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International Socialist Review, Summer 1958


Hilde Macleod

The Challenge of Soviet Education


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.3, Summer 1958, pp.105-106.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Challenge of Soviet Education
by George S. Counts
The McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. 1957. 330 pp. $6.

That the Soviet Union has outstripped the United States in the production of scientists, engineers and technicians, is an acknowledged fact now deeply disturbing the American ruling class. Professional educators are castigated for losing the “battle of the class rooms” and are hard put to explain why a country, only forty years ago one of the most illiterate on earth, has been able to attain superiority in a field so vital to survival of the “free world.” A frantic word battle is raging about the best means to regain top position. At this timely moment one of capitalism’s most renowned educators, one who has made a life-long study of Soviet education, has published his fifth book on the subject, in which he admits that the “challenge” is “in every chapter.”

In his description of the Soviet school system, Counts’ emphasis is on regimentation of the student, the suppression of freedom and human dignity. If these charges represented the whole truth it would be difficult to see how Soviet education could constitute a challenge. Dr. Counts grants, since he must, the great attainments in Soviet scientific education. Nevertheless, he attributes Soviet success to what is commonly called “brainwashing.” He insists that such a thorough job of this has been done that any idea of a change to liberalism is naive and a grave underestimation of the powerful “poison” in this system of indoctrination.

With quotations from Lenin, torn out of context, Counts seeks to establish the hoary thesis that Stalinism is the continuation of Leninism – in education as in other fields. He even goes so far as to include the slave-labor camps in the educational system!

Counts finds the source of all these evils, naturally, in Lenin’s “amoralism.” To “prove” this, he leaves out any reference to the bloc Lenin and Trotsky formed against Stalinism; and, of course, Trotsky’s continuation of the fight against Stalinism is not considered.

This labored attempt to discredit Soviet education stands in strange contrast to Counts’ former views. In the 1920s both he and John Dewey, the outstanding social-minded educators in America, welcomed the originality and freedom and vitality of the Soviet experiment in education.

For any student seeking an explanation today for the astounding advances in Soviet education, it is rewarding to review this vital experiment. Many besides Dewey and Counts wrote enthusiastically about their observations. Carleton Washburne said in Remakers of Mankind:

“... as an example of what can be done in recreating human society through organized, well thought out education toward a definitely envisaged goal, Russia is an inspiring example to the rest of the world.”

Professor Harry F. Ward declared in his book In Place of Profit:

“This consciousness of being a social creator, this certainty of direction, is the core of the dynamic imparted to the individual by the Communist system.”

Maurice Hindus wrote of the remarkable wide-scale awakening of vigorous personalities under Soviet education.

Scott Nearing had this to say in Education in Soviet Russia:

“... in all my experience (22 years of teaching) I have never seen anything that paralleled the educational work that I saw going on in the Soviet Union.”

A Soviet teacher told him,

“Go into any of our classes and you will find an interest and enthusiasm that the old system never aroused.”

S.D. Schmalhausen in The New Road to Progress wrote:

“The children in Soviet Russia are more alive intellectually, more curious minded about the problems of nature and the predicaments of life than any comparable group of children in ... America ... even at the elementary school level (they) conduct themselves with high seriousness, talk out vigorously ... They feel themselves passionately part of a great social experiment.”

Around 1930 Dr. Frankwood Williams, psychiatrist, specialist in juvenile courts and human relations, made two trips to the Soviet Union, one a ten-thousand mile journey from one end of European Russia to the other to see what “those crazy Russians” were doing in his field of mental hygiene. What he saw astonished him and left him “deeply stirred.” His political naivete, his confessed belief that radicals were “half-crazy” people adds a piquant note to the lively picture he gives of a new and superior society in the making.

“If you wish to understand the educational system in Russia,” wrote Dr. Williams, “you will not learn by studying the educational system; you will learn by studying the social system ... until we understand this in all its significance ... we shall understand nothing in regard to Russia ... The Russian school is honest in its relationship to the civilization in which it exists ... First the child has a purpose and to carry out his purpose, he needs the school. Second, he is fully aware that he is wanted, even more that he is needed and there is a place for him in the social scheme of things ... Life does not confuse and terrify him for the reason that the principles upon which the social system is based – no exploitation, mastery of the world through knowledge, united effort in the interests of all – are easily comprehensible to him ...” (Russia, Youth and the Present Day World, pp.150-57.)

