“The Big Red Schoolhouse” (Part IV)

The last of a four part series that I have enjoyed showing my reading audience simply because all the writing was already done for me by Irving R. Levine who died at age 86 last year.  He was well known as an NBC news reporter but much earlier in his career he had been in Russia back in the 1950s.  He was suspected of being a spy yet he did his job well as a journalist, not an agent. I appreciate his words documented in the book “Main Street USSR” because it applies to my setting in Astana, Kazakhstan.  See what you think of this last installment, I welcome comments by those of you who are teaching or have taught in Central Asia before in whatever capacity.

“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.

There is, nonetheless, a perennial problem of rearing Soviet youngsters in the mold of discipline and devotion to Communist aspirations sought by Kremlin authorities. There are frequent cases of student  misconduct, teen-age indolence, and outright hooliganism. Out-of-school influences are usually blamed by the authorities. For example, it is in the home that youngsters are taught religion; this influence is so great that in some villages, despite classroom instruction in atheism, the entire student body stays away from school on minor religious holidays. The decision was made to keep youngsters in school more, under proper Communist influence, and away from the home, the church, and the street. Boarding schools were introduced in 1956, and the plan, as sufficient school space becomes available, is eventually to make boarding schools universal where youngsters will sleep, returning home only on Sundays.

The beginning was modest; 285 boarding schools were opened in 1956, and the number is growing slowly. At first, in order to evoke as little parental resentment as possible, pupils were taken from orphanages, from broken homes, and from poor parents with large families.

The preference given to former workers and soldiers is in itself intended to encourage a serious attitude in student bodies. Infringements of student discipline during the early days of de-Stalinization gave fresh impetus to the program of encouraging would-be students to go to work first. So did the leading roles played by students in the October events in Hungary and Poland in 1956. It was felt by the Kremlin leadership that a person who had served three years in an army unit or two years plowing dry Siberian soil would better appreciate the opportunity offered by education to improve his station in life and would more willingly bend to ideological discipline.

Cases of breach of discipline were many, but in terms of student exuberance in other countries, the transgressions of Soviet students might seem mild indeed. Yet, seen in the Soviet context, they might well give rise to alarm in the leadership. There were instances of previously docile lecture groups in dialectic materialism, for example, being disrupted by brash students plying the instructor with questions intended to undermine Communist theses. There was a report of a Komsomol group at a Moscow institute refusing to elect a chairman presented on a single-name slate by the group’s governing committee.

There was the case of an unpopular Komsomol chairman being suspended out of a fourteenth-story window of the Moscow University skyscraper by a rope around his waist. Elsewhere this might pass as normal spring-fever conduct; in Moscow it is scandalous. There were persistent reports of expulsions.

Branches of student discipline were recorded in the pages of Dawn of the East newspaper in Tbilisi. An article on March 24, 1956, shortly after street disorders in which students played a prominent role, re- ported:

“At many meetings and conferences they often tell of students showing a lack of discipline, often cutting classes. The figures from September 1 until December 31 show that 94,083 man hours have been skipped without any excuses, among them in Marxism-Leninism (2682 man hours), in dialectic materialism (2231 man hours), and in political economics (1665 man hours).

“Sometimes lectures are skipped by whole groups, who instead go for a collective review of a new movie, leaving the teacher to lecture to a virtually empty auditorium. Especially “organized’ in this way are groups in the West European language and literature faculties. Unfortunately their record is closely followed by students in the faculty of physics. In the history faculty, A. Mkheidze and M. Dzimestarhishveli were so rarely seen at lectures that their fellow students could not have recognized them. Almost half of the students cut seminars in dialectical materialism. It sometimes happens that only one or two students from an entire group are present, and once the whole fifth group of the fourth year of the philological faculty cut their seminars.”

The paper told of expulsion of students for violating public order. “Can it be tolerated,” asked Dawn of the East, “that in 1955, for instance, there were 176 cases registered of students breaking rules of socialist order, and the 41 students were detained by the militia for a total of two and a half months?

“Some old prejudices of the area are recreated and some young people, such as a student in the geographic-geological faculty, N. Moudiry, revived the old custom of a runaway marriage. He sneaked away with a girl student from the biological faculty.”

Other cases of misconduct cited were less in the virile mountaineer tradition of this Caucasus region but equally reprehensible to the authorities, such as the student who beat up a taxi driver after a drunken spree and then struck a policeman who arrested him.

There are quips about students who misbehave or do poorly in classes. A Russian friend shook her head disapprovingly as she told about a neighbor’s none-too-bright child who was getting bad marks. “Well,” she shrugged, “maybe he’ll be able to get a job in the weather bureau if nowhere else.”

This rather light-hearted attitude is not shared by Soviet officialdom. Every opportunity is taken in publications, speeches, and edicts to impress upon young people the need for a serious attitude in studies and also in free-time pursuits. This may partly explain why Soviet youngsters spend so many free hours poring over chessboards instead of chatting on the telephone. The Soviet attitude of earnestness, seen in recreation as well as in study, has its roots in the Soviet classroom.”

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