“The Big Red Schoolhouse” (Part II)

The following part of a chapter is from Irving R. Levine’s book titled “Main Street USSR” published in 1959.  I believe some of the better books to read about the former Soviet Union are the ones written during the Cold War period.  Either first person accounts like what I quoted earlier from Esther Hautzig’s book “The Endless Steppe” or this other old book by Levine that I just found off the Internet. Read yesterday’s blog to find out more about this man who lived 86 fruitful years as a news journalist.  Levine took great attention to detail which was one of his more favorable skills.  However, as he reported facts as he saw them back in the 1950s in Russian school systems, he could just as well have been writing about what I have observed in the Kazakh system of education today.  See what you think:

“Admission to institutions of higher education is supposed to be strictly on the basis of merit. At the end of each school year entrance examinations are held at institutes (where a single specialty is taught) and at universities (which have a number of faculties). Those who receive the highest marks on these competitive examinations are supposed to be admitted. Some weight is given to a student’s school record, and points are given also for military service or for practical work. Young people are now encouraged by Communist authorities to go to work for two years upon graduation from compulsory seven-to-ten years of schooling, particularly at a Siberian or Central Asian construction site. A fair student with two years of work behind him on a new state farm in Siberia is likely to be admitted to an institute ahead of a youngster fresh out of school with very good marks.

There are enough cases of admission by bribery documented in the Soviet press to indicate that this is not an infrequent occurrence. Usually the guilty persons are named. On one occasion the youth newspaper,  Komsomolskaya Pravda, published an anonymous letter from a second- year student at an agricultural institute at Samarkand. “I’ve become a student,” he wrote, “only because my mother managed to scrape together 5000 rubles ($500) which she brought to the entrance board. I was against it from the outset. I don’t like agriculture. The way I was admitted was disgusting, and I am ashamed of myself. But anytime I bring it up my mother won’t listen. I don’t know what to do. Some of those who know how I entered the institute say that I am a lucky person to be studying and not to give my mother grief. When you have received a higher education, they say, you will like your specialty. I am not giving you my name. I don’t know a way out.”

When the newspaper sent a reporter to the agricultural institute, students claimed to know many cases of fellow students who gained admittance by bribes rather than by good marks. They saw nothing unusual in these cases and refused to betray their colleagues’ names.

A page-a-day calendar that adorns many Soviet desks took note of the fact that nepotism is sometimes involved in admission to schools. A car- toon shows a grotesquely fat young man talking to a girl:

“Galitchka” he says to her, “congratulate me. I’ve just been admitted to the Institute for Physical Culture.”

“But do you have the necessary qualifications?”

“Tremendous qualifications! My uncle is the Dean of Admissions.”

Five is the highest mark in Soviet schools. Five is excellent, four is good, three is satisfactory, two is poor, and one is very bad. Marks are entered periodically by the teacher in a small copybook retained by each pupil, rather than on a report card. These report books are taken home at least once a week to be signed by a parent who is supposed to take note of the child’s progress. Homework assignments are entered in the notebook so that the parent has a way of checking on whether the child is really doing the work assigned. If the teacher wants to see a parent to discuss a disciplinary problem, this request is written in the report book where the parent can see it when signing.

By Soviet standards teachers are well paid. A beginning salary of a sixth-grade teacher is 800 rubles ($80) per month. Academic work commands great respect. Among the most distinguished men in Russia are the members of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., founded In 1725. It comes directly under the supervision of the Kremlin’s Council of Ministers in organizational charts. The Academy, consisting of the nation’s most outstanding men of science, supervises every branch of the nation’s scientific life. Its various branches deal with everything from finding new vaccines to building sputniks.

It was the sputniks that alerted the attention of the outside world to Soviet science and education. Respectful attention had been paid to the Soviet claim that more than 70,000 engineers were being graduated each year. This is compared to the U.S. annual crop of 30,000 engineers. But it could rightly be argued that many Soviet engineers were really less highly skilled technicians who do not deserve the status of engineer by American standards. Furthermore, a highly developed industrialized economy like America’s does not need as great an increment of scientific skill each year.

However, there is no arguing with the fact that the Soviet educational system produced scientists and engineers capable of launching a sputnik before the U.S.A. did, and then following It with sputniks of enormously greater size.

Delegations of American educators college presidents, professors, school administrators, teachers flocked to Russia to see what could be learned from the Soviet system. Many carried away words of praise. It was at this very juncture that devastating criticism, of the Soviet educational system was heard from no less an authority than NIkita Khrushchev. With the concurrence of his Party Presidium, Khrushchev issued a lengthy memorandum, in September 1958, recommending sweeping changes. The changes were to be brought about over a period of some years in each Soviet Republic by action of the Republics’ legislatures and Party organizations. The final shape of the Khrushchev plan would vary from area to area.

Khrushchev’s criticisms, however, applied to the entire country’s educational setup. Parental influence rather than ability, he said, was being widely used to get youngsters admitted to college. Most objectionable to Khrushchev, though, was that the Soviet educational system was preparing pupils for higher education rather than for life. Or to state it more specifically: Soviet schools were turning out graduates well qualified for higher education but not immediately qualified to take a job at a lathe or milling machine.

Unlike the educational system in most American cities, all Soviet pupils in the first ten years of school take the same courses. In the United States it is customary, by the eighth or ninth grades, to split up those students who intend to go to college (and give them college preparatory courses) and those who will go right to work (and give them commercial or trade courses) . Khrushchev, in typical Russian fashion, sought to swing the pendulum violently further than the American system and prepare everyone for work. After a transition period (during which some ten-year schools would be retained in order to maintain a flow of qualified students to colleges) , all schools would become seven- or eight-year schools. After decades of struggling to make ten years of schooling nationwide, Khrushchev was turning the clock back.

Under the Khrushchev system, during this abbreviated span of schooling a specified time would be spent each week at technical training. In the city this would be in factories; in the country the training would be in the fields. Opportunities for higher education would be available for those who have the energy and determination to go to night school to take correspondence courses.

The Khrushchev plan had been preceded by months of debate some of it in the pages of the press between the educators (who believe that an educated man can be taught any job in time) and the man-power experts (who need hands to run machines now in order to meet ambitious industrial targets set for them). The man-power advocates won. It was natural that they would with Khrushchev. Having worked from boyhood and achieved his position without significant formal education (and then only of a practical nature), Khrushchev had small patience for theoretical knowledge. Yet, by the revolutionary revision of the educational system, the perpetuation of the very class that made the sputniks possible is jeopardized.

The anti-intellectual nature of Khrushchev’s motivation was indicated in his memorandum. He complained that a “lordly-scornful, wrong attitude toward physical labor is to be found in some families.” Khrushchev complained that at Moscow colleges “children of workers and collective farmers comprise only 30 to 40 per cent of the student body. The rest are children of office employees, of the intelligentsia.”

In typical Soviet fashion, the first step was to be a slogan. Said Khrushchev: “The most important thing here is to issue a slogan and make this slogan sacred for all children entering school, that all children must pre- pare for useful work, for participation in building the Communist society.”

It is one thing, though, to issue a slogan and another to make it work.”

(to be continued)

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