatible. It is about how to command the culture of the profession and be competent professionals who are sensitive to social causes but also sufficiently qualified to appreciate what we receive from other spheres of life, and mainly from art, literature, culture and other more traditional and customary practices. In short, this is, in essence, what trying to qualify a professional in an integral way is about. Is this of any use? Yes, so those professionals can deliver what society expects of them.

Culture and University
Foto: Revista Temas

Denia García Ronda: I must point out that whatever I say may be a bit out of date in terms of information, because even after spending more than forty years linked to the university, first as a student and then as a teacher, I have long been mostly unacquainted with current events. On the other hand, I am going to talk about artistic-literary culture, because that is what I know. Of course, I know that culture is much more than that, but I am going to focus on that.

Regarding cultural practice, I believe that it is not only about artistic-literary creation but also—and mostly—about the appreciation and reception of that culture, namely reading and going to museums, theaters, cinemas, concerts, etc. In other words, about being part of the cultural life that a certain city or a certain social space has to offer.

In this connection, I am also speaking of creativity, not only in reference to the professional creators who devote themselves exclusively, or almost exclusively, to creation, because in Cuba it is very difficult to devote yourself only to artistic and literary creation. Where the university world can be best represented is in those who devote themselves to creation, be they professionals or amateurs.

A cultural education is precisely about the preparation for that cultural practice, and of course, that education and training has to be systematic and start at an early age in the family, at school, in the different institutions that have to do with children and young people, and in society as a whole.

A society or an environment with a high level of culture, not by being elitist but because of the number of people or the cultural atmosphere of that city or space, has influence of necessity over the education of an individual, almost by osmosis.

If I may, I will share with you an anecdote about Havana in the 1960s. In those years, thanks in part to the number of cultural institutions established after the triumph of the Revolution, people had a yearning for culture. The theaters featured both universal classics and experimental plays, and virtually all currents of Cuban theater and so on. Our auditoriums and big theaters were packed with young people, and the image of a young person in the 1960s was of someone with a book in their hand; we even made jokes about it. This is an example of a social atmosphere that, of course, influences the university world, but the thing is that the world of the 1960s influenced society and was the focal point of cultural life in Havana, and I am sure that in other Cuban cities as well. That is, those communicating vessels existed. In my opinion, we have lost all that, perhaps because of too much institutionalization. We no longer see the spontaneous eagerness to get involved in the world of culture that the university students of the 1960s and part of the 1970s had, which is as important for a professional as it is for an undergraduate.

In nineteenth-century Cuba, and I think Dailín talked about it, a doctor could be a poet, a great reader and an orator, and you could be involved in the world of culture even if you were a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer. We can talk about it later, because this is a major controversial issue related to cultural education in the university world.

Rafael Hernández: Alejandro, I would like to seize on the comments made here to see how you react. Do you think that the university environment is where one’s character is formed and, if so, to what extent? Does a cultural education have to do with the formation of the character, regardless of whether it is happening or not? To what extent is university life and culture key for that education to work? How important it is that such life breaches the university boundaries rather than be restricted to campus? Can university life be culturally intense and still fail to trickle down to the rest of society? To what extent does a cultural education relate to what Dailín said about the development of an innovative spirit, of innovation, as something that people carry within and has to do with culture, not with machines, devices or laboratories, but with the spirit? I am not making the question harder to answer, but simply trying to seize on this issue to draw the outline of what we have called cultural education and practices.

Alejandro Sánchez: Professor Denia brought up some elements that I wanted to address in my intervention. Cultural education, first of all, is a never-ending process that starts at an early age and is strongly influenced by family and school, both of which are responsible for the formation of the child’s values and yearning for knowledge. Thus, as they live through the various stages of their development, they will be able to learn the tools and skills that they need to gain that knowledge.

We tend to think that a cultural education is something that a professor must provide to the student, and it should not be only that way. The students have to devote time to self-study and self-instruction and to find and compare sources to form an idea as accurate as possible of reality, and that is precisely the main objective of getting a cultural education. It is not passing a given amount of knowledge on to the students but, first, enabling them to know the realities of the world so they can understand them, and then contributing to their education. How are we going to unleash our creative potential and put innovation into practice if we fail to interpret the world in which we live and its reality and we are not in a position to bring into action all that potential for innovation and creativity?

As to the university cultural life, from what I have heard from people who studied in the university in past decades—especially in the highly energetic 1960s, but even in the 1970s and 80s—the universities boasted a remarkable cultural life that went beyond the boundaries of the institutions. Nowadays, however, it is difficult to create a cultural atmosphere within those centers, since there are certain influences and social conditioning factors put a limit on cultural education, not to mention that the referents are no longer the best artistic-literary and scientific cultural creations that we had in the past.

Today we see that the paradigms and the referents are different, perhaps more banal and less profound. It has to do with our vision of university students as a sector of youth who rank above the rest from a cognitive point of view, and yet they are still under the influence of the digital social networks and reference groups such as family, networks of friends, social imaginaries, and so are even their aspirations and life projects. Many come seeking a degree, just that, a simple piece of paper that guarantees their chances to enter the labor market. Whatever happened to their hopes of becoming integral learned professionals capable of putting certain values into practice and being consistent with their humanistic essence? It is very sad, but it is a fact; what we have witnessed in the last few years is the deterioration of the cultural environment of the universities.

