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The Americas 60.2 (2003) 151-183

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Freedom Teaching:
Anarchism and Education in Early Republican Cuba, 1898-1925*

Kirwin R. Shaffer
Penn State University
Berks/Lehigh Valley

Many individuals say to me: "those ideas that you profess are very good, but, who straightens men out? Who is capable of convincing an egoist that he ought to give up his egoism?" To this one can answer: in the same way that a religious person has convinced him to sacrifice himself for religious beliefs, and in the same way that the patriot has taught him to die defending his flag. For men to be able to live in a state of anarchy, they must be educated and this is precisely the work that has been done by those generous people who have been educators throughout the ages. To them is owed the existence of synthetization. Without these athletes of thought, progress would be in its infancy.
—Julián Sánchez "¿Qué es la libertad?"1

Following independence from Spain in 1898, Cubans hoped to create a new independent, more egalitarian nation built on the dreams of numerous well-known revolutionaries like José Martí and Antonio Maceo as well as lesser known radicals like the anarchists Enrique Creci, Enrique Messonier, and Adrián del Valle. Like so many of their fellow residents on the island, though, the anarchists quickly grew disillusioned with independence. Their disillusionment rested on repeated U.S. military occupations, a business and commercial class that put individual profits over the well-being of all, a government that seemed to repress labor and the popular classes in order to curry favor with international and national investors, and educational systems that anarchists charged taught obedience and subservience instead of freedom. [End Page 151]

Within this context, anarchists directed their revolutionary programs specifically to help workers and their families not only to live a better life in the present but also to prepare them for a social revolution sometime in the future. To accomplish this, they led strike activities, helped to create alternative health institutes, and championed the cause of a working class united across racial, national and gender lines. Yet, as Julián Sánchez made clear in the opening quotation, anarchists believed all of these efforts would be, if not useless, then at least less effective if the people were not educated. Consequently, anarchists saw education as an essential revolutionary tool to raise the consciousness of the popular classes. To this end, Cuba's anarchists devoted considerable time and scarce resources to develop day schools for children during the first decades of independence from Spain when education was hotly debated across the island.

This article focuses on two distinct eras of Cuban anarchist education (1898-1912 and 1922-1925) within the context of Cuban education generally and the island's anarchist movement specifically. First, anarchist schools were but one of many educational options for Cubans following independence from Spain. Like Cuban nationalists and proponents of public education, anarchists believed that religious schools, especially Catholic institutions, increasingly educated only the rich and thus countered ideals of equality and freedom from religion indoctrination. However, anarchists also disliked public schools, which they believed taught a blind form of "patriotic nationalism." Anarchists believed that this patriotic education countered socialist working-class internationalism while stifling free, individual thought in children.

Second, the schools' periodic successes (measured by growth in the numbers of students as well as the continuation of established schools and the opening of new ones) generally coincided with the ups and downs of the anarchist cause within the Cuban labor movement. From 1898 to 1912, with the Cuban working class divided and in disarray, anarchist educational experiments foundered due to a combination of personality conflicts, shortages of funds, lack of worker interest, and governmental repression. Over the next decade, anarchists and other labor radicals reorganized and focused their attention away from education. In the 1920s, the Cuban working class created the largest labor organizations on the island since the late nineteenth century. As before independence, anarchists occupied central leadership positions in...


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