The West's Education Crisis: Can Russia Avoid a Similar Fate?

Russia faces the same problems that are chipping away at Western education. What can be done?

Fri, May 15, 2015
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Educational policies must, first and foremost, nurture talents and encourage achievement, by that gradually pulling the whole of the schooling pyramid upwards.
Educational policies must, first and foremost, nurture talents and encourage achievement, by that gradually pulling the whole of the schooling pyramid upwards.

There are many wonderful occupations in this world; as far as I’m concerned, mine is teaching. It’s a noble profession. Poorly paid, too. That’s because the education bureaucrats who decide on teachers’ salaries are people, I am guessing, who didn’t get top marks at school. After which, in subsequent years, they en masse, the Lord working in mysterious ways, proved to be, in terms of career, much more successful than those who tried harder; it’s only logical that now, holding high positions, they are kind of taking revenge on those who were ruining their otherwise happy and carefree childhoods.

But, well, all kidding aside; it’s a serious matter. Low salaries in teaching are not the whole story; far from it. I’d even say this aspect is only a tiny spot on the tip of the iceberg. Under the line, deep in the water and practically invisible, are questions of much greater importance. How does our education relate to development (and what is development in the first place?)? How does it keep pace with advancing scientific knowledge? Does it fit into the current and evolving employment models (and how do you explain this sharp rise in youth unemployment throughout the world?) Can educators by themselves fix everything right in what they are doing? In a word, how does education stand in relation to the society – and the society, to education?

This is, obviously, not the place to expand on any of these puzzles, the task, as a whole, being worthy of a good dissertation or two. So, what’s below is a couple of thoughts or, better, a specific angle of the problem.

To illustrate my main point, this is how the American “Counterpunch” (“Our Education Crisis” by Jeanine Russaw; Aug. 06, 2014) describes what’s happening at the schools in the predominantly black neighborhoods: “Some children are afraid to learn. Yes, afraid.  This fear is brought on by the taunting many well-educated black individuals receive because their peers believe that being well read and articulate constitutes 'acting white.'…

What does “acting white” look like?  In mainstream America, this is going to a quality school, actually paying attention and being able to provide a well thought-out answer when questioned by the teacher in class.

What does “acting black” look like? On the other end of the spectrum, there is blackness: Cutting classes whenever possible, looking like a fool when called on by the teacher, consequently serving – and cutting – detention, blowing off all homework assignments and failing and repeating your current grade”.

A fear of succeeding…” This is, of course, too much of a bad thing and it’s in America; but you know what, switching to the Russian students, I have often discerned something of this kind in them, too. It’s exactly the same predisposition to purposely make yourself “a little worse” (and never ever a little better) to keep pace with what’s expected from them by their immediate company. Is it part of a new youth culture? As for cutting classes and by that blowing off each and every assignment, this is so widespread you’d never believe. For some of them it looks like this: the semester comes to an end but he or she has as yet never appeared on the horizon. The majority of such students have, of course, a natural capacity to learn and are not at all semi-retarded, but – this thought haunts me all the time – a good many of them, for a variety of reasons, psychological or behavioral, are already totally and irreversibly lost to the systematized formal schooling. I hate to say it, but it’s just this – an already deeply-rooted inability. Poor concentration, short attention span, a zero motivation to learn, an almost addictive need for having fun here and now – this kind of thing. When did it happen to them – at elementary, at secondary school? Or much earlier in the kindergarten? (I wonder what other teachers will say). Much worse yet, you cannot leave these guys to their own devices like isolating them and thereby alleviate the problem. “One rotten apple spoils the barrel”; ten or such will spoil you a class, with the “quality of education” spiraling down and down year after year.

But, leaving Russia, here’s France for you, the country famous for its legendary universities. Says the press: “An alarming 150,000 high school students - about 15 percent – drop out of school each year with no academic qualifications whatsoever. And, of those who do graduate, only 25 percent have mastered basic skills in reading, writing and mathematics,” this with the French government boosting its increased spending on education by 23 percent in the last decade.

You think it’s much better, say, in Great Britain? Just a minute… “Young people in the UK lag behind most of the Western world in their mastering of the basic skills of literacy, numeracy and IT.” And here comes something really interesting. “In England, adults aged 55 to 65 perform better than 16 to 24-year-olds in both literacy and numeracy. In fact, England is the only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest age group.” Is the British education system going backwards? And did you notice how in the Moscow subway older people (still) read books, while teens play with their mobiles? In the meantime, McKinsey, a consultancy, reports that 67% of employers in the nine countries that they studied, including USA, Britain, and Germany, complain that they cannot find enough entry-level workers with the right skills or abilities, the most apparent reason being poor education.

All told, it looks like this. Never in the history of mankind has education been so important – and never have its institutions been so poorly performing, economically, culturally or socially, as in our days.