Rafael Hernández: Yuleidis, think not of the people who are sitting here or listening to us and who are convinced of the importance of a cultural education and of cultural practices. Think instead that these people really believe that culture is a kind of ornament or outfit and that is hardly essential or fundamental, since it will not put beans on your table or help you make money. To those who think like that, who are good people, who have even studied a lot, how would you explain the importance of a cultural education and of cultural practices in the universities?

Yuleidis González: I cannot thank you enough for the opportunity to be here and share with you what little or much I have been able to do. I am speaking to you from the International Conference Center, where I am participating in the International Congress of Researchers on Childhood, Adolescence and Youth.

Actually, what you are asking me is not difficult because it is something I do every day. I work in school of many degree courses that that include one on Sociocultural Management for Development. For those of you who do not know it, it is in line with the improvement of sociocultural studies, which is no longer part of the curriculum of the Ministry of Higher Education (MES), but there are also degree courses of Accounting and Finance, Economics, and Law. Therefore, explaining the importance of culture for the integral education of university students is like our daily bread.

I asked myself that question in 2017: what does culture mean to university students and what is university culture? Maybe I lacked theoretical knowledge, but I was certain that it was something more than participating in the movement of amateur artists or a conference on cultural identity, or making the students go to a theater to see a play. I always felt that this was about something more, something that involved modes and methods of research, how to participate in the processes of social transformation, and how to carry out the management of knowledge, even about the very coexistence in the student residence and their interpersonal relationships. In other words, I understood, as I still do, that even the methods we use to study are cultural practices, and the sense of belonging to one’s university is also part of this great spectrum, of this great «hodgepodge» that culture is.

On this understanding, my life went through some major changes that year that led me to these reflections. I had worked in the Department of Marxism for eleven years, and then they appointed me senior professor of the third year of Sociocultural Studies and gave me the worst class the course ever had, according to what they told me. So I needed to understand what those students, most of them women, wanted to receive from the course, how committed to it they were and what they expected to become after their graduation. That was when «The Fourth Lucia» came into being. I am almost starting to answer the second question, but the truth is that this gender-related project sprang from the need to transform the cultural practices that those third-year students had embraced up to that moment, which were totally at loggerheads with what we needed from a professional and from a university student. I felt that an extension project would help me join forces with them to make sure that the transformation would not be about me meddling in their lives, but a give-and-take process based on a common objective, and that from there the transformation and the integral education would take place. To me, as I said earlier, culture is not just about artistic aspects, but about everything that we produce and has a significant symbolic component and which, consequently, crosscuts all social processes.

In that respect, the cultural education of university students is useful so that as professionals they will not become technocrats, but citizens who also have knowledge, skills and values to develop a given professional profile. They would be fully formed citizens that we give back to society, where they have to play a role and interact to solve field-specific problems that, in turn, are of a social nature. That is why I think that a cultural education is very important, but understood not only in the context of artistic training, although this is also important, because being able to appreciate the arts has to do with the sensitivity that all kinds of professionals must have to really be part of society and participate in the social transformation processes.

Rafael Hernández: Thank you very much, Yula, your barrage of precise concepts really impressed me. Now I would like to do this the other way around and give the floor to Alejandro so that he can pick up where he left off when I stopped him from speaking about problems. First, however, I would like to give you information about some mini-interviews with university students, where they were asked what they do in their free time. They said that they go to parties, to the beach, to bars and watch TV series. Only one student answered, “I read”.

We are going to take advantage of this short time to identify as precisely as possible the problems facing cultural education and cultural practices, that is, the most critical ones, those that have the greatest impact on the current situation of university life and on everything related to the role of culture within the university.

Alejandro Sanchez: If we looked at it from the point of view of the syllabus of every degree program, we would notice a strong emphasis on hyper-specialization. The reduction of the degree to four years has forced many career commissions to cut down on the allocated times or eliminate subjects otherwise important for the students’ cultural education, be they enrolled in courses of exact or natural sciences or even in those of a social and humanistic profile.

I study History and, naturally, I have an obsession about understanding society from the standpoint of its historical development. However, my girlfriend, for example, studies Art History, a course that hardly looks at society’s historical context and therefore becomes a succession of paintings and sculptures without any consideration of the circumstances leading up to the development of those artistic movements. Not even of their subjective side, because this is not only a matter of eliminating World History subjects but also those related to the History of Philosophy. How can you understand the development of art over time if you have no idea about the evolution of philosophical thought? Mine is a very concrete example, but we find that the students believe that they only need to know the object of study of their degree program, and then it becomes very difficult to open doors to other fields of knowledge that perhaps are not so specific to their area of specialty. This presents a major problem for these university students, as their vision would be lacking in comprehensiveness.

