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Problems of Education in Russia


Russia's return to a capitalist way of development objectively demands a form of education different from the one of the social­ist period. Capitalism needs other brains, other ways of thinking and behavior.

It is known that in Western societies the advent of capitalistic formation was proceeded by a long period of "brain washing" by ca way of the introduction of Protestantism and ideas of Enlighten­ment, which prepared the "human material" for further formation of economic and political structures of capitalist society.

In today's Russia the situation is cardinally different. Here, on the contrary, first economic and political structures of capitalism were introduced as a liberal market economy and a Western type democracy. Both have come into contradiction with the Russian mentality, which is characterized by communal, socialist forms of life activity. This contradiction, which hasn't been settled so far, is one the most essential reasons why capitalist reforms, which, in fact, destroyed the country and led it to the level of a marginal state that lost the status of Great Power, have failed.

The present rulers of Russia recognize this contradiction. That is why reformers need a reform in educational system to change the type of thinking of Russians in accordance with the demands of a capitalist economy and politics. Looking for a model and examples for this reform, they intentionally resort to the Western experience. They think that it is in the West that the educational system, which answers the requirements of a capital­ist development, was created.

In fact, the reformers are making in the educational system the same mistake they have made when introducing a market model. I will try to prove it in the given article.

 And what about the West?

 Russian reformers like to refer to the West and often to Japan as an example of a school and educational system in general, which is no harm in copying. As for Japan, I want to give a warning at once: Japan cannot be an example to follow for anyone, as its culture and lifestyle completely differ from the rest of the world. It cannot be copied or adapted outside Japan. At one time Americans tried to reproduce the Japanese model at some of their enterprises. These attempts failed completely. It turned out that only the Japanese, themselves, and no one else can work in a Japanese manner. Since much has been written on this issue, I am not going to dis­cuss it here again.

The West is closer to us. Let's have a look at what they are doing.

To begin with, here are several examples from my own experi­ence of living in Canada.

Being aware that a nation's mentality is formed from school days, I decided to find out which textbooks junior pupils use. My, at first sight, very simple question nonplussed librarians. They could not recommend any textbook, for the simple reason that there are not any at all. Every school has its own curriculum, and pupils have individual programs depending on their abilities and inclinations. First, I thought it was great, until I learned that individual programs are for those pupils who cannot cope with general programs, i.e. for backward ones. There are no national fairy-tales for children of under school age. I thought that everyone speaking English knows "Alice in Wonderland". Nothing of the kind. I told Alice, bank clerk, Chinese by nationality, "You might have been named after Alice from Wonderland". She told me that she had never heard of such "land". In Russia, for example, every child, no matter where s/he lives knows about Tsokotukha Fly, Cockroach (Tarakanishche), poems of Agnia Barto, Chukovsky and Marshak. Saying nothing of the tales about the Hen Ryaba and Ivan the Fool. You won't find it here. Everyone seems to have his own tales. On the one hand, it's not so bad. It develops individualism and variety. But on the other hand, there is no consolidating source via literature. This is the problem recognized by culturologists, for example, by E.Hirsh well known in the USA. He is trying to create common textbooks. But without much success so far.

The American culturologist E.Hirsh, who has been dealing with the problems of education in the USA all his life, after many years of research was terrified by its results. It turned out that the average level of literacy among Americans at the beginning of the XXth cen­tury was higher than at its end. One of the factors which contributed to that level was the fact that at the beginning of the century in the USA there were common textbooks used all over the country and approximately the same set of subjects was taught (i.e. the system of education which Americans inherited from Europe). Later, espe­cially after the World War II, the system of common textbooks and programs started to collapse in favor of "variety". The idea was that every state and even every educational institution would be able to define for themselves the content of textbooks and the number of subjects taught. It has resulted in a very sharp differentiation of knowledge not only among states but among different schools and universities. Someone proved to have won from such system but the majority has lost.

Experts in school education give the fol­lowing figures: one third of five mil/ion pupils "speak English so badly that they do not understand what the class is talking about". The same source says that 78% of pupils not far from Los Angeles do not satisfy the stan­dards of American requirements". One of the American managers complains that 95% of college graduates cannot write American words correctly, half of them cannot make a simple sentence.

And here are Canadian statistics provided by Joan H. Burgess, a teacher from one of the prestigious universities - York University in Toronto. She made a research among first-year students of a humanitarian profile, who left schools with high grades in the History of Canada. Although, as Mrs. Burgess says, she expected problems, the results surpassed all her expectations. 95% could not name five of the last Prime Ministers of Canada, 61% didn't know the first English-speaking and 83% — the first French-speaking Prime Minis­ter. Only 9% answered the question What event preceded the formation of Canada? (1867)'correctly. 55% could not tell the date of Canada's formation, 59% could name no Canadian artist, 62% - no Canadian writer, 81% - no Canadian film director.

