La Progresiva


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By Prof. Enrique J. Quintana and Dr. Mario R. Avala

An educational organization becomes a national institution when its halls are the forming grounds of men and women of public prominence, capable of forging the destiny of their nation. La Progresiva School of Cárdenas fulfilled that purpose, taking its place in the history of a Democratic Cuba during the first half of the 20th century. During that period La Progresiva stood unchallenged in our nation's educational field.

Since its founding, La Progresiva was blessed by the total dedication of men and women that, with sincere devotion, gave the best of themselves in their desire to lead this educational institution down paths that provided the best possible benefits not only to the school, but also to the community in which it was founded.

La Progresiva was formed at a crucial moment in the history of our nation. It was founded shortly after the country permanently severed its colonial chains to become a sovereign nation with a democratic form of government, inspired by the one that more than a hundred years earlier had been formed in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States of America.

This institution, however, might have met only its material goals of economic success if it had not been supported by the spiritual impetus that would elevate it to unexpected heights, and whose influence broke through any limitations imposed by political circumstances, keeping its spirit alive throughout an exile that is now in its fourth decade. I am referring, of course, to that exceptional and unforgettable individual, Robert L. Wharton, the man who would teach us "to dream, to take action, and to cooperate."

The Founder: Dr. Robert L. Wharton

Four centuries of colonial domination and two terribly bloody wars of independence, had done little to advance the cause of education on the island. If education had been precarious in the Spanish mother country, it was practically non-existent in the colonies. There, education had been reserved for the privileged classes and those attending schools run by Roman Catholic religious orders. The American Intervention in the Cuban War of Independence brought, together with the organization of our nation's infrastructure, absolute religious freedom. With it, came American missionaries and their new pragmatic educational concepts that John Dewey preached from the University of Chicago and Columbia University in New York. These ideas provided new and fresh directions, with infinite horizons reaching to the heavens.

The first co-ed students

At whatever point one looks at the history of La Progresiva, one finds profound study of the bible. From the first day of classes, reading from First Corinthians 13: the new love pact; and continuing each morning thereafter, before the daily task of teaching commenced, with its emphasis on the passages describing our Lord's life: "and the child grew and became strong filling himself with wisdom, and the Grace of God was with Him." In other words, each school day started with the base and sustennance of our school: it's religious foundation.

That is how La Progresiva was different. At the beginning of each day we were exposed to divine wisdom and then afterwards to the wisdom of the mind. The body would also be nourished through sports programs that would discipline character and teach winning and losing, whether in baseball, tennis, basketball, swimming, track or gymnastics. We learned group dynamics in the "Club de los Quince," we had class elections, debates and recitals by the literary society, "La Embajada Artística,"; music appreciation classes in the library; and co-ed banquets in the school dormitories. Therein was the magic of La Progresiva. Above all, the school placed a bible in the hands of every graduate so that it would serve as their guiding light after their days at the institution.

One of the fundamentals that the founders of this institution imparted to each student that passed through its halls, from its modest beginning on November 11, 1900, until its doors were closed by the Castro tyranny in May of 1961, with a student body of almost 2000, was the concern for the needs of the community. The mission of the Evangelical Churches in Cuba was carried out among and for the benefit of the needier classes of the island. Their greatest and most persistent efforts were directed toward increasing the quality of their lives through education. In an era when co-educational instruction did not exist in Cuba, La Progresiva, conquering anachronistic prejudices, united boys and girls in its classrooms. Those students who could, paid the full tuition, others paid whatever portion they could, and those who couldn't pay attended the school through a program under which their parents could lend valuable services to the school. This was one of its greatest and historic missions: to take children from the most humble strata of the population and elevate them to otherwise unimaginable heights of society. In its classrooms were united rich and poor, and all entered the school together, through the front door.

