Few deficiencies of the colonial regime rankled creole sensibilities more than the deplorable state of education. Simply in terms of numbers—the number of teachers and number of schools for the number of students—the colonial education system was unable to meet even the minimum needs of the school-age population. Schools were poorly funded and ill equipped; teachers were often inadequately trained and always poorly paid. “We have been left without schools, without books, without teachers, and without students,” complained Manuel Valdés Rodríguez in 1891. Education was in wretched condition, suffering equally from neglect and negligence, from mismanagement and malfeasance, as well as inadequate instruction and insufficient funding. And of course, as Bonnie Lucero writes with understated emphasis, for Cubans of color the prospects of “limited access to formal education” served to make everything worse. Acts of omission were exacerbated by deeds of commission, for pedagogy was not without a point of view, or, perhaps more correctly, not without a politics. Raquel Otheguy is correct to call attention to the use of “education as a forum to express anxieties [of whites] about the racial situation in Cuba, and they used segregation in educational policy as a tool to limit Afro-descendants’ access to education and thus their participation in society.”
These were only some of the most egregious deficiencies of colonial education, and only part of the problem. In fact, and more to the point, colonial education had ceased to meet Cuban needs. The specialization of the economy had reached the point whereby social diversity was derived from production and distribution, access to which was increasingly possible only by mastery of new forms of knowledge and new types of skills. The colonial university and colegio curricula, with their traditional emphasis on law, philosophy, and letters, under the direction of Catholic religious orders, did not admit change easily, if at all. Captain General José G. de la Concha did not fail to appreciate the deepening contradictions within an education system failing to meet the needs of a changing economy, noting in 1853 that while the island had five educational institutions offering a full curriculum in law studies, it lacked even one school to train sugar masters, mechanics, chemists, and engineers—“all so necessary for the principal industry of the country.”
Cuban needs had changed, but the colonial curricula had not. New fields of learning, new bodies of knowledge, and especially technical training, science programs, business law, and commerce—all of which had to do with precisely [End Page 149] the forces transforming the physiognomy of daily life in Cuba—were not readily available on the island, which meant, too, that the skills and knowledge Cubans required to make the transition and guarantee a place for themselves in a rapidly changing global market environment could be obtained only abroad.
The War of Independence (1895–1898) made everything worse. Nearly four years of war laid waste to the existing colonial educational capacities, such as they were. Funding came to a near halt. Schools were caught between the cross fire of contending armies. The reconcentration policy relocated tens of thousands of boys and girls in overcrowded urban centers in which the importance of schooling was eclipsed by the imperatives of survival. The population scattered from the countryside into the cities and, for many, from the cities to exile. A disproportionate number of teachers were among the many thousands of Cubans who abandoned the island in search of refuge abroad. Conditions were frightful. It had been a close and intimate war. Many tens of thousands of men, women, and children, as shattered families and broken households, as widows and orphans, the aged, the ill, and the infirm, the maimed and the marred, crowded into towns and cities across the island, there to expand into a swelling itinerant population of supplicants and mendicants, to confront an uncertain future, not quite certain how, or where, or with what, to begin anew. These years were never made up. The losses were never recovered.
Education was a matter of priority during the US military occupation (1899– 1902). What was especially remarkable about North American imperial administration in Cuba...