How are we going to prepare critical subjects who are capable of understanding their reality if they do not have general knowledge about different areas of learning and restrict themselves to their field? This is another major problem, that is, the segmentation or fragmentation of education of the university students, which of course has an impact on their cultural wealth.

Rafael Hernández: In reference to the results of the question about free time, do those comments by the students seem typical to you?

Culture and University
Foto: Revista Temas

Alejandro Sanchez: Yes, in general it is what university students consume in their free time: beach, TV series and bars. They very often use a word to that effect that I do not like: ‘desestresarse’ (unwind), that is, studying or going to class is stressful for many of them. To what extent does this have to do with people’s referents and paradigms? Is it that studying seems an obligation and a punishment rather than a pleasure? They can also study or read in their free time, but they have every right to use that time as they see fit. Furthermore, we see that there is a kind of conventionality enthroned among university students that those activities are precisely the way to enjoy themselves and having a good time, unlike going to museums and even to the theater, which were once handy forms of entertainment for university students. This does not mean that those young people have a wide range of choices to spend their free time, that is to say, there are limitations and economic realities that have a very strong impact on them and curtail their possibilities.

Rafael Hernández: Would you say that these issues have to do with something that has been piling up? Do you consider them the result of particular circumstances?

Alejandro Sanchez: No, because everything in society is an accumulation. A few years ago, as part of the Battle of Ideas, Fidel strived to create an integral general culture, and despite the very strong policy of knowledge that the Revolution has developed for decades, all that effort resulted precisely from the realization that large segments of the population had never had access to artistic, literary, humanistic, scientific and technological knowledge. Culture is not only an expression of your command of such knowledge, it is also contingent on your behavior and cultural practices defined by the level of development of your cultural education as an individual, which is of course socially conditioned and has to do with your family origins, your neighborhood or the schools where you studied. Not all young people have the same possibilities, not even after they graduate from the university, since this depends on many factors likely to cause certain inequalities in our social scene.

When I was in senior high school, I remember students who wanted to study journalism or international relations, courses that required an aptitude test, a general culture exam. They used to say, “I am going to study general culture”, and I would think, “So that is something that you learn by heart, like ‘Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov’, etc., and there you go, I already have a general culture”. That is not how it works. You must take gradual possession of culture and you also need a vocation for learning; otherwise, you cannot possibly have a cultural education. That is another problem facing young people today: the lack of a vocation for learning.

Rafael Hernández: Denia, to the extent that you heard about young students who graduated from different university courses back when you were still a university professor, and since, what are the flaws of a university cultural education?

Denia García Ronda: I totally agree with Alejandro’s words, and I would like to say a few things about what you just asked.

I think there are many problems. As far as I know, and maybe Yuleidis can talk about this later, there are plans under way now to review and try to recover, at least moderately, the university cultural life that existed until more or less the 1980s, which had been declining since the 1960s, but in the 1980s, as Alejandro said, it still had some vitality.

However, I would like you to allow me to focus on one thing: the university, or universities. Overall, they receive students from previous levels who do not have a cultural education or even the possibility of getting one, generally speaking, let alone any artistic-literary training, in the first place because the syllabus and study programs conspire against it. For many, many years, our schools have separated literature from writing and grammar. In my opinion, that is utter nonsense because it affects one as much as the other, but the one that suffers the most from it, in this case, is literature. They talk about this and other things regarding the integral cultural education of these young people. The university inherits these problems but, as I see it, it has not been capable of fixing them even in some measure. It amazes me that a young person, for example, my own granddaughter who has just graduated in Literature, tells me, ‘No, that subject no longer exists; they took it out of the syllabus’. A methodologist might indeed consider some subjects unnecessary because they have to make the most of time to give other subjects right of way, but they are essential to the cultural education of university students. Simply put, this problem goes all the way back to primary school.

Let me tell you another little anecdote. I worked on the reading books for the first improvement program, and I can guess someone’s age when they ask me, “Are you Denia García Ronda?», because for some time now we no longer tell elementary school students who the authors are. Those books featured Mirta Aguirre, Eliseo Diego, Dora Alonso, etc. and had the author’s biography in the back page. The schools usually invited us to talk to the students, with the children, of different grades, but they do not do that anymore. Then they get to high school, which is the most dangerous stage in terms of education because it is when young people begin to have other interests. However, no one tries to fix that and make a conversation about culture appealing to them; on the contrary, and I know this from my own experience, many times those students have very little opportunity to learn anything other than what they receive in class. In other words, the universities end up dealing with all this, but they could so something about it, at least to gradually help them get an integral cultural education when they become professionals and can give it back to society in return, or even while they are still students. This is not happening.

For example, in the 1960s and 70s, the university extension department was extremely important to cultural life—I am talking here about artistic and literary culture—which was plentiful, and not only because it organized a literary contest or supported certain troupes, etc., but because it was responsible for keeping that integral culture of the students alive. Eventually we stopped doing that, and I do not know where things stand today, but I do know that other universities and fields of knowledge attach no importance to that university extension.

For instance, the UCI[1] has a very rich cultural life, but it is restricted to campus and there is no communication with the surrounding environment. I know from sources close to me that many students in other universities have no idea what university extension is, but this goes beyond the existence of a department called ‘university extension’, because it should be an essential part of a university education.

