Builders and Deserters: Students, State, and Community in Leningrad, 1917-1941

By Peter Konecny | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
In the Classroom

The success of any education system can be measured by the quality and variety of the graduates it produces and by its ability to conform to social and economic demands. At the turn of the century in Western Europe, expanded enrolment and increased emphasis on technical training challenged established institutional structures and academic disciplines. In Russia the autocracy was somewhat reluctant to abandon classical disciplines in favour of a modernized curriculum. Following the Bolshevik revolution, Narkompros struggled to transform higher learning by creating an "unbroken educational ladder" from the primary to post-secondary levels. Lunacharsky promoted a system based on universal access for children from all social backgrounds, thereby converting schools from "diploma factories" into centres for academic training responsive to the needs of the state. I

Contrasting verdicts have been offered on the nature and effectiveness of the Soviet higher-education system. According to former student George Friese, "The contemptuous attitude toward culture and education which had characterised the I9zos was replaced during the I930s by another extreme — a virtual worship of education and science. By the end of the 1930s there had been a complete reversion to older educational and cultural ideals, particularly with regard to the form and methods of education." 2 In their judgments Soviet historians explained that although "distortions" occurred, the USSR did create a new generation of highly skilled specialists. 3 Western historians relate Soviet higher-education policies to the political issues of the period. They see the NEP years as a relatively progressive period cut short by the first five-year plan. "Hare-brained scheming" and arbitrary intervention dominated Stalin's Great Break, resulting in deleterious consequences for education. In the 1930s standards improved and traditional pedagogical methods made a comeback, but intellectual

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