To realize what a tremendous overturn, what an explosion of creative fervor followed the revolution of 1917, the dark background of social conditions before the revolution must be visualized. Not only were more than sixty per cent of the people illiterate, but the masses were still living under an oppressive yoke. The lot of peasant women had improved little since the time of Catherine II. Much of the tempestuous mass character of the campaign to eliminate illiteracy was spearheaded by these liberated women. Their long suppressed energies burst forth in a mighty torrent of passion for education and culture.

Counts, who saw at first hand the stupendous creative forces released by the revolution, does not attempt to deny the fact of a “truly remarkable triumph.” “The writer,” he admits, “knows of no school in history that ever achieved a comparable record of growth.”

What Counts fails to recognize is that the dynamism released by the revolution, although smothered by the heavy, corrupting hand of Stalinism, was never entirely extinguished. Planned economy calls for an educated people, not merely literate, but educated in the most modern techniques, particularly in the natural sciences. So the schools had to teach such subjects and teach them well. Critics such as Counts try to explain this without giving any credit to the new social relations in the Soviet Union.

Like some others, he attributes the roots of the early freedom of the 1920s to pre-revolutionary educators such as Tolstoy and Ushinsky. They had a “sublime faith in the people and their potentialities,” says Counts, in contrast to the Bolsheviks who, “while professing love of the people and concern for their welfare, cherished little faith in their powers of mind and heart ... did not believe that the people could or should play an active role in the building of the ideal society.” (p.21.)

Thus, if we are to believe Counts, the spirit of Soviet education stems not so much from Marx and socialist ideas as from the heritage of the old Russian autocracy, tempered somewhat by humanistic ideas developed after the liberalization of the serfs, In describing the schools of the early days, Counts paints an attractive picture despite his antipathy to the Bolsheviks. He admits that “at the very beginning ... the apostles of individual freedom and popular control enjoyed a measure of tolerance.” The first comprehensive statement of Soviet educational principles, published in 1919, commanded such favorable attention that Counts reports he considered translating it into English.

Counts admits, moreover, that Stalin was to blame for abolishing such progressive features as the Unified Labor School and the polytechnical school; that Stalin was responsible for the reversion to the Czarist-like emphasis on examinations and school marks, harsh rules of conduct and a variety of rewards and punishments.

“So great have been the changes in the realm of curriculum ... moral emphasis, methods of teaching, concepts of discipline and pupil-teacher relationships that the observer would be justified in concluding that a revolution or counter-revolution had taken place. Indeed, certain of the ideas and practices of today would have been regarded as counter-revolutionary in the early years of the Soviet regime.” (p.58.)

For this complete overturn, Stalin found “It was even necessary to execute most of the old Bolshevik leaders and send millions to forced labor camps.” (p.110.)

And yet Counts can blandly state that Stalin expressed “the basic philosophy of Bolshevism far more faithfully than his predecessor!”

Counts disregards the concessions granted since the death of Stalin. Tuition fees have been abolished for higher, secondary and academic education. Coeducation has been restored and the promise has been made that by 1960 schooling to the age of seventeen will be compulsory.

These concessions have been wrenched from the Stalinist bureaucracy by a Soviet people, intellectually invigorated through the development of backward Russia into a first-class modern power. They feel that Stalinist backwardness, as in other fields, has become a brake on further educational progress.

Counts’ answer to the suggestion that such reforms can be made permanent and extended is “what the party gives the party can take away.” He seems to agree with the general view in capitalist circles that the Soviet advances in the natural sciences are due to the iron discipline of a despotic rule. “... the Soviet program,” he says, “is suited to the values and purposes of a totalitarian state.”

In contrast, a recent study of Soviet education by Dr. H.L. Dodge and Norton Dodge insists that in the USSR the “whole society is structured to encourage a boy or girl to climb as high on the educational ladder as he or she is capable of. [As a result] very little talent is wasted.”

Not only is education free but students are allowed maintenance stipends. Teachers are highly trained in their particular fields and an enormous effort is made to educate future teachers. Education has high priority in the allocation of public funds.

Other reports from the USSR indicate that the attitude of young people toward education is in startling contrast to the attitude young people commonly take in America. They evidence a tremendous drive for knowledge. They read avidly, not comic books, but serious cultural works. They have a real appreciation of the value of pure research. The finest stores in the large cities are the bookstores and, they are always crowded. At the same time, physical education and competitive sports are encouraged.

Contrary to Dr. Counts’ contention, it would seem that the progressive aspects of the Soviet educational system are an outgrowth of the progressive social foundation established by the revolution of 1917. As Dr. Frankwood Williams said nearly thirty years ago, to understand the Russian school system it is necessary to understand the social system.

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