Democratizing Russian Higher Education

Article excerpt

Driven by longings for stability, prosperity, and respect, but buffeted by scandals, crises, and resentment, Russia remains a country in transition, the outcome of which is not yet clear. In many ways, the democratic character of Russia's future depends on reforming myriad social institutions inherited from the Soviet Union, including those in the sphere of higher education. The importance of education in democratic transitions is well documented. (1) But although significant and necessary reforms have been initialed al the national level in Russia, they have encountered many obstacles. Regrettably, this means thai some of the worst aspects of the Soviet system have remained intact. Adding liberal theories to the curriculum while retaining certain authoritarian characteristics amounts to putting new wine into old skins. Further reforms need to focus on providing students with greater choice and enabling them to participate actively in their own learning experience. By developing generalist degree plans and encouraging active learning, Russia's system of higher education could best serve its students' interests and ensure that the country's future leaders will have developed the skills and attitudes necessary to maintain a democratic society.

To understand the need for a new approach to the reform of Russia's system of higher education, it is necessary to recall the authoritarian character of the system inherited from the Soviet Union. The Communist Party's ambitions to transform society, as well as its concerns about remaining in power and increasing production, shaped Soviet educational policies and institutions. Education was meant to serve both ideological and economic functions. Curriculum and activities were geared toward instilling the party line and leaching political passivity. Boris Nemtsov commented about his school days, "Leonid Brezhnev was still alive and ... we would write essays about his role in the formation of the Communist Party, copying it all from cribs supplied by the teachers so that we did not write anything seditious." (2) The curricula of state universities and other institutes were given a highly ideological content so that higher education would serve as an integral part of a system of political socialization. Although communist ideology was only weakly implanted in this way, the party achieved its purpose of retaining control in places of learning.

In response to party demands, Soviet institutions of higher education developed a particular philosophy of teaching that served Communist Party objectives and conformed with the uniform plans provided by Moscow. First and foremost, it was an authoritarian approach; it demanded that students passively consume and then repeat without analysis what instructors said in lectures. The lecturer-centered system of continental Europe, which was inherited from the tsarist era, was refined by Stalin to reinforce its hierarchical character and to emphasize the passive acceptance of knowledge. Students were taught to repeat lectures on oral exams, a practice that encourages rote learning rather than critical thinking. They also were expected to become experts in particular subjects of study so that their skills might then serve the planned economy. The objective of forming experts had significant implications for curriculum. To develop their expertise, students were required to take large numbers of courses. Detailed and demanding degree plans were drawn up that permitted students little choice in courses. A final noteworthy aspect of the Soviet teaching philosophy was particularly relevant to the social sciences: abstract theory was privileged over practical details. In part, this reflected the ideological content of education, but it also reflected a bias in favor of the "scientific" (3) that led to the neglect of practical behavior. (4)

Initial Reforms

As with many aspects of life in post-Soviet Russia, higher education has experienced several significant changes and crises, some of which I saw firsthand as a visiting lecturer in Russia with the Civic Education Project. …