KNOWLEDGE VS. DIGNITY
What’s Ending? What’s Beginning Today in the School?
This article appeared in Pervoye
Sentyabrya, No. 1, Sept. 1, 1992
Not long ago, someone asked me: “If you were going to gather together
today the best of the country’s educators, whom would you invite?”
I had to stop and think.
Something has ended in our school, and something has begun. The same thing as happened to
the country happened to school.
Everybody on earth would like to live free, and feel equal. These are
“eternal dreams”. They are eternal, ageless, because they are unrealisable; but they
are unrealisable for a reason that somehow not everyone knows: because freedom and
equality contradict each other. The more freedom, the less equality. If we try to create
economic equality, then people will become poor and lose their freedom.
Socialism announced that it had solved this problem, that the eternal
dream had come true, or would shortly. And here’s where a lie was hidden – a basic,
fundamental lie from which flowed thousands of other lies, falsehoods, idiocies,
shootings, and miseries for millions of people who had been seduced from the very
beginning by the promise of both freedom and equality. In reality, they simply exchanged
freedom for equality – if imaginary – for equality in poverty (“planned poverty”,
as the sociologists say) is not at all what people had dreamed about for ages. This is not
what the eternal dream is about and, as before, it is unachievable.
But when you try to create a utopia (something that never was and never
can be), it inevitably changes into an anti-utopia: you can only introduce the lifeless
into life by violence and deceit.
Just about the same thing that happened to the country happened to school.
Who could be against the school, where all children, regardless of ability or character,
are well-brought up, preserve their individuality and study well? It’s an eternal dream.
Just as with socialism, it was pronounced accomplished – nearly 100% success in the
world’s most difficult programs. In the USA, only 4% of high school students study
physics; but here, they all do. And all succeed; very few students repeat a grade;
there’s almost no crime.
As in economy, this absurdity was supported in the way any absurdity
can be supported – by violence and deceit. Violence and deceit were not part of school,
not the fault of authoritarian educators, or the system of schooling, in which the
unattainable was passed off as the attained. When violence and deceit weakened, the school
tottered – and then, of course, they raised the cry that the ministry was destroying it.
Put everything back in its place!
But the epoch of violence and deceit in schools is ending.
What will be now – freedom and flourishing?
Nothing of the kind. And the problem is not at all, as they say, that schools aren’t
accustomed to freedom; or that the teachers are weak; or that the textbooks are bad; or
that the curricula are wrong; or that there aren’t enough computers; or that the wages
are low; or that the society doesn’t pay attention to school; or that we don’t
understand that schools are the leading force of history; or that there’s no interest in
knowledge; or that teacher training institutes are bad and they admit people to them
improperly; or that classes are overloaded; or that we have the wrong scholars and elected
the wrong people to the academy; or that we have inexperienced people in the ministry –
all of these reasons, each of which means something, all these individually and even all
taken together, do not explain the main reason that schools get stuck even when they have
complete freedom, or endless possibilities, or huge sums of money.
There is some sort of an invisible, unclear, hidden reason for all the
Here’s a guess. Well, it’s only a guess – why isn’t anyone talking or thinking
about the main difficulty of schools? Everything seems so apparent, lying right there on
Earlier, I never travelled abroad, and only in the few past years have I had a chance to
visit schools in Argentina, France, Sweden, England, Germany, the USA, and I am convinced
of something that I long suspected: Western schools don’t know how to teach all students
together. They teach well only selected ones. And so schools in these countries are
subjected to such criticism as we can’t imagine in our worst nightmares. Every large
newspaper daily carries two or three articles about the schools, all full of invective,
all crying “national catastrophe”. There is one charge: schools aren’t conveying
knowledge. I came to the same conclusion, and some of our tenth-graders, having studied in
America for a month on an exchange, told me that they were taught there at a laughably
easy level in comparison to our schools, because the amount of knowledge there was several
times less, and the homework was ridiculously easy, and it’s not like it is with us,
where you sit, and sit... Recently an engineer whom I know came in; he had moved to
England. He brought his daughter back to Russia for the summer to study physics and
mathematics, because the schools there lag behind ours by two or three years.
So what is it? Are the schools good here, and bad there? Are we still
ahead of the whole world? It seems that there’s not even the tiniest of articles on
education that doesn’t fail to remind us that the Americans reformed their schools after
the first Soviet sputnik.