The formation of the "Comité Pro-Calles" (the Pro-Streets Committee), was one of those brilliant innitiatives of Dr. Wharton that united the school and the City of Cárdenas in a common task. The project had repercussions throughout Cuba. It is no surprise that their community involvement would place directors of La Progresiva in community positions such as the Presidency of the local Rotary Club, which almost by right, was occupied by staff members for many years. For his work, a grateful Cuba bestowed upon Dr. Robert L. Wharton the Order of The Great Cross of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, given only to those who have made a notable contribution to the wellbeing of the nation.

In the 1930's, when Cuba was in the midst of grave political upheaval and the student body was rebelling against a despised oligarchic dictatorship, La Progresiva took its civic and patriotic place next to the "Federación Estudiantil Universitaria" of the University of Havana in its decision not to take its final exams at the Provincial Institutes. At a particularly crucial point during that time Dr. Wharton called a meeting of students and teachers in the school auditorium where he advised them that he understood "that Cuba's political and student crisis was very serious, and that he fully confided in the ability of the students and teachers to make an appropriate decision, even if it meant shutting down the school, if necessary."

Mr. Wharton finished with these words that reflect his moral stature and his Christian principles: "La Progresiva is in your hands, but ask God for help before you make a decision." When Mr. Wharton finished he retired to his home confident that the seeds sown in the classroom would bear their fruit in whatever decision was made by the students. Classes continued that year despite the fact that the secondary school students knew that they would not be receiving their official accreditation. Mr. Wharton's acceptance of this solution (as an American Citizen) demonstrated his respect of the students' political opinion as Cubans. This too is part of the magic of "La Progresiva," that keeps us together in exile.

Our motto: "Una vez de La Progresiva, siempre de La Progresiva" ("Once you are part La Progresiva, you will always be part of La Progresiva"), becomes evident in the testimony of those who passed through its halls. "I received my greatest inspiration at La Progresiva during morning prayers" says one. "Thank you God, for the greatest venture of my life, having passed through its classrooms, where Chrisitan love was taught and practiced by its founders. . . " says another. It would be an interminable task to quote them all, but it is marvelous to see that throughout all the years that have come and gone this Progressivist flame has been kept lit, without any sign of being extinguished.

Alumni basketball team

Today La Progresiva is going through another crucial moment in its rich history. The Castro tyranny took away its buildings, took the bibles from its classrooms and closed its doors. Nevertheless, the spirit of our institution lives permanently within us wherever destiny takes us.

No evangelical organization was as succesful in the field of education as The Committee of Joint Missions of the Presbyterian Church of the United States. Venturing to the four corners of the world, a group of Chrisitans of unbending faith took the blessings of the New Testament along with their incomparable educational and cultural work. Under their guidance, grew leaders of indisputable moral and spiritual stature: men and women imbued with high Chrisitan principles, that dreamed that education was indispensable in forging nations that could overcome hunger and poverty. Cuba was fortunate in that, at the dawn of its independence, these pilgrims, guided by their Christian faith and absolute dedication, reached its shores to help create a society that could compete in a world that was rising from the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century: Men like Robert L. Wharton, with a clear clear grasp of ethical, moral and spiritual values.

In ending this Historic Profile, it would be good to remember the prophetic words of Mr. Wharton, that unfortunately fell on deaf ears, but should serve as a guiding light when, in the future, we again have a free and sovereign nation and, once again, La Progresiva opens its doors in the "Banner City", ending another chapter in its unending history: "Well founded ideas are stronger than steel and more valuable than fine gold. They penetrate the mind, possess the heart, transform character and give irresistable momentum to society. One man completely posesessed by an idea that tends to benefit society or the nation becomes larger than life and invincible in his work. The word "impossible" does not exist for such a man. Keeping the nation free of error, corruption and immorality is the challenge of those who live today. We must conquer the life we desire. The future of the nation rests on education."

Prof. Enrique J. Quintana and Dr. Mario R. Avala, La Progresiva - Libro de Oro, November, 1993
Translation by: E.J. de la Fé