School Russian declines while BBC Russian flourishes
London — The letters look familiar: "CCCP" -- but the instructress's pronounciation sets strangely on English ears: "ess ess ess ahrr." Strange, too, is the class itself. This is no primer at the embassy school, attended by a few devotees. It is a 20-week series broadcast to millions on British Broadcasting Company television called "Russia -- language and people."
Its aim is to acquaint would-be visitors to Moscow next summer with the rudiments of Russian speech and culture -- to teach them, for example, that "CCCP" are the Cyrillic initials for "USSR." This testament to Western fascination with all things Russian is, however, plagued with ironies. One is that, if the British government has its way, there may be no British involvement in the Moscow Olympics, in protest over the Afghanistan invasion.
Another irony is that, just as Russian language lessons are gaining in popularity on television, cost-cutting squeezes threaten to curtail them in colleges and universities around the country.
The University Grants Committee (UGC), a government body that provides 90 percent of the funding for the nation's 45 universities, has recommended the elimination of some half-dozen university departments of Russian and a freeze in staff recruitment at another 13. On the surface, statistics support the UGC decision. While some 700 students read (majored in) Russian in 1971, the figure now stands at below 500. Still in place, however, is a teaching and research staff of 200.
But some observers worry about the trend. Theypointout that an essential part of the West's defense depends on a knowledge of the Russian language -- especially in decoding intercepted military and diplomatic messages. Moreover, they note that only an immersion in Russian culture and history allows military strategists and foreign-policy experts to understand the Russian strategy.
For their part, the Russians seem clear on the usefulness of studying other damages and cultures. According to a dispatch in the London Sunday Times (Jan. 20), an estimated 4,000 Soviet civil servants have arrived in Afghanistan to elbow out local administrators -- and all of them spoke fluent Farsi (the official language) and apparently were well versed in local customs.
The oddly times UGC recommendation apv parently bears only incidental relationship to the increased friction between Russia and the West. Yet it points up some central questions about the relation of education to politics:
Should numbers of students be taken as a reliable measure of a subject's worth? Part of the apparent unpopularity of Russian departments may be due to decreases in Russian teaching in secondary schools. The slow disappearance of Britain's more selective "grammar" schools since the 1960s has reduced not only Russian, but also German and Spanish teaching. Potential Russian majors are not being funneled toward the departments ready for them.
Yet televised Russian seems to command and audience. Is Russian unpopular, or simply unavailable?
Should popularity determine what subjects are taught? Some educators argue that many small fields -- classics, languages, philosophy, and some branches of mathematics among them -- are essential to the educational fabric. Research in these areas must be maintained, they say, if only because future generations might come to value these disciplines more than we do.
Others argue that fields where interest is strong -- sociology, biology, and career programs such as business or engineering -- need extra staff and deserve the resources now being used in less popular programs.
How separate should a nation's education be from its political direction? Because education is seen to be above the daily swirl of events, some argue that students are making uninformed choices of majors and, therefore, of careers, overloading certain areas and avoiding others. Should the nation press hard -- through grants, advertising, career counselling, and other encouragements -- to attract students into needed fields?
Or do such efforts, interfering with a student's freedom of choice, smack too much of state control and propaganda?