Actually, they did reform them, and spent a lot of money. And after
thirty years they’re writing again that the schools aren’t conveying knowledge, that
they’re behind and ready to reform them again; this time not on a Soviet but a Japanese
model, because they say that Japanese cars are selling better than American ones –
it’s the schools’ fault again. In all countries, schools are the most blamed;
everywhere teachers are guilty of everything.
But it’s not all like that. Our schools don’t teach as wonderfully
as the world thinks, it’s just that no one has revealed their real success – it may be
that they’re no better than the bottom thirty percent. And American schools don’t
teach so poorly, otherwise how could they send a quarter of their students on to
university? You can’t compare these schools, for they have different aims.
Our schools have, for as much as we’ve talked about development,
nurture, and so on, one and just one aim – knowledge: to smash knowledge and skills into
the student using truth and lies.
Western schools have, in contrast to ours, not one but two aims.
American schools, for example, teach as well as they can; but also they don’t forget
about something that we don’t know about at all – inner dignity. This isn’t the same
as external dignity, it’s not about not denigrating and putting down the student, it’s
not what’s meant in the phrase “protection of honour and dignity”. It’s something
completely different – an internal feeling of your personal significance in this world,
a feeling that Western schools try (though not always successfully) to inculcate in
children from the earliest years. Value yourself; know your own worth; don’t feel
yourself worse or lower than others; you are in no way worse than adults or important
people; you are anyone’s equal – you can give your hand readily to anyone.
Inner dignity is the highest value; inner dignity supports conscience,
industriousness, good relations with others, and the ability to cope with life. For a
society with competition, schools must not just prepare young businessmen, for this is not
their only task, but rather people with dignity, for this is needed by both the
entrepreneur and the wage worker.
But here’s the contradiction, the basic cause of all the schools’
difficulties without exception – it’s not ours, it’s not special, it’s the same
for the whole world – just as freedom and equality are irreconcilable, so are knowledge
and dignity too. Only among the capable does knowledge increase dignity, but in other
situations you can only beat knowledge into children by denigrating them, only by
destroying their sense of inner dignity. Our schools don’t think about this, they
don’t have anything like “inner dignity” on their list of priorities. American
schools can’t bring themselves to destroy this dignity. And if forced to make a choice
– knowledge or dignity – American educators make it clear: dignity. Let the pupil
remain illiterate – it’s bad, society will criticize the schools for it; illiterate,
but sure of oneself, with a feeling of dignity. Our educators say: no, in the interests of
the child, we will teach him. We’ll palm off a diploma on him, that’s social equality
– and we’ll turn out people who all the same don’t know anything, who’ve been
tortured by the school’s denigration, with inner dignity destroyed.
The question is: what should we make of school, turn it into the model
of the Americans, change its priorities?
The answer is: not at all. We won’t destroy our own schools, and we can’t adopt a
foreign model. Be a bit more careful with all the changes! Our schools chose their path
already in 1986, on a veranda at Peredelkino. The “Pedagogy of Cooperation” is a
search for a kind of school which could teach unselected kids, while at the same time
strengthening their dignity. It would be silly to break off that search; to pronounce the
discoveries of our innovators outmoded. If the search is interrupted, then we either will
return to deceit and violence, or we’ll turn into a crude model of the Western school
and we’ll endlessly curse the system both for maiming children and for leaving them
without basic knowledge.
What has ended? The time of violence and deceit, the time of painting
What is beginning? The time for recognition and comprehension of contradictions, for
renewal of priorities; a time for the schools to try to give all children both knowledge
and dignity, but to understand also that this is impossible.
But to strive for the impossible is to not shrink from the eternal dream.
By Simon Lvovich Soloveychik
Ten years after this was first written, where do we find ourselves
We invite the teachers of Russia to share their views on the problems raised. What role
should the dignity of the learners play with imparting basic knowledge? If Russian schools
need to alter their educational philosophy in light of the changing world, how should the
teaching of students be approached? What is more important to give a developing child –
food for the mind, or for the spirit and psyche?
Are private schools in Russia trying to steer in a significantly new direction for
educating our children? Should we develop dignity in our students, or is focusing on
We of English will appreciate any viewpoint, any ideas of reforming school education and
publish the most thoughtful of them for everybody to consider and to discuss. Write to us
letters with your opinions; supporting them with your personal and professional
The top two responses will be invited to the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the
newspaper Pervoye Sentyabrya.