To a certain extent bad results in education may be explained by the constant rise of tuition fees, so not everyone can get an education. The situation is deteriorated by the novelty recently introduced: universities have raised fees for students from other provinces. Taking into account that the most prestigious universities are located in Ontario and British Columbia, students from other provinces should pay more than those from the above-mentioned provinces or study at their provincial univer­sities, whose diploma is practically not valued anywhere.

Now a few words about my personal experience of teaching. I had to work as a professor at the so-called summer courses at the University of British Columbia. I had faced several unexpected problems, which may be useful for our reformers to know.

I was reading a course of lectures on the Asian Pacific Region. The students from different faculties (historical, economic, political science) of the third - fifth year of study enrolled. Proceeding from the then standards for students of corresponding courses, I was ori­ented towards my experience of teaching in the Soviet Union. Dur­ing the lectures I found out that most students (with the rare exception) had no idea what the course was about. I had to simplify the course to the level of lectures I used to read via the "Znanie" ("Knowledge") society. When students wrote their papers, I was shocked by the primitiveness of their understanding of the problem. I was going to give bad marks to half of the group at minimum. To be on the safe side, I asked the other professor what to do. He told me that in such a case an ad hoc committee is created to examine every student, which takes much time, and he didn't think I'd like to have all this trouble. In a nutshell, I gave a lot of satisfactory marks. For fairness' sake, I should admit that several students had mastered the subject. But next term I had no students, perhaps because they didn't get enough points and had to try to get them in other courses. It was my serious mistake, as I didn't think to which extent the teacher depends on students. They pay and choose those teachers who will give them the opportunity to get enough points to quickly receive a diploma. In such a network of relationships knowledge is the least concern. I see it as one of the most negative features of paid education. Money, not the desire of knowledge acquisition, defines the education policy.

I think it tells on teachers as well. I have listened to many Amer­ican and Canadian professors and gave lectures at workshops myself. The system is as follows: the majority of them specialize in some narrow subject or problem. For example, professor of eco­nomics, specialist in China, (Chinese by nationality) may not know what state the People's Republic of China is (for example, that the Communist Party of China is in office now), but he knows in every detail how banks work in Shanghai or on which terms foreign firms may be set up in a free economic zone of Shenzhen. Their task is to give students practical rather than general knowledge, and teach­ing students to think is their least worry. Such approach has its toll on the general scientific potential of professors. I have read practi­cally everything about the Asian Pacific Region. With the exception of a maximum of ten works, the rest is just an iron chatter. As far as the level of specialists in Russian is concerned, the majority of them don't even know Russian. I cannot imagine any specialist in Ameri­can or Canadian studies in the Soviet Union not knowing English.

Though everything said, it does not mean that education and science are bad in the USA or Canada. Everything must be compared. But com­parison reveals that in the field of education and science the USA is ahead of other countries of the world in terms of finances, num­ber of people involved in sci­entific and tech­nical progress and achieve­ments, at last.

But the point is that the intel­lectual top of American society, which is involved in the process of formation of this "progress", was educated not at the usual schools and institutes but at expensive elite universities.

Furthermore, the huge financial opportunities in the USA have allowed it to buy up brains all over the world. Several thousands of qualified specialists from post-reformed Russia only have settled down in the States. That is why I want to stress that despite prob­lems in the system of school and university education, which, by the way, is recognized by the Americans themselves, the USA keeps its positions of not the only superpower in the geostarategic sense, but a scientific superpower as well.

And now a few words about what I encountered in Russia when in 1997 I started teaching in two higher educational institutions in Moscow. One is a private "university", where I was giving a course of "History of political thought" and "Security strategy of big pow­ers". The other is Moscow State University (MSU), where I was teaching "Economy of Eastern Asia countries" (at one faculty) and "Comparative region studies" (at the other).

 Students in private (paying) university yielded in knowledge even to the pupils of the 8-1Oth form of Soviet school. Having talked to the students I found out that there were no teachers of history, English language and social science at their schools, which explained such a low level  of knowledge. Two or three out of 20 students were able to pass the exam, the rest were guar­anteed to fail. But the fac­ulty administration asked me to "understand their position" and give them at least satisfactory marks, otherwise they would drop out, God forbid, together with their money.

