Educational Reform in a Time of Transition

A new book edited by Anthony Jones entitled Education and Society in the New Russiabegins with the following thesis: “After decades of subordination to the goals of the communist regime, educators in Russia now find themselves part of a fundamental social, economic and political transformation. The difference between now and earlier times, however, is that the central authorities are weak, the path ahead ill-defined, and the finances necessary for the task unavailable…. The Russian education system is ill-equipped to deal with the new situation. And yet, if the transformation currently under way is to solve the long-term problems of the nation, the schools must play a major part.

The editor concludes his first chapter by picking up on this same theme: The challenges facing education in the post-Soviet era are enormous. Teachers, administrators, students, and parents face a world for which they have not been prepared and for which they must make adjustments that would be painful in any society. That they have to do so in such uncertain economic and political conditions makes the challenge even greater.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of its empire in Eastern and Central Europe, several hundred million people are living through a postcommunist transition. This transition which directly affects the lives of rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and uneducated, is being undertaken, by necessity, without either a guiding concept or an exemplary model. As Zbigniew Brzezinski has noted, “The post-communist reformers are, in effect, pioneers in virgin territory. No major study of contem- porary economics or of comparative politics contains any systemic analysis or prescription of how to transform a statist, initially revolutionary and later corrupt totalitarian system into a pluralistic democracy based on a free market system.”

In other words, so far there is no actual model – no precedent of relevant historical experience – on which to base a successful transformation. No one is quite sure how to get from here to there. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, upon his return to Russia, made this observation: “Russia today is in a large, serious, many-sided crisis. Groans are everywhere….Nobody knew that the exit from Communism would be so painful.”

For Russian educators committed to democratic reform and their international colleagues, who are partners with them in the reform process, the uniqueness of this time in history must be clearly recognized. The times require humility, because no one has “the answer;” realistic expectations, because the complexities of transition make “quick solutions” impossible; and a willingness to take action, because education is one of the keys to a future of peace, freedom and security for Russia.

In this difficult time of transition, the words of Benjamin Disraeli, the renowned Prime Minister of England in the 19th century, come to mind: “Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends.” As Russia faces the future, with all its hopes and difficulties, education must be a priority.

Unfortunately it is not. Russian Education Minister Yevgeny V. Tkachenko, recently noted: “You can hear that our schools are fantastic now or that they are the worst, and both will be true. We are in a transitional phase….The real problem is that education is no longer a priority in society.” This, then, must be the first task: we must let Russian and American leaders know that education is not a second- or third-level priority, only to be addressed once the economy has been rebuilt and the political system reshaped. Education is the key to changing values, to creating the will to reform, and to generating hope.

Russian educators interested in a democratic future for Russia have to work with the philosophical, organizational and social legacy left by the Soviet era. This legacy is one of an educational system designed to serve the needs of the country’s industrialization program and to enhance the Communist Party’s ideological hold over society.

Instead of continuing to follow the past legacy, meaningful educational reform must focus on the importance of teaching values – moral and spiritual values. The task of education is not only to equip students with technical skills, but to form their character, to teach them to think critically, to understand lasting values, and to live responsibly. This is where Christian liberal arts education can help.

It would be a mistake for Russia to use increasingly secular Western educational systems as a pattern for its reform. Many Western public (state-supported) and private universities in the United States have lost their sense of purpose and mission. A 1993 report on American education made this observation: “…an increasingly diverse society, battered…by accelerating change, requires more than workplace competence. It also requires that we do a better job of passing on to the next generation a sense of the value of diversity and the critical importance of honesty, decency, integrity, compassion, and personal responsibility in a democratic society. Above all, we must get across the idea that the individual flourishes best in a genuine community to which the individual in turn has an obligation to contribute.”

Secularized education is not the answer to the problems of America or Russia. Both the United States and Russia must build educational institutions that teach moral and spiritual values, values such as respect for the individual and equal opportunity for all, respect for the views of others even if they are different than ours, the belief that no one is above the law, and, most importantly, respect for the freedom of religion and conscience – the “first liberty.”

Quality Christian liberal arts education teaches these lasting values. Because values must be related to a moral framework, usually a framework provided by religious beliefs, liberal arts education which integrates religious faith and academic training has an important contribution to make. Russia s hope, in my judgment, is not to be found in copying the educational systems of the West, but in clarifying and teaching the rich spiritual and moral values of Russian culture, as reflected, for example, in its literary classics of the 19th century. Freeing education from centralized state control, and therefore manipulation by the government in Moscow, is a good place to start. Teaching moral values rooted in Russia’s rich and diverse religious traditions is an appropriate next step in reforming Russian education.

[This “Reflection” is an abstract taken from a presentation made at the “Values in Education” conference in Moscow in September 1994.]