The Change in Soviet Schooling

The Soviet educational system, which in 1958 produced twice as many engineers as did the United States’s, is now undergoing a complete revision, as directed by Premier Khrushchev. For an account of this reorganization we have turned to ERNEST J. SIMMONS, an authority on Russian writers and a frequent visitor to the U.S.S.R.

CHEKHOV was loved and is loved not only by Russians, but also by Western readers,” recited Galya, a ninth-grade student in a Leningrad school. “ The famous foreign writer, Dresden . . .”

The class pricked up its ears. The teacher looked inquiringly at Galya.

“No, I mean Dryden.”

Her classmates began to smile.

“ Perhaps you mean Dreiser?” the teacher asked.

“No, it’s someone else, but I’ve forgotten who,” Galya replied in some embarrassment.

The teacher, reporting this incident in a recent article in Izvestia, explained that Galya really had in mind Bernard Shaw.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” the teacher admonished. “Nor knowing Shaw!”

“ What do I need to know that for?” Galya defiantly asked. “ I’ll be going to work in a factory all the same. I have no use for literature.”

Galya’s plaint may well be echoed by countless Soviet school children who arc now destined to work in factories or on collective farms in order to justify their claims to a higher education in this land where the intellectual is more revered than the movie actress or sports champion. In fact, the sweeping changes in education which have recently been announced may turn out to be more significant for the Soviet future than the orbiting of the first Sputnik.

The Soviets have always regarded education as a matter of supreme importance for the future of the state and have lavishly supported its development. After the progressive experimentation of the early years of revolutionary upsurge, education settled down to a national pattern in the 1930s. A profound utilitarian emphasis dominated the pattern: boys and girls were encouraged to think of education as a means of acquiring skills desperately needed by the state in its drive to achieve industrial reconstruction and agricultural collectivization. Hundreds of technical schools and institutes to educate specialists sprang up.

The efficacy of Soviet scientific education is really the fruit of some thirty years of intense emphasis on such studies. Honors and attractive material rewards were held out to those who made a career of science. The 250,000 scientists now at work in the Soviet Union and the 94,000 engineers who graduated in 1958, more than twice as many as did in the United States, offer some measure of Soviet success over the years in popularizing science education,

A strong note of dissatisfaction with the prevailing system of education was first heard at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Instruction was divorced from life, speakers declared, and graduates had little notion of the importance of socially useful labor. Decisions were taken to introduce polytechnical education in the ten-year schools. Students in the fifth to seventh grades were assigned two hours a week in school workshops and those in the eighth to tenth grades two hours a week of practical training in agriculture and industry. Further, applicants to institutions of higher learning were informed that preference would be given to those who had already achieved a record of employment in manual labor.

In addition, an experiment in fifty ten-year schools in 1957 called for three days a week of regular studies and three days of application to a job specialty of the student’s selection. With the cooperation of industrial plants and, in rural areas, of collective farms, students learned to read blueprints and were trained to be universallathe operators, patternmakers, electricians, winders, draftsmen, and designers. They then continued their formal education over an eleventh year, but spent half of their time in regular employment at the plant in their acquired trades.

Results of the experiment were praised on every hand. Teachers claimed that student participation in the work and in all the activities of the plant had a beneficial effect on their studies, especially on their science courses, in which they did much better than the average in examinations. The directors of plants asserted that the students acquired occupational skills faster than workers without a secondary-school education, students were gratified by this dual participation in learning and practical work, and parents were convinced that their children displayed a new interest in the process of being educated.

ENCOURAGED by the success of these preliminary experiments, inner circles of the Party decided upon a comprehensive reorganization of the whole national system of education. Khrushchev himself sounded the keynote in a ringing speech at the 13th Congress of the Young Communist League on April 18, 1959. He pointed out that, because institutions of higher learning can admit approximately 450,000 a year, and only half of these to full-time study, some 2,200,000 secondary-school graduates between 1953 and 1956 could not qualify for advanced education. Yet they knew nothing about work in industry and agriculture.

Khrushchev called for the introduction of vocational training, with direct work experience, in all the ten-year schools and evening courses. Institutions of higher learning should be reorganized, he said, so that their programs would involve a combination of theoretical study and extensive work, manual or otherwise, though preferably in the student’s own specialties. And these institutions should admit only students with labor records. It is wrong in principle and foreign to socialist society, he pointedly declared, to believe that only second-raters go into industry. Such reasoning is insulting to toilers. All children entering school,” he concluded, “must prepare themselves for useful labor, for participation in building a Communist society.”

With customary unanimity, government educational authorities promptly supported the leader’s position. In September, Khrushchev made a detailed report to the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Party on the need to reorganize the educational system, and two months later the Central Committee and the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers published “The Party and Government Theses on School Reforms.” The objectives as well as various details of the “Theses” were then discussed in numerous public meetings, in hundreds of articles and letters in the press, and in many speeches at the 21st Congress of the Communist Party. Finally, in December, the Supreme Soviet voted “The Law on Strengthening Ties Between School and Life.” It called for initiating the reforms in 1959 and 1960 and for the completion of them within three to five years.