The requirement that made the graduation of those who study in CUJAE[2] or medical school contingent on passing a writing and spelling test also disappeared, and it was the least demanding one. I do have experience in this because I am an editor. The writing skills and spelling of many of today’s professionals are a disgrace.

These are all issues, just like the points that Alejandro made in a more general and comprehensive way, that the universities can resolve.

Rafael Hernández: Caridad, what is it that you have not been able to accomplish in terms of university extension?

Caridad Dailín López: The previous comments have touched on key questions about what could be the conception of university culture.

I am going to answer your question, but first, if I may, I would like to make some remarks about what my colleagues have said. We are living in a very different era since the onset of the pandemic, but mainly during its last stages. The world is moving along a line in which we are trying to systematize experiences that may be new to us and solve direct problems that even complement the vision of higher education in a more comprehensive and integrating way.

Alejandro mentioned the elimination of subjects of a social and artistic-literary profile, and although I do not have sufficient information to be able to go deep into this topic, I can tell you my opinion. All universities have some degree of autonomy, and every one of them, depending on its context of interaction, defines the training needs of its professionals, which explains why some degree courses have a common curriculum at national level and others have their own syllabus designed to solve specific problems of the labor market where their graduates will find employment.

I taught art and literary appreciation because I am a philologist by profession, and I suffered the loss of subjects that used to be part of the sociocultural degree program now included in the process of improvement. In order to make up for that shortfall in education, now we offer extension courses to fill the gap left by the elimination of those subjects from the curriculum. Said courses are designed by the university extension departments based on an assessment of both our students and faculty but also other staff and people from the surrounding areas who outline or try to facilitate and convey their knowledge with prime emphasis on history, local heritage, art history, art appreciation and reception, theater, etc.

These days we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the University Theater, an institution that is key to Cuban culture because important figures of Cuban theater have emerged from there.

Denia García Ronda: Does it still exist?

Caridad Dailín López: Yes, and in addition to that we are planning a tour around Cuban universities to celebrate its anniversary. We have many other pivotal, leading, topmost institutions that we jokingly call millenarian and they are state-of-the-art.

In practice, not all universities have a similar level of development, commitment to and identification with what they do.

The professor said that the university extension departments played a leading role. That is, they are still leading a quixotic struggle to try to promote culture in compliance with the current contexts, constantly permeated as they are with external influences, foreign practices and even imports that have nothing to do with our culture. We saw it in those short films played here, like the one about that crazy party. These things are happening and we try to counteract, and I say that we try because the opportunities are real, but sometimes the difficult thing—and with this I answer your question—is to succeed in making our target audience participate in the events that we organize. However, in order to do so we need to be there, be a part, interact, contribute and have some feedback rather than just go there because you have to add one point to your grade scale.

Leadership has to do with this, because you need to have a leader in your school or workplace, someone to follow, someone who can motivate you and provide the right guidance. You often hear the argument, «No, because you have to impose rules”. Wrong. You do not force culture upon people; you guide and promote culture using your psychology, communication skills and personal training as an agent of change, perhaps as a university professor. That is essentially the most difficult thing, first to achieve the integration of all the actors of extension, who are not only the decision makers but also the teaching staff and the students.

Alejandro Sánchez: The organizations.

Caridad Dailín López: Exactly, the organizations are actors of extension. We cannot just look at this extension as if it belonged in the university extension departments, because it is a process but also an institutional function that should encompass teaching and research but at the same time needs that the teachers know how to promote culture and history. Our degree courses include a subject that I love very much: history of language, which makes you fall in love with the field of linguistics.

Rafael Hernández: Rainer, is there any similarity between what you have heard here and what you have experienced, not only in Cuba or with Cuban students? Any common feature? What can you tell us about the problems that affect the cultural education in other universities, similar or otherwise?

RainerSchultz: Yes, there are several similar problems. Rather, I am going to refer to some international points of view, and since you asked for concrete examples, I will mention three. One in Germany, known as the political mandate; the other is the university reforms of the last twenty-five years; and finally, the commercial character of culture in the present times, which also has to do with what could be called the conditions of production of professional university students. I think Alejandro said something about it too, that not everyone has the same conditions or the same cultural and human capital.

Something extremely odd happens in Germany. As I said earlier, we organized political rallies in the 2000s, when neo-fascist groups resurfaced in Germany and walked around in front of the Humboldt University in the center of Berlin. Many students in this university, who could be considered politically aware, wanted to do something about it, so they would take to the streets, mobilize and organize debates on the subject. Meanwhile, some of their schoolmates believed that as students they should not get involved in political things and limit themselves instead to study and to the narrower vision of a university education.

The situation reached the point where we had to resort to a court of law to deal with this issue. It was a very interesting debate, because in this court we discussed the consequences and the possibility that a university student could be politically minded in the 21st century. Eventually, even the German judges felt that it was a bit artificial to draw a line between recognizing our right to do something if the neo-Nazis went into the university and depriving us of that right if they stayed outside. In the end, they did give us the right to express our views on, speak about and engage in social issues beyond the scope of the university. This was possible back then, and I believe that you can still find such a level of political consciousness, interest and activity in a large sector of Germans and in other universities in countries that I have visited.

