Главная страница «Первого сентября»Главная страница журнала «Английский язык»Содержание №10/2002


What’s Ending? What’s Beginning Today in the School?

Simon Lvovich SoloveychikThis 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 difficulties.
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 the surface.
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 over contradictions.
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 today?
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 knowledge preferable.
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 experience.
The top two responses will be invited to the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the newspaper Pervoye Sentyabrya.