Sunday, February 21, 2010

Liberal Arts Education and Soviet Nostalgia

Feb 21: Liberal Arts Education and Soviet Nostalgia

In our weekly reflection, my students talked about the difficulties they have trying to explain to Cubans the meaning of liberal arts education. The idea of spending four years in university without specializing in a particular career seems strange to them. Of course, this seems strange to most of the world, and even to most people in the US. But in Cuba, when people find out that students pay upwards of $40,000 a year for the privilege of studying and exploring ideas, their jaws drop.

It was a good opportunity for the students to think about why exactly they chose a liberal arts education, and what they are getting out of it. One student who studies biology explained it with the metaphor that they learn not only to look through the microscope but to look at the microscope itself. Then there was a whole discussion about whether it was better to learn about the forest by going into the forest, or whether such a perspective from the ground didn’t allow you to see the forest but only the trees. After about twenty minutes, one student hit on the central idea: liberal arts education teaches you how to think critically. In Cuba, people are given the tools to think critically, but then they are encouraged to not exercise their critical thinking skills, or to curtail them in very particular ways. As one Cuban art student put it to me in 2004, “they give us wings, and then don’t allow us to fly.”

At the Feria del Libro, I saw a presentation of Russian and Cuban science fiction writers. One young Cuban science fiction writer who goes by the name Yoss, and who looks like the love child of Rambo and Fabio at a Death Metal concert, told a joke to introduce his presentation about the Soviet influence on Cuban science fiction. It went something like this. A Jewish man, Issac, goes looking for his friend Abraham in the Soviet Union who had been in Auschwitz with him. After a long search, he finally finds his friend Abraham who was now a street sweeper in Red Square in Moscow, and he says, “I can’t believe it’s you, Abraham. Remember the gas chambers, the starving children, the piles of dead bodies.” And Abraham looks up, and says, “Ah, yes, I remember, gas chambers, starving children, dead bodies. Those were the days.” Russia is the honored country at the book fair this year, and there is a fair amount of nostalgia for the good old days of Soviet subsidies for Cuba. From the perspective of 2010, those were the good old days indeed.

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