In MSU, the situation with the knowledge level was much better, but the problem was that the majority of students worked (or earned additionally), which is why they missed a lot of classes. They were able to pass the exams only because I gave them the opportunity to crib and never dared to ask additional questions. Otherwise 90% would have failed.

It means that even the university or institute graduates, in fact, have faked diplomas, which are not backed by real knowledge. In this connection I want to stress that cribbing, which has taken root in Russia and which the teachers have to tolerate, actually means the absence of knowledge. In the West cribbing is out of the question (as well as the mutual aid among students at the exam), as it is reckoned to be a kind of criminal offence. At least, the punishment is very severe - expulsion from the university.

Communicating with students and teachers in today's Russia, I realized that we face a real catastrophe in the educational system, not just a crisis. The world has never witnessed such lowering in the level of knowledge over such a short period of time. From 1991 to 1999 education expenses have fallen by 48%.

 Education reform

The catastrophic state of the educational system in modern Russia is obvious. Everybody understands that Russians must find a way out of this situation. Minister of Education V. Filippov suggests a kind of reform, which is based on two pillars: transition to a twelve-year system and introduction of a single state exam at schools, which gives school-leavers the right to enter the university if they have received the necessary set of points. What is especially important, as the reformer stressed time and again, is that such reform does not require additional financing from the government.   

It may be an interesting idea, but let me play devil`s advocate for a moment and predict that this reform will fail as all reforms tied to the ideology of market economy do. I will explain why.

The reformers cherish hopes that at schools boards of trustees will be formed of parents and people and organizations interested in improving education. It is supposed that they will set up the fund for promoting the reform, i.e. improvement of the whole system of secondary education. Such considerations are sandcastles.

The advocates of this idea refer to the experience of the West where such boards of trustees do function. But they have no idea of their real power. They, probably do not know that the lion`s share of financing falls upon the state. In Western Europe the state share on average is about 98% of all money spent on education. The USA is often mentioned in this connection. Let`s look at it from a position of  “figures”.

In 1997 the share of non-state financing of education equaled to 30.7%. The figures are different for public and private educational institutions of all levels. In the first case, financing from “outside” makes up only 16.9%; in the second – 87.6%.

In the system of secondary education the situation is even more interesting. Non-state sources of financing public schools made up only 2.5% and private – 100% (4) It means that non-state financing is accumulated only in privileged private schools and public schools get practically nothing. Precisely this situation, which in the USA was called critical, gave rise to two Government programs on education (the President’s Goals 2000 Educate America Act and the Improving America’s Schools Act), which approved of by the Clinton administration and envisioned by additional subsidizing of public schools which, as the Americans themselves think, are in an indecent shape. I do not even mention here that in public schools the main share of “outside donations” settles in the senior age group (9-12 forms), where children of poor parents never get because of the big drop out.  Nevertheless, even in the USA the lion`s share (70%) of financing education falls on the state.

 Russian “reformers”, following the American model, even suggest teaching in different buildings. In fact, it will mean that pupils from the 1st to the 9th forms will be left on the state “ration”. Besides this, a very sharp differentiation between the pupils may begin, depending on how thick their parents` wallets are, which is already happening. The press has already informed that state financing of education makes up less than 50%. In other words, we are already witnessing the rapid process of differentiation among pupils depending on the wealth of their parents, which makes it impossible for low-income families to send their kids to 12-year schools. The Duma deputy Flura Ziyatdinova gives the following figures: 85.2% of students in prestigious institutes come from elite lyceums, gymnasias and special schools, whereas the share of pupils from public schools is only 6.5%. Under the “reforms” this ratio in favor of elite schools will be even higher.

To avert such injustice, the reformers suggest the already mentioned system of a single state exam – SSE - the experiment, which was started in some Russian cities by the Order of the Ministry of Education from 27.02.2001. According to this experiment, pupils will have to pass formalized exams in local schools, testing including. The authors of this initiative think the system has this advantage: exams are taken only once, which saves the nerves of the pupils intending to enter institutes in the capital;  “objectivity” is provided as the exams are taken “blindly” on the basis of encoding. There is one more plus: pupils won't have to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg, which will allow them to save money. It should be said that though in the West this system is really widespread, it is often criticized and prestigious universities do not adhere to it. It has too many flaws.

Here is an example from my own experience. I had to take the TOEFL exam several times. Both the first time, when I practically did not know any English, and last time, when I could read lectures in English, I got approximately the same number of points. At the first exam I happened to cross out the necessary circles. Moreover, the probability of giving the right answer is rather high, especially if you know the fundamentals of logical thinking. Not knowing the subject, with fortunate coincidence you can get the necessary points. When it comes to the private educational institution, it does not matter how many points you have got. You will be enrolled anyway. What really matters is whether you can pay or not. Private educational institutions enroll students for their wallets, not knowledge.

