President Dmitry Medvedev may have thought he was just being helpful when he suggested this fall that Russian schools could overcome their post-Soviet lack of direction and inspire students by inviting billionaires into the classroom to teach "stories of success."
But instead he touched off a long-simmering controversy within Russia's educational community. Most specialists agree that the Soviet model, which viewed schools as production lines for creating patriotic proletarians, is dead. But there is little agreement on the values and methods that should go into shaping citizens of the future.
"I will call for our big businessmen, basically people whose worth is more than $1 billion, and say that they should all start to teach in schools," Mr. Medvedev told a government meeting in September.
"I don't think school principals will object to this because, if we consider it seriously, this is all a question of success in life. This can be different things, of course, and is not just about money, but it's at least very interesting."
In Moscow, where city government has granted wide freedom to a few experimental schools to try their own approaches, some like the idea of bringing a hard-nosed bias for wealth creation into the classroom.
Skepticism toward the rich
But some are deeply skeptical, pointing to the murky origins of most big business fortunes in Russia, where a handful of oligarchs got rich in the tumultuous 1990s by leveraging political contacts to buy former Soviet assets on the cheap. Others argue that the goal should be to avoid all ideological preconceptions.
"Everybody agrees that life should be better in the future, but there is absolutely no consensus about the way forward in the schools or in society," says Konstantin Ushakov, editor of School Principal, a Moscow-based professional publication.
"We've thrown some money at the problem and there are computers in most schools nowadays, but we have not yet begun any serious reform," he says. "There's confusion from top to bottom. And I seriously doubt that this can be resolved by orders from the top."
School 1306: independent thinking
School 1306, near the campus of Moscow University, is one school that's been allowed to largely go its own way for about a decade now. The principal, Yelena Sporysheva, dabbled at first with preparing students for a career in politics.
She says she's moved away from that, and now the main goal is to see that children are given the tools to think independently, choose their own career path, and be ready to integrate with the wider world.
"We've been working very closely with parents and evolving our concepts," Ms. Sporysheva says. "This country is changing so fast. We used to think of a generation as being 10 years. Now we think of it as five. I can't possibly predict the nature of the world they will live in, so my duty is to give them the broadest possible preparation, open them to other experiences and other cultures, so they can find their own way."
"I've been accused of preparing Russian students to leave this country," she says. "But I think it should be their choice, and the best way to keep them here is to make it a good place to live. You start with the school."
Students in School 1306's "young politicians club" are divided over the president's offer to give them billionaire lessons, but say that if he means guest speakers, they've had dozens visiting their school over the years, including successful people from almost all walks of life, including businessmen, scientists, artists, soldiers, and journalists.
"I'd be interested to hear what a billionaire has to say," says 10th-grader Varvara Lobanova. "How did he find his own way? How does he define success? That's got to be worthwhile. But everybody's different; each one has different lessons to teach."
The president's idea is received more enthusiastically across town at Naslednik, a private school funded by the Moscow government that specializes in bringing up children to be business leaders. The school has a model stock exchange in which pupils learn how to trade, and they study economics from the earliest grades.
"I basically support Medvedev's idea," says Lyubov Dykhanina, the principal. "Perhaps it shouldn't just be billionaires, but also owners of mid-sized businesses with years of experience. It would be best to get people who can give our pupils an understanding of how to succeed in business amid tough and changing circumstances [to do the teaching]."
But at the more traditional School 1148, where the curriculum is heavy on the Soviet basics of reading, writing, math, and Russian literature, there are serious doubts about letting super-rich teachers into the classroom.
'Moral standing' key
"Compared to Soviet times, if you take ideology out of the picture, I think the values we teach are pretty much the same," says the principal, Yelena Kosarkhina. "I remember being a happy child in those schools. We want to educate people with high moral values, with an understanding of Russian culture and strong attachment to family.
"I am really skeptical about this proposal to put billionaires at the front of a class," she says. "Before I invite such a person into my school, I'd want to be sure he was of high moral standing. Perhaps there are some rich people like that, but I don't know of any."
The key takeaway from all this, says Mr. Ushakov, is that politicians should probably stay out of educational policy.
"We have these experiments going on in Moscow, and they will show the way," he says.
"You can only change the system by giving freedom to the practitioners and letting them unite theory with practice."