Review in Adult Education Quarterly V. 67(2)

For those of us who knew about Ernesto “Che” Guevara the guerrilla leader, it was obvious that education and the revolutionary process went hand-in-hand. What he demanded of his fellow combatants serving under him, not just military performance but the need to read and write, was almost the stuff of legend. But what some of us had not considered is whether there was a coherent pedagogical theory that informed his practice both before and after January 1, 1959, that is, the triumph of the revolution. Lidia Turner Martí’s long overdue book attempts to make a case exactly for that. To do so, she prioritizes Che’s own words even at the risk of being “excessive.” And in the spirit of Che she acknowledges at the outset that her little-big book (141 pages) is the product of a collective investigation, “a number of studies conducted over the past fifteen years by students of the Enrique José Varona Higher Pedagogical Institute on whose graduate theses we’ve acted as advisors” and “the results of research conducted by professors of various pedagogical institutes in Cuba” (pp. 15-16). She emphasizes that what she presents does not pretend to be the final word on the subject but one that hopefully motivates others to “build upon.” The first substantive chapter purports to address the all so complicated question for a revolutionary process: How to deal with the baggage of the past for a future that has not arrived? Among the related issues addressed are Che’s opinions on topics such as the need to see education at all levels of society and all age groups as a revolutionary duty; how to integrate the work place with education; how can education help in over- coming the legacy of underdevelopment; the tension between individual vocational interests and the needs of the Revolution. In all of this Martí shows how Che’s most famous essay, Socialism and Man, along with other writings and pronouncements, was so informative. Her second chapter argues that Che’s ideas anticipated a subsequent pedagogical movement in the Spanish-speaking world in the 1980s known as “social pedagogy.” Che’s prescient point made in a talk he gave to medical doctors a year and a half after the triumph of the Revolution was the seed: “that you educate or instruct by learning from those who learn from or are educated by you” (p. 63). The final chapter seeks to determine the extent to which Che’s pedagogical ideas have affected Cuban society and how they can still be of value. Martí makes a number of proposals for more effective use of what he bequeathed. Her final reflections begin appropriately with Che’s all so trenchant comments at the ceremony that awarded him a doctorate in pedagogy in December 1959. His advice still has currency for the Cuban Revolution—the need to make sure that Cuba’s higher education system is sufficiently diverse in terms of class and color. Because Che thought he did not really deserve the honor, Marti asks if he was correct. The record of the Revolution, she argues, reveals how much of an impact his ideas have in fact had on matters of pedagogy though insufficiently recognized—the raison d’être of her little/big book. My only criticism, but major, I think, is the failure of the author to adequately contextualize this all so valuable material. The Cuban Revolution, like any other, went through various stages and was informed by the circumstances of the moment. As Karl Marx once famously said, “Yes, men make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing.” What Martí presents is abstracted from the very hard political choices that confronted the revolution. For example, when Che refers to “our uneducated army” (p. 19), that is, the Rebel Army, it requires explanation, a situation quite different from after January 1, 1959. What about the Revolution’s deservedly well-known literacy campaign in 1961 that inspired Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed? While briefly mentioned, the reader has no idea what Che thought about it or whether he had any input. Perhaps not owing to other pressing tasks at that moment, not the least being the U.S.-sponsored mercenary attempt to overthrow the Revolution—the Bay of Pigs or Playa de Giron as referred to by Cubans. But once state power was taken, on January 1, 1959, the Revolution could accomplish things that could only be glimpsed at in the liberated guerrilla areas before then—not the least being the actual beginning of the literacy campaign and when Che could first test his pedagogical ideas. That said, Marti’s book is the best introduction that this reviewer knows of to a topic not just of historical interest but one that others inspired by the Cuban example will have to grapple with both before and after working-class conquest of state power—to ensure that the historically oppressed can actually run the new society.

— Adult Education Quarterly V. 67(2)

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