In assessing the performance of educational systems, most people tend to address mainly, if not exclusively, the so called internal school factors, which are, of course, important with regard to such things as educational technologies and equipment, curricula matters, the training and competence of the teachers, and the like. These are to be periodically reformed in pursuit of higher efficiency, or so they say in Education Ministries. Now comes a question: “Does it all exist in a social vacuum?” Evidently, it does not. If so, in explaining the performance of our education, shouldn’t we, at last, take into account the forces outside the classroom?

What exactly is happening over there – outside a school, a college or a university? Here’s a little theory on that. To make it “academically more respectable,” I’ll start with John Dewey, the American philosopher and psychologist best known for his works on education. This is what we read in his various publications.

We are apt to look at the school from an individualistic standpoint, as something between teacher and pupil, or between teacher and parent”. Yet this is too narrow a concept; acted upon, it destroys our society. “Education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed”. But, being a part of society, education reflects the community. As far as the people are concerned, “this process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual's powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions.”

Thus, there is a sphere of formal education and there are societal processes and forces that constantly produce a kind of “another education”, “continually forming the individual’s habits, ideas, feelings and emotions”. This is not at all, mind you please, the traditional and always clear-cut divide between formal and informal education; rather, we are looking at a very broad range of “invisible” (or always elusive) forces such as the family, media, peer groupings in school, in the neighborhood, online, etc. It’s this environment that gave such a powerful rise to what we now call edutainment and infotainment, that is when presented material is more amusing that it is educational or having a real public interest. Both “… tainments” are absolutely omnipresent – on your TV, in computers and the press, on the Internet, in mobile phones. Here’s an interesting statistics on how this impacts kids and teens in the USA. At 2 years more than 90% of all American children have an online history. At 5 more than 50% regularly interact with a computer or tablet device. (Here’s when a child, as a parent says with a grain of humor, might be bitterly disappointed upon discovery “that the letters of the alphabet do not leap up out of books and dance around the room with royal-blue chickens.”). At 7 or 8 many children regularly play video games. American teenagers text an average 3,400 times a month. By middle school children spend more time with media than with their parents or teachers or other activities.

My drift – and the reader has already caught on it – is that the two “educations” have come to a terrible mismatch. This is, again, a topic for your good bulky research paper; but if you ask me, I think changing in the recent decades was the very “anthropology” of young generations, i.e. their ways of thinking, feeling and acting; most probably, the chemistry of their brains, too. In the more or less affluent post-War II years, the very fabric of our society and culture has gone… Would you agree that it’s gone immensely hedonistic, with “pleasure minus pain” becoming a social norm for too many of us? Then there’s that edutainment which trains our cognitive processes to look for quick and juicy bites in the “multi-media society”. Now, with this habit of mind, a kid or a student comes to class, an iPad in the schoolbag and a mobile in the hand. Those are wonderful and indispensable devices, but not if you can’t sit five minutes without checking for updates, new messages or photos and then sharing it all with your neighbors right and left. With habits like this, Chemistry or History will always be dead boring for you, because what constitutes a “real life” at any given moment is a picture of your best friend in the mobile or the latest sports stats online. (Am I exaggerating and, again, what will other teachers say?).

Actually, I think we all, most of us, if in varying degrees, suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, this being the consequence of exposure to excessively stimulating media around us. But the behavioral difficulties common to contemporary schools are, evidently, have more to do with sociological influences than anything else (even if the rates of neuropsychiatric disorders among teens are, in fact, skyrocketing everywhere in the world, reaching as high as 11 percent). No, it’s a “learned behavior”, the situation pleading for some very special studies into the matter. At present, we are absolutely ill-prepared to tackle the problem. Is it the domain of sociology of education, of psychology and pedagogics or an area to be filled with some new direction of research, various disciplines combined?

I am lingering over this conundrum because at stake is what experts define as the educational capital of the country (something that, according to American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, embraces, at its broadest, such vast areas as “science, art, ideology, law, religion, technology, mathematics, even nowadays ethics and epistemology”.) But there are even much wider topics, some of which were indicated at the beginning of this piece. Education is about creating a presumably better future, so how does it relate to development? That’s where it should be crystal clear that we can no longer act upon the assumption that the goal of schooling, at any given level, is just “graduate students”, without having some overarching aims down the road. It’s an absolutely “brave new world” that’s come or coming, with education as a new battlefield and the government having to play a crucial role in shaping the future of the country. “The winners take it all”…

The question of what exactly the government should do in this area, besides being a major source of budgeting, is open to debate, in which academia and businesses ought to take a most active part. Could a “trilateral commission” of sorts, teachers included, be a decent start? To my sense, the educational policies must, first and foremost, nurture talents and encourage achievement, by that gradually pulling the whole of the schooling pyramid upwards. But the first thing to realize is, again, that the schoolhouse is part of the neighborhood, part of the society, – part of life, and what our kids, with all their school problems and achievements, clearly expose to view, as if through a magnifying glass, is who we actually are. Shall we start with ourselves?


Yury Nickulichev is a professor at the Russian Academy for National Economy and Civil Service

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