New study plans have already been formulated which require establishment of a compulsory eight-year school of general education instead of the old seven-year school. Substantial changes will be made in the usual general education courses: more time will be allotted to foreign language study, and its primary goal will be the acquisition of oral speech skills; the old geography course is being expanded, and new courses arc being added in natural history and natural science; students will also be given a wider knowledge of mathematics, in which special attention will be paid to computing techniques and the solution ol practical problems, and the physics course will be altered to include extensive material of an applied nature that will serve as a theoretical foundation for the study of such subjects as machine building and the fundamentals of electrical engineering.

The total program of the eight-year school will devote a third of the student’s time to what is described as “training for socially useful labor.” Among other things, the program will include the acquisition of elementary knowledge about major branches of production; skills in measuring, computing, reading of blueprints, and processing the most common materials; and manual work in study shops and on training-and-cxperimcntal sectors. From the third grade on there will be two hours a week of such work as cleaning classrooms and school grounds, repairing furniture, and working in school lunchrooms and libraries. In addition, home economics courses will provide instruction to girls from the fifth to the eighth grades in dressmaking, sewing, and cooking, and to boys in the fifth grade on how to take care of homes, clothing, and footwear.

The new study plans provide for continuity between the eight-year school and the new threeyear labor-polytechnical high school. The content of the science courses on the secondary level, however, will be substantially changed to include the latest developments in science and technology. In general, more attention will be paid to the study of plastics, artificial and synthetic fibers, and rubber, and in the biology course emphasis will be placed on practical problems of agriculture and the latest achievements in agronomy.

As in the eight-year school, about one third of the total time from the ninth through the eleventh grades is assigned to the study of vocational training and production labor. Students will perfect their vocational training by working directly at industrial enterprises or on collective farms and in basic, not auxiliary jobs, and engineers, technicians, farm directors, agronomists, and skilled workers will be in charge of training them.

A network of evening schools and correspondence courses will provide ambitious graduates of the eight-year schools with essentially the same education as that of the three-year polytechnical schools. The organization of such evening schools will allow students to work full time as they learn. And similarly, evening programs in higher education will be offered to workers who have completed their secondary-school education. In fact, one of the main intentions of the whole reorganization plan is to make day and evening education on every level beyond the compulsory eight-year school virtually interchangeable in content, standards, and staff. The total picture projected by the reorganization is that of a whole nation continuously involved with improving itself by education, either day or night; but in this process study must always be combined with labor.

The law offers special privileges for those who elect to complete their higher education while working. Those in applied science fields which initially require a knowledge of complicated theoretical subjects and a heavy schedule of laboratory experience will be allowed to take time out from employment during the first two or three years. Thereafter, however, they will be expected to complete their education while engaged in practical work in staff jobs in production, laboratories, or design bureaus. In training agricultural specialists, the educational programs will be conducted in institutes organized on the basis of large state farms which possess model instructional facilities and where the farm work will be done by the students themselves.

The future scientists, economists, philosophers, lawyers, and literary scholars will also be compelled by law to acquire “a certain amount of experience in socially useful labor,” which may not necessarily have any relation to their special fields of study. Even for medical students, instruction must be “combined with continuous practical work in medical and prophylactic institutions or institutions of hygiene.”

The prolongation of the whole period of formal education, an inevitable consequence of combining employment with learning, is in no sense regarded as a disadvantage by the Soviets, who argue that the completion of formal education at a more mature age will prove beneficial to the majority of young people.

The only exceptions recognized are gifted students whose unusual abilities in the arts and sciences are manifested early in life. The reorganization plan will encourage them to finish their formal education as soon as possible and then qualify for special schools in mathematics, the natural sciences, and the arts. But even these students will be expected, while learning, to engage in a certain amount of “socially useful labor.”

The reasoning supporting the educational reorganization is studded with statements concerning the need of training a people capable of developing and keeping abreast of future advances in automation, electronics, synthetic chemistry, and atomic energy. Vast labor reserves will be required if the goals of the new economic Seven Year Plan are to be achieved. But millions of students who finished their education at the end of the old seven-year schools or even ten-year schools and entered the labor force are now regarded as inadequately trained to cope with the future demands for technically skilled workers. The educational reorganization is designed to eliminate this deficiency on all levels. Soviet leaders are also aware of the economic gain to the country that would result from having all students employed while they are learning.

As the standard of living has risen, the Party leaders have become increasingly worried about the growing cleavage between the privileged managerial and intellectual class and the working classes. For the children of this privileged class, education has meant a way of avoiding manual labor and of developing ideas and tastes incompatible with Communist ideology and morality. The student disturbances at the time of the Polish and Hungarian uprisings signified to Party leaders that education was failing to inculcate in youth a proper respect for the grand design of Communism and an unwillingness to abide by the Party blueprint of Soviet life. The main cause of this failure, it was argued, was a contempt for toil. The antidote, Party leaders reasoned, was to make toil a prescribed function of all forms of education in the conviction that extensive contact with workers on the part of students would temper them and assure their loyalty to Communist ideals. “This way,” declared Khrushchev in his speech to the Young Communist League, “it will no longer be possible to say that Vanya, for instance, does not have to go in for industry, while Kolya here has no other choice.”