“The Big, Red Schoolhouse” by Irving R. Levine

This will be the first part of a four part series written by Irving R. Levine who died a year ago. He was born in 1922. Levine was an NBC news reporter and known for his economics reporting later in his life.  Interestingly enough, he also was tailed by KGB and also the FBI for the journaling he did about the former Soviet Union in the 1950s.  He wrote a book entitled “Main Street USSR” which was published  in 1959.

I am only reproducing Levine’s 23rd chapter titled “The Big Red Schoolhouse” because there are many remnants leftover from the Soviet era in what I see today in Kazakhstan’s education.  Those readers of my blog who are Peace Corps volunteers working in schools and universities in Central Asia or other westerners interested in education will see what I mean about the carry over.  For those of you who might be traveling to teach in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan or some other “stan” will learn from what Irving R. Levine chronicled over 50 years ago.  Some things, especially in education, just do not change…

Russia may seem like the Promised Land in one respectto school children of other countries: homework is forbidden on week-ends and holidays.

However, before packing up to run away to Russia, it might be well for the schoolboy or girl to realize, too, that children in the Soviet Union go to school six days a week. There is school on Saturday, and Sunday is the only free day.

The order forbidding teachers to assign homework on Saturday or before a holiday was issued by the Ministry of Enlightenment, which is the Soviet equivalent of a Ministry of Education. The restriction on homework followed a letter published by a Communist newspaper in1956 from a group of doctors who complained that over-fatigue, head- aches, and eyestrain were alarmingly frequent among children of lower grades. Less homework was the physicians* prescription. Soon after, theMinistry of Enlightenment made it a rule for the first three grades of school, and a year later the rule was extended to all school grades.

Youngsters begin school at the age of seven in the U.S.S.R.; education is compulsory for ten years in cities and many other areas, and for seven years in some villages and farm districts where space andstaff are inadequate. Many schools are on a two-shift basis. The plan has been to make ten-year schooling nationwide before long.

In all grades except the ninth and tenth children are required to wear uniforms. Girls wear plain brown dresses with big white collars and black aprons. Their hair is almost always worn in long braids which end in red ribbons bows. Boys wear a military type of uniform with grayish-blue pants and high-collared hip-length tunic gathered in folds at the back by a broad leather belt. The cap is a stiff-visored officers’ type, and in the lower grades, at least, boys have their heads shaven.

Uniforms have been worn on and off and now on again in Russian schools. Children in Czarist pre-Revolutionary days wore uniforms, and in the zealous determination to change all things, the Communists did away with them, just as they did with braid on military uniforms.But the braid eventually came back, and so did the school uniforms after Stalin’s death. The Communist argument in support of uniforms is that no child is better or worse dressed than any other; all are thus equal in quality of clothes. Some schools are on a three-shift basis.

Despite insufficient school space an effort is made to keep classes small, and thirty-five to a class is the average of schools in Moscow and other cities I’ve visited. Boys and girls sit on benches at rows of old-fashioned double desks with inkwells sunk in recesses at the front edge. Classrooms are sparsely decorated, with large blackboards covering most of the front and side walls, and a portrait of Marx, Lenin, or one of the current leaders benignly watching the youngsters. On window sills, there are often ungainly, giant-leafed plants of the sort Russians favor for their homes. It seems incongruous, because they take up so much space in crowded quarters.

As is the case in most Soviet state stores, barbershops and other enterprises, grade schools rarely are endowed with a name but rather are numbered. Moscow School Number 720 is a four-story stone building in a new section of Moscow that is considered a show place for visitors. Pictures of Lenin and Stalin greet the youngsters as they leave their coats minded by an attendant in the entrance lobby. There are 28 teachers for the 500 pupils. A bell signals the end of fifty-minute classes and there is a ten-minute interval between the classes which are from 8 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. on the morning shift. (Newspaper criticism of boys* uniforms for being uncomfortable and unattractive may indicate that the pendulum is due for another swing. It has become permissible for boys not to wear uniforms to school, pending possible design of a new model.)

The state begins its education early in the life of its citizens and it continues through adulthood. There are 1000 kindergartens in Moscow where working mothers leave their pre-school-age children, ages three to seven, for the day.

There are adult classes in factories and daily lectures for the public in halls in every city and hamlet. The state’s Society for Dissemination of Political Knowledge provides speakers for the astounding total of 4,000,000 lectures a year throughout the country. The topics offered on a typical day in Moscow included: “Criticism of Revisionism in Modern Aesthetics,” “The Role of the Arts in Communist Education,” “General Crisis of Imperialism,” and “Wages Under Capitalism.” A second breakfast is served to the youngsters in a dining room at 10 A.M.: free of charge, it usually consists of a warm cereal or pancakes with sour cream, bread, and tea.

The course of study includes Russian language, literature and grammar, mathematics, penmanship, spelling, history in which ideological indoctrination is interwoven, and a foreign language, usually English or German.

Since 85 per cent of the children in School 720 come from families in which both parents work, many eat lunch in school and stay on for hobby clubs of various sorts until 6 P.M. when their parents have returned home from work.

There are also specialized schools for handicapped children. I visited one of Moscow’s three schools for deaf and dumb children, a substantial brick, three-story building on a dirt alley near an edge-of-town subway station. In the lobby stood the usual statue of Lenin against a background of red plush drapes. A very young-looking director of the school (she said she was thirty-four) explained that the deaf-mute youngsters receive the equivalent of a seven-year education. However, because so much time is needed to teach the handicapped children lip-reading and sign language, it takes twelve years to accomplish the seven-year curriculum of history, mathematics, geography, and all the rest. The school had just undertaken a new method of teaching deaf children, who had never heard the sounds of speech, to utter sounds themselves. This system was devised by a teacher in the school who reduced the thirty-two sounds previously taught to sixteen sounds. Substitutions were found for the eliminated sounds from among the remaining sixteen. For example, the b sound was eliminated and p taught instead. Thus, a deaf Russian child would learn to say spaslpa for “thank you” instead of the correctly pronounced version, spasiba* The theory is that when the sixteen basic sounds are mastered, inaccurate sounds can be gradually refined and corrected.

Of the 350 children attending this school, largest of the three in Moscow, about half go home after school every day, and the rest, whose homes are distant, live there. The director claimed that most of the parents do not pay to board their children at the school, but those who can afford to, do pay something. The director maintained that there is not a single deaf or deaf-mute child in Moscow who is not attending one of these special government schools.”

(to be continued)

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