Island and Mainland: Cuba, China, and the Use of Education for Social Control

Within a year of ousting Batista and jumpstarting the Communist Revolution, the small island of Cuba set up the ambitious goalof eliminating illiteracy throughout the country. The prioritization of education – premised on the common understanding that only good-quality schooling could conquer Cuba’s acute poverty and underdevelopment – became a major facet of Castro’s regime. Hundreds of thousands young “literacy teachers” were recruited by the government and dispersed throughout the island, teaching Cuban citizens how to read at night and working with them in the fields during day. The literacy volunteers (and subsequently, Cuban society) came to understand that the opportunities they were being offered came with a sense of indebtedness to the regime.

Today, Cuba has one of thehighest literacy rates in the world, with only 0.2% of its population of the population unable to read. Education (from cradle to grave) is free and available to all, pedagogical quality is consistently high, and the Cuban literacy model is implemented in 28 Latin American, Caribbean, African, European, and Oceanic countries. Cuba is internationally recognized for its successes in education, with social services comparable to those of developed nations.

But along with the successes of the country, the Cuban educational system awards the government a high degree of control, a high degree of permeability into its society. In Cuba, education is a tool of social control ,reinforcing the demands of society into the minds of students. Children, along with parents, are considered to be wards of the state. Teachers are expected to identify students’ potential problem areas, and after-school programs provide support for children’s socio-emotional needs. Education is not limited to a separated institution, rather, it is viewed as the collective responsibility of society.

Though this model allows for considerable development of the population, it also extends the regime’s ideology. It allows the Cuban administration to inculcate its citizens with Communist values. Along with their educational work of the original 1960s literacy teachers, these young volunteers simultaneously taught Cuban citizens the value of the Revolution, and over the 57 years of the regime, became Castro’s biggest supports. Today, Cuba’s teachers continue to focus on the principles of the “Revolution.” To attend university and take entrance exams, students must demonstrate “good political standings.” Though the system combines individuality with collectivity, there is no room for political opposition in the system. Good students are good Communist disciples.

Image Courtesy of Escambray Today via © Flickr, 2013, some rights reserved

China: The Red Giant

While Cuban students consistently outperform other students in the region, Chinese students consistently outscore their international peers in the Program on International Student  Assessment. Where Cuban students are great readers and learners, Chinese students are exceptional test-takers, bureaucrats, and number-crunchers. Whereas Cuba is a tiny island and China is a mainland giant, the two countries share considerable similarities in using education to control their citizens: like Cuba, China uses education (albeit, more implicitly) to exercise control over their citizens. This process can easily be overlooked in Cuba, but in the rising power and economic behemoth that is China, this process is considerably more dangerous and requires a closer look.

Analysts have focused on the Chinese educational system in more technical terms, analysing the hours that students spend studying (about thirteen), the makeup of their years in school (nine of compulsory education), and the recipe to their phenomenal test scores (high school is spent preparing for a single entrance exam). The inner workings of the Chinese school system, just as with any program, reveal deeper social truths about the nation.

The most pointed example of this process is revealed in the gaokao, the college entrance exam that acts as the gatekeeper (and sole criterion) for university opportunity. The exam is treated as a critical determinant of a child’s long-term success, and teachers as well as parents commit to wringing outthe best possible scores from children. From a young age, students are taught not to be idealistic, not to be individual, to survive, compete, and excel within the present system. High school students devote the majority of their time to achieving highly on the exam, signs in school hallways remind students to tolerate a little pain now to avoid a “life of suffering.” A stress on performance reveals a crucial Chinese commitment to obedience: students are ultimately just another cog in the wheel of progress, their success depends rote memorization and functionality within a system. Individuality is nothing in the face of an ancient and effective system.

The gaokao exam and the educational devotion to preparing for it, however, are noteffective, if anything, they put China at the losing end of societal and economic progress. Chinese leaders are realizing that their system is failing in producing inventors and entrepreneurs; it fails in nurturing the skills that students need in an increasingly challenging market economy. Students are increasingly unprepared to perform well in the job market, a process that can cause considerable problems in a state that needs economic progress to uphold the social contract it has made with its citizens: economic progress in exchange for political apathy.

But even if the system is inefficient, it is still a great form of control: the government promises a good life to anyone who works hard, as long as they stay out of politics. In a country rife with corruption, the gaokaois a relatively fair and incorruptible system. It allows the government to look at unsuccessful students to say: “If you are not successful, you can only blame yourself.” In the gaokaosystem – where your ability to test well determines your entire future – there is no room for political grievance, no room to blame to government for failure, and misery. It is your fault that inequality exists. You did not work hard enough to eradicate it from your life.

In addition to the political unaccountability that the gaokao system allows the Chinese government, there also exists a push for “patriotic education” from the administration. In this structure, Chinese students are immersed intextbooks that promote nationalist loyalty to the Communist Party (the CCP) as a bedrock value. Negativity towards the history of the great Chinese nation is not to be tolerated, the CCP is to be viewed as the soleengine of progress, as the protectorate from democratic chaos.

The party is also painted as the hero of the Chinese story, the party that has rescued the country from humiliating subjugation to foreigners and the restorer of their nation’s power. In short, the CCP inculcates its students with the idea of the Chinese Dream: Xi Jinping’s ambitious restoration of China’s image after a “century of humiliation.” Students are emboldened to believe the national myth story, emboldened in their nationalism, emboldened in their sense of national pride.The dream itself is so vague that it can truly mean anything, but its meaning can only be tied to the principles of Communism. Naturally, there is noplace in the Chinese dream for liberal values, for the rule of law, for human rights, for democracy. The Chinese dream may mean working and studying hard, but only in the present system, only under the Big Brother that is the CCP.

Though nationalism is especially adept at increasing social cohesion, nationalism toes the line of aggression. When this nationalism is entrenched in education, citizens become de facto mouthpieces of government propaganda, and what is worse, come to believe in the positive value of their governments actions. For example,aggressive Chinese buildup in the South China Sea(SCS)is supported by Chinese citizensin various degreesbecause it has become a symbol of national pride. Though historical jurisdiction of the nine-dash line was not taught in schools prior to the clashes in the SCS, studentshave become increasingly exposed to this narrative. The inculcation of this narrative into education has the potential to createa rather indirect connection between schoolingand aggressive sentimentfor tension in the SCS. They have been taught not to question the present administration, but have also been taught to view the government’s actions as necessary for national progress.


The evil of education?

The social control of education, as presented in these examples, holds a negative connotation, with a dictatorial regime co-opting school systems for their purposes and ideological efforts. It is important to note that this process is not intrinsically negative. InAmerican schools, students are taught the importance of patriotism, the importance of respect for the flag, the importance to remember the Pledge of Allegiance that they recite every day.

Ultimately, education will always be under the jurisdiction of the state in one form or another. The government will commonly have some form of control over schools, over the values their students are being taught. This does not necessarily need to be a bad thing: social control in education can very well create a healthy sense of citizenry and teach students the importance of politics. It is only when the government uses the education as a de facto propaganda measure, as a form of subjugating grievance and protest, when the social control of education becomes sinister. It is the examples of Cuba, and more dangerously, of China, where the government overreaches into its citizens’ education, that this process poses considerable trouble. It is only in these truly extreme cases that the potential evil of education rears its ugly head.


Banner Picture: Image Courtesy of <cleverCl@i®ê> via © Flickr, 2007, some rights reserved

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