However, and this is the second example, the university reforms of the last twenty-five years, known in Europe as the Bologna process, intended to make the universities more efficient and reform them, to make the students graduate in a shorter time and be more focused on the ultimate goal, which Alejandro talked about. That is, you have a very specialized qualification, but at the cost of not having time to study other general topics, learn about other subjects and attend cultural activities. I do not know to what extent but, in many countries, the students also have to work in order to pay for their studies, and they seldom have any time to do other things, on campus or elsewhere.

This is an important process. I know that Cuba has also made reforms, such as reducing university programs to four years. There are arguments for and against that but, at the same time, I understand that your curriculums are a little more flexible now and even include elective subjects, that is, the students can choose subjects outside their syllabus, and I think that is important.

My final example, about the commercial nature of culture: You and Denia said something about what the university has to offer, that it must or should come from the bottom up, from the students themselves, in terms of how attractive, feasible and desirable any offer can be to them, as Alejandro was saying. Because studying is not an obligation, but to a certain extent a privilege. Ideally, the university would organize events on campus and bring guest speakers, personalities, graduates or other people who may have a different vision and attract the students.

The cultural offer outside the universities in other countries, but also in Cuba, is becoming more and more commercial and expensive. I heard a student talking about a concert at Bar 245, and I happen to know the prices they charge in that place. I went there once but did not have anything, for I only wanted to have a look at it. I think their entrance fee is about two thousand pesos, and the reservation price starts at twenty thousand pesos, and not all students here can afford that, not to say almost none or very few of them, and the same thing happens in other universities in other countries. I was going to mention, as an example, Harvard University, perhaps one of the richest in the world, which has the great privilege of being able to grant scholarships to students once they are accepted, regardless of their parents’ income. That is, if the parents can pay the fifty thousand dollars a year that Harvard charges, they do it, but if they cannot afford that much, this and very few other, very exceptional universities offer the option of a scholarship. This does not mean that everyone is equal within the university, because maybe they spend a few hours together in a classroom but they do not eat in the same place, nor do they go to the same clubs or engage in the same activities, and this creates a problem of division and different tendencies.

I will finish with something positive: for example, in these American universities, the courses are not concentrated from the outset, so the students can enroll in different colleges, schools and departments to know what really arouses their interest. Only in the third year do the students decide on what major they will pursue. There they have a wide range of cultural choices that include movies, talks and extracurricular activities, which is actually part of the curriculum that the students accumulate and helps them get a broader perspective.

The formation of character does not take place at the university; it begins much earlier and then continues there, and most of those who later have important positions in their countries went to a university. Therefore, it is also important to have a broader view about education in these institutions.

Rafael Hernández: Now I would like to have brief comments from those who are joining us in this panel, that is, those who are here in this room with us and those who are listening through the Telegram group.

Suntyan Irigoyen (Editor, Temas journal): I agree with what everyone has said, but I would like to put special emphasis on what Denia said about the deterioration of the cultural education of young people. I will refer only to one aspect from the linguistic point of view. From the words of the young women who were interviewed, it seems to me that we are witnessing a depreciation of the language, of the use of Spanish language. Unfortunately, you can notice that they are not very articulate, that is to say, their do not have a large vocabulary or linguistic repertoire. I suppose that shortcoming will have an adverse effect when they have to make a presentation in the university. I think this is a significant difficulty worth analyzing at some point.

Disamis Arcia (Professor, School of Communication, UH): About the buildup of problems and challenges, I would like very briefly to add the current impact of digital culture on the forms of socialization, consumption and study and how the students interact with the structures that they find at the University of Havana and others across the country. We have been coping with this challenge since 2018, especially since the expansion of people’s access to the Internet and their chance to have a little more access to mobile data. This comes on top of the context emerged in the last two years, which has proved that to the economic, political and social conditions that our students are living through we have to add a specific way of looking at the world, culture and consumption that is often at odds with our historical vision of doing university studies. I am speaking from my own experience as a university professor who interacts with students, which has made me rethink my role as a professor and to what extent this reveals the deterioration, change of meaning or challenging nature of that interaction, and not just from the little superiority or institutional legitimacy that my academic status provides. No, because the important thing is to try to reconnect with the students.

As professors, we are often distressed to feel that we are not on the same wavelength as the students. It is true that our links with them have become weaker, but what happens in some cases is that their life has changed and they are dealing with reality in a different way and, as professors, we fail to relate well with them or make them feel that they are part of things.

I think that this is a great challenge for the culture of university students and university communities in a country like Cuba, where in the last few years the problems regarding the digital divide, economic possibilities and access also became manifest in the difficulties that many students had, to both move around extracurricular spaces and meet their formal educational needs.

