Russia’s Education for the Market

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Boris Kagarlitsky

UNTIL FAIRLY RECENTLY I enjoyed lecturing to students.  However, lately I’ve discovered that something strange is happening to them.

Russian universities are just now accepting the generation of students who went through the school system after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The names of the party general secretaries mean about as much to them as do those of medieval kings or the heroes of ancient Greece.

That is natural enough, but what is less sensible is that it would appear that any cultural base whatsoever has also vanished together with Soviet ideological doctrines.

When I am telling my students about the political structure of Victorian Britain in an effort to explain the difference between 19th-century liberalism and modern democracies, I may say something like, “Well, who remembers the chapter about elections in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers?”

Silence.  No one has read it. I briefly explain who Charles Dickens was and why it’s worth taking a look at his books.  Then I realize that I need to explain who Queen Victoria was and when she ruled—and I see my students gazing at me with looks of pure gratitude in their eyes.

Quotations from Shakespeare provoke the same blank incomprehension, although the bard’s name at least evokes recognition.  Most of them have seen “Shakespeare in Love,” for which I am grateful.

Of course, it isn’t my job to give them the history of literature.  My course is about political sociology.  But it used to be perfectly natural that any educated person would know a bit more than the minimal collection of facts necessary for their specialization.  Even more frightening is that alarming gaps are also appearing even within the limited area of their specialization.

The Soviet era, for all its faults, guaranteed people a more or less stable existence and allowed them time and opportunity to buy and read books.  The less varied and dynamic real life became, the more many people needed to compensate by immersing themselves in the world of knowledge.

Young people who never went abroad nonetheless spoke excellent English, and specialists in French history—although never having the chance to see Paris—surprised their Western colleagues with their profound knowledge of their discipline.  Today, people have far more opportunities, but far less time.

Moreover, knowing books doesn’t ensure a decent salary or even any general respect.  Our schools have to prepare “students who are ready for the market economy.”  Some schools do this better than others, but none of them are preparing broadly educated citizens.

The educational reform that was announced recently is supposed to do still more to orient students toward pragmatic success in a market economy.  This is logical enough, but experience shows that narrow pragmatism is rarely a successful strategy.

If a pragmatist meets with failure, no matter how much he tries, he has few choices and nowhere to turn. Actually, the historic task of education has been to compensate for the pure pragmatism of primitive market “culture” by introducing new values, traditions and knowledge.

That is why it is not surprising at all that so many people who passed through the Soviet educational system managed to do extremely well for themselves in the West. It is paradoxical, but true: Now, when society is confronted with the cruel demands of competition, we need all the more an educational system that instills the widest and most varied possible range of values.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.  He is the author of a number of books on the collapse of the Soviet system and the crisis of post-Soviet Russia.

from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)