Ivan's Classroom

WHILE school reform in the United States has produced more talk than actual change over the past half-decade, that hasn't been the case in Russia. The years of perestroika, culminating in the August coup, have pretty much thrown the old educational system out on its ear.Where students were once fed the precepts of Lenin and Marx, they're now encouraged to read Solzhenitsyn. Teachers have unaccustomed freedom to try new material. Not that the Marxist structures have vanished altogether. The textbooks still laud world socialism, even as students ponder how to become entrepreneurs. Political theorizing has been a way of life for so long that many academics can't conceive of intellectual work devoted to practical solutions to society's problems. Some teachers still cast about for revisionist theories of "true" Marxism, versus its perversion under Stalin. Even those who want to explore new concepts are hampered by the absence of texts that present anything but the old. It could take years for new books to be written. Meanwhile many of the 300,000 or so social science instructors in the former Soviet Union - once privileged servants of the Communist Party - wonder what happened to their securely tenured niches. The classrooms of Russia and its neighboring republics are ripe for international collaboration. It might begin with an airlift of Western textbooks to prime the work of freshening the intellectual environment. Maybe US school reformers should travel to Moscow and other republic capitals to see what can be done once a traditional educational bureaucracy is truly shaken apart. They might have some interesting notes to compare with Russian or Ukrainian colleagues on such problems as inadequate teacher salaries, class size, and - most important - how to make youngsters think instead of merely learn the system.

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