José Julián Díaz Pérez (Student, UH): I would like to refer to what Disamis said and link it to Alejandro’s comments. Our studies and our educational process in general can become alienating. It is perhaps because of its inability to get the students involved in the process of knowledge development, understood as an accumulation of information that I have to master for the exams so that I can overcome a number of barriers until I earn my degree and get a job for which they will pay me money. In other words, we conceive studying as a process that we have to go through in order to have better jobs and higher salaries, and it is precisely thanks to that money and that life that I will lead that I will be able to go to a party and ‘unwind’, as Alejandro said earlier.

There is a whole cultural apparatus dedicated to turn thinking and knowledge into something boring and old-fashioned that, in the end, leaves you stressed-out. Besides, since the students have no say in the process of knowledge development, they usually find it alienating and, therefore, authoritarian. It does not matter if the students gain or not certain knowledge, they just have to repeat and retell it with a view to meeting another goal. That is, it is not an active process but something that I have to achieve for another purpose. How to reverse this situation and redress a student’s role is one of our major concerns. There is a lot of talk nowadays about how to turn knowledge development into a collective process that requires the participation of the students for its construction.

José Barcinde Herrera (Director of the Department of University Extension, MES): First of all, Rafael, thank you for the opportunity that you gave us to participate, it is really a very pertinent form of feedback for us who work here.

I would like to thank Alejandro for his very proper and accurate way of stating his views, as well as to the professor [Garcia Ronda], who is no longer practicing but is always with us, and to Rainer for his very important remarks.

In my opinion, this is a formative process. When it comes to education, nothing is spontaneous and everything has to be intentional. The purpose of education is to become a system of influence so that it can hit the target and manage to transform people. If we fail to achieve that, there is no education process.

About what is happening to us, I am going to refer to something that Dailín mentioned: the three substantive processes of higher education. In order to avoid repetitions, I am going to tell you an anecdote about a colleague. She visited a university and asked, “Where are the professors?” They replied, “As you can see, they are teaching in the classrooms.” “And the researchers?” “In the laboratories”, they said. When she asked, “What about the university extension staff?” the answer was, “They are in that room over there”. In other words, university extension is seen as a process or something else that only involves those of us who work in that department, but it actually goes beyond that. Where it is truly effective is precisely in the classroom, so all professors must be well aware of their role in order to promote culture, and it is by no means whatsoever a matter of promoting percussion and choral music as professors.

By way of example, Cuban TV is transmitting Calendario (Calendar), a very good TV series that shows what extension is all about, and is it notable how that Spanish and Literature teacher has been able to motivate the worst class in the school.

Professor Rainer, this is one of our main difficulties in spite of the fact that Cuba has a national university extension program with twelve well-defined guidelines, and not limited to the extension department or division but focused on all teachers and their subjects.

Another fact that we professors have failed to realize is that the triumph of the Cuban Revolution paved the way for many very radical social changes such as the Literacy Campaign and the University Reform, which greatly influenced the course of history. Of course, in those decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s the country was buzzing with cultural activity, production of musical instruments and sports gear, etc. Nowadays, not only Cuba but also the whole world is going through very complex times when everything has changed, and yet most professors have not, and keep doing the same work with their students. In this respect, I totally agree with the professor who said that this is where the challenge we face as professors lies: how to connect with our students again. We have no choice but to change our ways and methods and adapt ourselves to it.

Dailín, maybe you remember what the current President of Cuba and First Secretary of the Party, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, said back in 2013 during an assembly of the MES: “If there is any process to be strengthened, it is the university extension process, because university extension is about giving spelling courses and qualifying State cadre…». In other words, it is about all things, albeit sometimes we balkanize everything without applying a holistic and integrative approach and say, “This is teaching, this is extension, and this is research». No, one is only the student in the end and, I insist, that student must be under all those influences. Therefore, professor, you have listed here virtually all of our problems in terms of cultural education, which is a not a matter of dancing to the beat of a can and a stick. Alejandro, you gave a brilliant explanation about all those issues that take shape practically since we are in our mother’s womb and, of course, reach full maturity when you go to the university. As you were saying, [Fidel] envisaged all this ever since the Battle of Ideas, when we had integral courses that the students were paid to attend. I do not know if you ever witnessed that process.

Rafael Hernández: I give the floor back to the panelists and ask them to follow the initial order. Rainer, if there is anything that you would like to add about this topic, that is, what can be done in this regard and what we can learn from this exchange, which is of an international nature because we are talking about our experiences and those of other countries.

Rainer Schultz: I just want to say that a debate like this, based on an honest analysis of where we stand in terms of university education and culture, truly contributes to what we define as the mission, for example, of the University of Havana, or what the interviewees said, which is what we hope to achieve. It is an honest debate to evaluate and listen to the students’ words about what they are doing today, what their interests are and how we can connect what the university has to offer with what the students are looking for. It is also an analysis of our current political-economic situation, of what the university offers or could offer or what it can bankroll under the present circumstances, which obviously varies from one country to another. That is why I mentioned at the beginning some figures of Germany and the United States. Of course, they are in a very different situation in terms of budget, since theirs is large enough so they can do many more things, but I believe that these analyses can perhaps help us design other proposals in the future.

