Archive for July 10, 2010

“The Big Red Schoolhouse” (Part III)

What is with this spy swap thing, the Russia’s 10 for our four? Are these four really Americans? I’m not sure that is an even exchange, someone needs to brush up on their math skills.  Or are we working on diplomacy skills instead?  In any event this is all an education about what went on during the Cold War period and seems all very ludicrous to me.   I wonder what Irving R. Levine would say about this because he was suspected of being a spy but was not.  I’ve been accused of it as well, a “spy” could mean that you know more than you are supposedly to know about a certain country.  All very strange.

The following quoted material is from Irving R. Levine’s book published in 1959 titled “Main Street USSR.” This particular chapter about education has real meaning to me as a westerner in the capital city of Kazakhstan.  If my blog readers are involved in some way in education in Central Asia, what happened 50 years ago streaming from Moscow is still relevant today.  I’d be interested in your comments about your observations.  For now enjoy what Levine wrote in his chapter “The Big Red Schoolhouse.”

“Russia’s largest institution of higher learning is Moscow State University. It is more properly called “Moscow State University in the name of Mikhail Vasilievich Lomonosov,” in the Soviet fashion of appending the name of an honored individual. Lomonosov was a Russian scientist and writer who died in 1765, after writing a history of Russia, a Russian grammar, and reforming the Russian literary language. Old buildings of the university are situated on Manege Square across from one segment of the Kremlin’s wall. In 1953 a thirty-two-story skyscraper was completed on a fast-growing edge of the city, known as Lenin Hills. The broad base of the edifice rises eighteen stories and only then begins tapering toward the tower which is crowned, as are most of Moscow’s nine skyscrapers, with a huge hammer and sickle.

It is a splendid building with roomy classrooms, laboratories, a large auditorium, and elevators that rise faster than most manufactured in the U.S.S.R. This is probably one of the few universities in the world where a guard stands at the entrance and admits only persons presenting identification cards as students or members of the faculty, lie enrollment is nearly 18,000 students in 12 faculties and there is a staff of 2000 professors.

Somewhat less imposing and more typical is the Uzbek State University dedicated to Alisher Navoyi, the founder of Tadzhik literature. A low, gray stone building on a tree-lined boulevard in Samarkand houses the administration building and some classrooms, its entrance graced by two silver-painted statues of young men, one in civilian clothes and the other in aviator’s garb. Two other three-story buildings comprise the university’s property besides several small dormitories scattered elsewhere in this ancient central Asian city.

The university was founded in 1927, seven years after the area, now known as the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, was incorporated in the U.S.S.R. This was a region of illiteracy under the despotic rule of the Emir of Bukhara, who kept more than one hundred wives and concubines, whose word was law, and who devised such excruciating systems for torture as a twenty-one-foot deep pit of scorpions and other insects native to this desert region. Victims were lowered into the pit and left there to endure a horrible death. Whatever more refined forms of oppression the Communists devised for those who resisted their rule in Central Asia, they also established universities, and more than a third of Uzbek state’s teachers are Russians even now.

There are four faculties. Physics and mathematics comprise one faculty. The philological faculty consists of departments of Uzbek, Tadzhik, and Russian literature and language as well as a foreign language department where English is taught. The third faculty is for biology and geography. Finally, there is a faculty of historical studies.

Day classes in these four faculties are attended by 7200 students. There are 1900 in night classes, and 3800 adults take courses at the university. Uzbeks and Tadzhiks, the native peoples of dark skin and oriental features in this vast region bordering on China, Afghanistan, and Iran, comprise 70 per cent of the student body. There are 28 nationalities attending the university. The Rector, an Uzbek, received me in his office, and with members of the faculty we sat at a red-baize-covered table placed at right angles to his desk. It was a typically furnished Soviet office with a portrait each of Lenin and Stalin on the wall across from a painting of the Tadzhik literary hero, Navoyi, seated cross-legged on a rug, dressed in a red native robe and a turban. Except for that touch it might well have been an office in Moscow rather than in Samarkand, one of the oldest cities of the world, the proud prize of conquest of Ghengis Khan and Alexander the Great and Tamerlane. The Rector a short, dark man in his fifties, spoke intently and devotedly of his university.

As in lower grades in Central Asian schools where there are separate schools for instruction in Russian, in Uzbek (a language of Turkish root), and in Tadzhik (of Persian origin), so there are classes in each faculty in each of the three languages.

The university has 36 laboratories, three scientific museums, a library of 600,000 volumes, and a teaching staff of 300. In the first thirty years of the university’s existence 5500 students have graduated. With pride, the Rector said that about 50 of these had gone on to achieve doctorates and professorships.

Now freshman classes consist of 450 students, but in the early years of the university there were only 60 admitted each year, which accounts for the relatively small number of graduates in more than a quarter of a century. Women comprise more than a third of the student body. In a recent freshman class of 450, women accounted for 148. An increasing number of applicants admitted each year are demobilized soldiers and young people who had worked for two years after completion of ten-year primary and secondary school. Of the freshman class of 450, 26 were discharged soldiers and 92 had worked for two years. Refresher courses are offered nights for workers who intend to apply for admission, and the armed forces have similar courses. The Rector was vague about the exact point handicap enjoyed in entrance exams by the preferred soldiers and workers. The impression was that it is rather flexible, and that every benefit of the doubt is given to former servicemen and workers, regardless of their entrance-exam marks, if It is felt that they can cope with the course of study.

