Posts tagged Irving R. Levine

Photos from Astana, Kazakhstan and Bucolic Yurt Scenes

My dear readers have probably read enough of my blog text with my recent three different series each in four parts of 1) why we work overseas in Kazakhstan, 2) why we love the U.S. and 3) finally Irving R. Levine’s “Big Red Schoolhouse.”  I’ll show photos I’ve saved out depicting scenes from Kazakhstan’s past from oil paintings or what still exists in the countryside and also Astana’s present reality.

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“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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“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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“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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