Besides, in Russia all these “tests” will be known to “necessary people” just as it has always been the case with themes for compositions. In this country no secret can resist “necessary” or rich people. 

Even if all machinations a round these tests can be eliminated, the main flaw of SSE is in seeming “justice”. In reality there can be no justice because of the striking contrast between the quality of teaching in capital cities and provinces. Can you imagine the pupil of the village school and Moscow school answering the test questions in the same way? Which opportunities we can speak of when both a pupil and his teacher in a village of unbounded Russia have never seen a computer? But owing to the force of circumstances, this pupil guessed right the necessary number of answers in the test and got the right to enter a definite faculty in Moscow University having ousted a more educated Muscovites, who owing to the force of the same circumstances, did not get the right number of points. And there may be several thousands of such “chances”, which will fill the Universities, prestigious ones included. During the first two or three years they will fill in the gaps in their knowledge to the level of Moscow pupils of the 10-11th forms. Such “justice” will result in a sharp fall in the level of the students` knowledge and lower the level of the “educated” part of Russia. (Though I have a feeling that it has already happened.)

Therefore, if the SSE system takes root, it will do harm to the whole system of education and science. The only consolation is that the present authorities will not be able to spread it. And now about the level of university education.

 MGIMO and Fletcher school of law and diplomacy

The quality of students` knowledge depends on three factors: set of subjects, quality of teachers themselves and quality of textbooks. Here I want to compare all these “qualities” in MGIMO (faculty of international relations) and Fletcher school, which also trains students for the sphere of foreign policy.

One question, which I could not answer for a long time, forced me to make such comparison. In one of my last books I analyzed the foreign policy conceptions of Russia and the USA. I had a feeling that American conceptions were prepared by professionals and Russian by dilettanti. As the doctrine of foreign policy of Russia was worked out within the precincts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID), i.e. by the people, the majority of whom graduated from MGIMO MID RF, I decided to have a closer look at how they are trained. Having investigated it, I realized that there was nothing to wonder at. Their dilettantism is envisaged in the process of training. But let`s discuss it in a consecutive order.

I took the study plan for training specialists for the sphere of international relations (for a five year term of study). The fact that 1460 hours were planned for humanitarian and social sciences jumps into the eye. This block comprises social sciences from philosophy to Russian language and literature. The time allocated for every subject (there are 15 of them) allows to only get acquainted with the subjects offered at best. It is absolutely impossible to learn philosophy for 100 hours and logic or rhetoric for 30 hours. That is you can master them on the level of senior classes at school. But the most important thing is that this block has nothing to do with international relations. It's a kind of general cultural campaign for abolishing illiteracy, which will probably make up for the low level of a school education. The second block – general mathematical and natural sciences (600 hours) plus mathematics, information science and conceptions of modern natural history (150 hours each) – also looks rather strange. 

The third block – general subjects – for which 4140 hours are allocated, is closer to a specialty, but the time for learning the first foreign language (2000 hours) and second (1000 hours) stirs up astonishment. For the rest of the 17 subjects, only 1140 hours are planned. Foreign language is undoubtedly important. But when entering MGIMO the applicants already have a good command of the foreign language (otherwise they won`t enter) and may improve it further by practicing. If translators or linguists were trained here, the time allocated would be justified.

Two other blocks – “Major subjects” and “Specialization subjects” (1900 and 1200 hours respectively) – are relevant to the sphere of foreign policy. But what are such “subjects” as Civil defence and Military training (32 and 454 hours) for? 

The situation with the subjects for specialty “expert in region studies” is the same. Thus, out of 9450 hours more than a half is allocated for subjects which are not relevant to the major. It means that they train more or less educated person, but not the specialists in international relations.

In the Fletcher school every subject is relevant to the sphere of international relations. There are such subjects as legal and institutional aspects of IMF and the World Bank, globalization of Central Asia and the Caucasus, world religions, violence and conflict resolution, economics and politics of the global Internet, telecommunication modeling and policy analysis, the role of power, Rwanda problems, etc. There is also a very important course – analysis of information and statistic methods in the process of decision-making. I draw special attention to this subject because the Russian creators of foreign policy conceptions never calculate expenses for pursuing foreign policy, never estimate financial resources necessary to realize foreign policy aims and tasks.