“If a score of 20 points on the entrance exam is needed to enter the University,” explained the Rector, “a man who has worked for two years may enter with only 18 or 19 points. It varies with the competition and with the particular faculty as well as with the number and quality of applicants in any year.”

Students who maintain at least a three average receive an allowance from the state known as a “stipend.” The amount of the stipend varies with the students’ marks and increases with each year of a student’s course. Roughly it runs from 300 to 700 rubles ($30 to $70) a month.  An excellent (all fives) student in the freshman year would receive 360 rubles ($36) a month, and in Ms final year the student, maintaining his high marks, would get 700 rubles monthly. (In the case of a student whose parents’ income is less than 500 rubles or $50 a month he would receive a minimum stipend, even if his average was less than three. )

All books required for courses are available in the university library, but a student may wish to use part of his stipend to purchase his own. Books are reasonably priced and seldom more than 15 rubles ($1.50) a copy. Students who live at home usually use their stipends as spending money for clothes, movies, theater, newspapers, and occasional meals eaten out.

It’s possible for a thrifty student living at home actually to save something each month from his stipend. The 1400 students who live in the university’s three dormitories, or hostels as they are called, pay 15 rubles ($1.50) monthly for their crowded quarters.

The starting salary of a first year instructor is 2000 rubles ($200)a month and increases to 2500 rubles($250) by the fifth year. Two hundred and twenty members of the teaching, technical, and maintenance staff of the university are members of the school’s unit of the Communist Party, the largest Party unit in Samarkand. Eighty members of the unit are students, and 90 per cent of the rest of the student body are members of the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. The dominant role played by Russians in the control and management of the Central Asian Soviet Republics is reflected in the fact that one third of the members of the university’s Party unit are Russians.

Like other Soviet educational institutions, the Uzbek State University sets a rigorous course of study for its student body. Classes are held six days a week, six hours a day, for all faculties. Of this, two hours a week is spent in the study of Marxism-Leninism, ideological training in the principles of Communist doctrine.

There were 180 students studying English at Uzbek State when I was there in 1958. They were divided into ten groups five Uzbek-speaking groups and five Russian-speaking. Freshmen majoring in English spend half of the thirty-six hours per week of classes in English courses. After the freshman year the number of hours increases. Lea Rosett, a serene-faced Russian woman with graying brown hair pulled back in a bun, is head of the English department. She had never been abroad and has few opportunities to converse with English-speaking people. She was delighted with the opportunity to practice on me. She spoke slowly, as if to make absolutely sure that she used the proper tense of the verb, but her pronunciation was good and her vocabulary versatile. Mrs. Rosett had received her degree at the Leningrad Pedagogical Institute and had worked for two years in the 1930s as an Intourist guide, showing American and British tourists around the former Russian capital. When war broke out in 1941 she and her family were evacuated to Samarkand. Her husband is a professor in the university’s Mathematics Department. They have a twelve-year old son who attends a Russian language school and is already well advanced in English, says his mother.

It was obvious after a brief conversation with her, that this woman of wide cultural interests and tastes found life in provincial, backwater Samarkand drab and limited. She insisted that they were free to leave any time they wished, but whenever the question came up her husband was called in by the Rector and other university administrators and told how valued his services were in Samarkand and how badly he was needed. Mrs. Rosett explained that many honors and awards had been bestowed upon him, “and he feels a responsibility to remain here.” Members of the faculty are provided with small houses, better living conditions than they might find elsewhere, and this also serves as an inducement for remaining.

Three women, teachers on Mrs. Rosett’s staff, said that I was the first English-speaking person they had ever met and talked with. To compensate for the disadvantage in trying to teach a language they rarely heard spoken, the teachers hold a weekly conversation circle in order to practice English among themselves. The English Department has a speech laboratory with tape-recording machines to enable students to listen to themselves, but, lamented Mrs. Rosett, there was not a single copy of a large Webster’s dictionary in all of Samarkand.

Specialized training at an institute is one of the few roads to success in Russia. There are few other steps by which a young man or woman can climb the economic and prestige ladder. Unlike capitalistic countries, a young man with natural acumen does not have an opportunity to start a business on a shoestring and build it by effort and talent to a large chain of stores. A boy just out of secondary school cannot count on being taken into his father’s successful enterprise because father in Russia owns no enterprise. Membership in the Communist Party, itself the main portal to success in Russia, is open largely to those who have some special talent or skill to offer the state. Thus the number of applicants each year for the Soviet version of college far exceeds the space available, and competition is keen.

There are other reasons, too, for the crash of applicants. Family financial standing plays no role in the decision to continue education. It is not a question of being able to afford it. Tuition now is free. Also, the fact that good marks and scholarship are encouraged from childhood contributes to stimulating interest in higher education among youngsters. The smart boy or girl is seldom the butt of teasing as a teacher’s pet. There is no aversion to “eggheads’* at any age in Russia. Unlike American schools, where the star athlete is likely to be campus hero, students in Soviet institutes have less diversion of this sort. There are teams, but no program of intensely competitive contests among schools with cheerleaders and pre-game bonfires. School, whether grade school, high school, or college, is intended for study, and the emphasis is on high marks in the classroom rather than on a high score on the football field. Even so, occasionally there is newspaper criticism of over-emphasis of sports in some schools.”

(to be continued)

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