Caridad Dailín López: In summary, we must listen better and talk more, and perhaps create spaces or look at others that for one reason or another we have not been able to reach yet. We must also make a better promotion of our historical memory and university heritage and get more involved with those institutions in the field of culture that have to do with artistic, literary and intellectual creation.

I think that we can reconsider the methods that we have used so far in the universities and how can we help our students improve their lexical skills and reestablish technological training, because it is a fact that most of our professors are not born technologists. We were not born in this digital era, so sometimes it is difficult for us to keep up with the students. I have even been asked how to interpret the icons in the replies to the messages, and that would entail an almost semiotic study to understand them better and to establish those codes and share their meanings. We must in essence rethink what we are doing and listen to those who have something to say.

Denia García Ronda: I believe that the best way that the universities can contribute to the cultural development of the country, as Rafael asked, and perhaps try to play a role as well in finding solutions to some of the issues mentioned here, is by developing their own cultural practices for society.

It seems to me that we should change some specific goals a little bit. I have heard said many times, ‘A professor should’, ‘a teacher should’, and so on. I think, as the professor said here, that we should not only listen to the students but also give them more autonomy and responsibilities. That is, not to force them to wait for an institution like FEU, the Young Communist League (UJC) or the university itself to ask them, ‘Who wants to go to the sports event, or the poetry or the art festival, or whatever?’ There must be a way to make this come from the students themselves, or at least from some students who can become leaders, as she said. We used to have that, but we lost it too. University life should begin with the students, who should not be just on the receiving end of a set of instructions, assignments and cultural plans, but be the creators of all that. In my opinion, that is the most important thing.

Everything that needs to be changed can narrow down to attaching greater importance to artistic and literary culture in not only to the plans and programs—where it should definitely be, since it is essential for the true integral education of a university graduate—but also in university life, in and out of the classroom, on campus and elsewhere.

Going to the fundamentals and specifics: someone mentioned here, and with good reason, the prices of artistic shows, even those of the museums, etc. Why does the university not compete with that with its own shows, as it once did? They do not necessarily have to feature teachers, professors or students but performers from outside the university and be much cheaper, if not free of charge as they were in the 1960s or 70s, which would make them all the more attractive. They could invite writers, people who can give the students a lecture on history or on the chemistry of the cockroach, and the doors of the university would be open to society, or at least to those who leave nearby can attend. If the university, perhaps with the support of other institutions like [the Ministry of] Culture, charges five hundred pesos, or three hundred, or whatever price it can charge for a show that you would otherwise have to pay one thousand pesos to enjoy, people will come. It is an opportunity to establish a certain—and growing—relationship with its closest audience, which is the neighborhood. The university should be aware, and not just theoretically, that it is a social center and so on, because in practice that relationship and dialogue with the community and with society also helps when it comes to the integral education of the students. This could be a task for university extension, but always setting as a premise that many of these things come from the students, who should be encouraged and entrusted with tasks. I realized something that has happened for decades now: often the universities have no confidence in what their students can do, so they choose to watch, direct and control them instead. I think this is something we should at least bear in mind if we expect any form of extension to succeed.

Alejandro Sanchez: I will be brief in the interest of saving time as I tell you about some of the actions that the FEU of the University of Havana has taken in the last year and a half. They are perhaps a sign that the current leaders of the organization are aware that we can also be a source of off-campus activity for the benefit of our cultural education.

We have had lectures in the last few months by renowned personalities of Cuban science and culture, but these events never go beyond a very limited space for lack of sufficient promotion. There is a communication problem when our institutions organize very good things that in the end receive very poor promotion.

For example, for some time now, the FEU has come to realize its role in the work at the level of neighborhoods. Not just in terms of lending a hand in the repair of streets and groceries, but contributing to the development of community projects involving university students who put their skills and knowledge into practice for the benefit of that community. The truth is that culture has often been excluded from the vision of development, which is considered as a synonym with economic progress, improvement of living conditions and other objective conditions. However, what about culture, its foundations, spiritual growth? We have a lot to contribute in this regard. We have participated in some actions in certain neighborhoods of the capital city, in the case of the University of Havana, and we would go there spontaneously, but at some point we said, ‘Well, we are doing something, but it is time to think, study and prepare’. The university extension entails study, research and, above all, an awareness on the part of both the institution and the student organizations of their role to improve the cultural education of the students and to motivate those who have ideas, proposals and, frequently, nobody to turn to.

The student organizations have to be both the space where they make their proposals and the providers of support to implement them. We have not had this, as it is the result of the current practice and culture of work that we find in various instances throughout the country, and we have set ourselves the goal of fixing that. This is consistent with the constituent objectives of the FEU, which this year will celebrate its 100th anniversary. [Julio Antonio] Mella[3] believed that the university could not be a factory of degrees and that it had a very significant social task.

We should bear in mind that university extension is an important achievement of the Latin American student struggles for university reform, that is, something that the students accomplished, so we are duty-bound to keep developing it.