It is absolutely natural that among the subjects there are courses in important countries and regions of the world, such as China, Russia, Europe, the Middle East and Eastern Asia. Among the lecture course you will find no “empty” subject. Every one is bound up with burning issues of international relations; moreover, subjects are changed depending on international situation or actualization of international problems. They all are of practical value. 

In MGIMO a lot of subjects are of a general character, in the Fletcher school – applied, bound up with current situation. This is the difference between these two schools concerning the subjects taught. The dispute which education is better, general or applied, has been settled in favor of the USA by historical practice.

This is one side of the problem. The other is the quality of teaching, which means the quality of teachers. I am not talking about exceptions: they exist always and everywhere. I mean the average teacher and not only from MGIMO. As I know a lot of teachers both in the West, to be more exact, in Canada and the USA and in Moscow, I have something to compare. I must say that in Moscow the quality of teaching (I mean here courses in economics and international issues) is rather low. For example, almost all teacher do not understand the difference between such economic phenomena as internationalization, integration and globalization. And this misunderstanding is reflected in official foreign policy doctrines, in which the concept of globalization has eclipsed internationalization, which is a much more important issue at the moment. It is enough to have a look at the foreign policy doctrine of the Russian Federation. In fact, all the teachers are talking about integration in the Asian Pacific Region (APR), not understanding that there is no APR as an integral region. Moreover, there cannot be integration in a region which does not exist. Teachers of international relations do not understand the difference between the categories of power and force, poles and center of power. Moreover, they cannot differentiate between principles of geoeconomic and geostrategic space. As a result, students are given an inadequate picture of the world; their knowledge is far from reality.

It may happen in the USA as well, but as there are a lot of educational institutions of international profile there, in some of them there will always be highly-qualified teachers and scientists who will create the true reality in students` consciousness. In Russia, only MGIMO trains students of an international profile. As a result future diplomats graduate with a distorted view of the world.

It happens to a considerable degree because the majority of teachers are not researchers. They use textbooks written by “scientists”. The problem is that these scientists are dilettanti themselves. They may be doctors or academicians but their level of knowledge does not correspond to the modern realities. Not because they are less clever than their western colleagues. The reason is that in modern Russia after 1992 no research in the sphere of the theory of foreign policy and international relations was done, but without theoretical knowledge, discussion of international issues may either be of empirical character or at the level of sound reasoning, which is good in private life, but rather harmful in understanding of strategic phenomena in any field. It is only one, but very important. reason (they are more numerous),

It is known that in the USA teachers are scientists. Before giving any course at the university, an American teacher first thoroughly studies the problem in question. He knows it not by the textbooks. This is the advantage of the American system of science and higher education. In other words, all three factors relevant to education work against a qualitative education in Russia.

 What can be done?

The school reform mentioned above is doomed to failure not because of its methodic premises, but mostly because of poor financing. What's the use talking of reforms when the education budget is $1mln. I have mentioned the Ministry of Education resolution about SSE (single state exam). A lot is said in this document except the most important thing: the sum of money necessary to realize this resolution. It means that it will never be executed, as a lot of other President`s resolutions. The rector of Moscow State University (MSU), V. Sadovnichy, seems to be the only person of good sense, who soberly estimates the future of this reform. He gives the following statistics: the annual budget of MSU is $30mln, whereas the budget of an American middle-level university is $800mln, and a prestigious one – from 3 to 5 mln.      

Is it worth talking of the reform when the government budget is about $30mln, the average salary of teachers 350-600 rubles (the state debt to the teachers is about 1bln rubles); a professor's salary in MSU is lower than that of a yard-keeper. And so on and so forth.

The problem is that under the current market system no liberal reform oriented at Western standards can be realized in principle, because Russia and the market in its Western version are things incompatible. First, the whole social and economic system of Russia should be reformed; the country should be returned to its natural way of development, which is connected with modernized socialist versions adequate to the new realities of the world. This is the only way to solve all problems in Russia, education included.

All political leaders should remember the saying: what is good for a Russian is death for a German and vice versa. The reformers keep on doing everything the wrong way round.

It is necessary to learn one very trivial thing: there are some strategic spheres (transport, power engineering, strategic materials), including education, which even in highly developed capitalist countries are not farmed out to the market. These spheres are too closely connected with national interests and state security. They have never been settled on the level of private business however powerful it may be. Handing these spheres over to business means inevitable collapse of the state. Russia's experience of the past years proved the truth of it. Can the country's rulers fail to see it?

Published in Russian Vancouver (2002, No. 64, 65), also in a book "Russia: land of slaves, land of masters (Moscow: Algoritm, 2003)