Yuleidis González: I apologize, when I hear the questions about the problems we are facing, a number of them come to mind, as it happens to everyone else, but there is a cross-sectional issue related to the dilemma between culture and ignorance. It is as if we could open the heads of people whom we consider uneducated and pour inside what we see as culture. What really happens in this process can be a dialogue, but also a pitched battle involving everyone’s cultural wealth. That battle can happen, and in fact, it happens very often, since nobody starts with a tabula rasa. This has to do with something else—that is why I say that it is a cross-sectional issue—to wit, how we design the subjects of our degree prorams.

Now we can say, and rightly so—I am not denying it—that Plan E eliminated basic subjects deemed essential to provide our students with tools that would certainly develop their critical thinking and enrich their overall perspective of the world. Nonetheless, things were no different under Plan D and only a little under Plan C, even when those subjects were still included, because many of these problems have to do with how we design the curriculums and for what purpose and how we teach. It is the reason that many university students do not understand why they still have subjects like Philosophy or Political Economy, that is, the political cycle. This is not just attributable to the current Plan E, which has reduced the total class hours. I do not think that the number of hours poses a serious problem, since you schedule eighty hours for a basic subject and some students still learn nothing and fail to meet the goals of their degree program. By contrast, a thirty-two-hour subject based on a coordinated system of research and extension-oriented and other projects can be enough for them to learn how to act and be in society. These are problems that we find in this university context in which we want to train a professional rather than a technocrat, as I said before, who is not a pedantic scholar, as Félix Varela and José de la Luz y Caballero intended.

Another thing is that we keep looking for education referents in other countries, disregarding the fact that in Cuba we have a pedagogical school based on electivism, one of the most recognized schools of thought in all of Latin America and the world. However, we not always find that electivism in our curriculums or among our teachers, some of whom do not even know what the word means. This has to do with the integral education of our students, since we are training a professional and, at the same time, a citizen who will solve problems in a given field, but essentially one who must play a social role. Consequently, I consider that these problems crosscut all the issues that we have discussed here.

There are also divisions, perhaps methodological in nature, which have gone beyond and hindered the current three so-called substantive processes, mainly to the detriment of university extension, because it is the one said to involve no research or teaching. Nevertheless, if we have three substantive processes, they need to be linked with and sustain one another. These are major problems.

Now comes my answer to the third question, which is closely related to these aspects I have mentioned.

How to get it solved? It would be arrogant of me to say that I have a formula for solving this problem in the whole country. Still, I can certainly talk about how I try to do it through The Fourth Lucía, which I created precisely for that purpose, to try at least, as an extension project, to achieve the indispensable connection that teaching and research need.

As I see it, if the action plan of an extension project or its way of interacting with society fails to help the students exercise the skills they learned, and if the teaching profession is not designed to provide those skills and notions for the benefit of society, we will not get rid of the cycle that José Julián described. Because of this, the teaching process will continue to be, as a rule, too boring.

These problems have to do with the relation between theory and practice, and that is the reason that they are so important, as is research. The Fourth Lucía is an extension project that involves research and has been the object of dissertations and diploma theses. However, this is because in my class I have given my students a non-banking education based on a teaching-educational process that makes them put into practice the knowledge and skills that they learned throughout the school year. Such is the way that I found to use my subject—Cultural Heritage at the time, Public and Social Policy Management now—in order to make my students realize that what they are learning is necessary to transform society and to make them feel part of that process. It is about giving and taking, because if teaching really becomes a process in which both the professor and the students learn from their mutual interaction, then we will have managed to help the students strengthen values already instilled in them at an earlier stage.

Rafael Hernández: The success of any Último Jueves panel is contingent on the number of problems and approaches that we throw on the table at the same time. We could consider this one successful, to the extent that we could think about many of these problems when we leave here, regardless of the fact that it was not possible to discuss them in depth and find instrumental solutions to some of them. These issues overreach this space and, besides, we do not have enough information to make a judgment because they concern society and its development in times of change as we enter a new era. This entails that the training of professionals could go down the drain if we look at it only from the point of view of their scientific and technological training.

If we manage to train scientifically and technologically advanced professionals who end up getting on a plane and leaving the country, it is not because of a flawed ideological education—that is a different matter—but our failure to develop culturally conscious professionals with an inherent, assimilated culture that makes them feel identified with the world around them. A decision to leave, to drift away, is a tragic one, not exactly because you are now going elsewhere—it could be about gaining experience or a temporary thing as part of the developmental stage of an artist or any other professional—but what separation and rootlessness entail if your departure is definitive and you leave no ties back home. It is also because of the great void that this dimension of culture has left behind.

This is a far-reaching political issue, not in one sector or one field, or in one school of the university. It is about a much more important social and political problem and not about how we are going to climb out of the hole where we are right now, with our difficulties but also with a strategic vision of the future. That is how important these issues are, enough to deserve that we revisit over and over again all the problems that you have raised for discussion in such a clear and useful way. Thank you very much.

Traductor: Jesús Bran


[1] University of Computer Sciences (T.N.)

[2] Havana’s Technological University “José Antonio Echeverría” (T.N.)

[3] Cuban political activist and student leader and one of the founders of the Communist Party of Cuba. (T.N.)

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