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November 08, 2003
Education struggles in Russia

There's a fascinating and depressing article about education in Russia by Rachel Polonsky, in the latest Spectator.

In 1991, in a hungry Moscow with empty shops and an ugly, uncertain political mood, Shichalin quietly advertised a beginners’ course for adults in Latin and Greek. On the first morning, to his astonishment, a queue of more than 130 people of diverse professions had formed outside his door. Out of this success evolved the idea for a school with a curriculum emphasising ancient languages and mathematics. The Classical Gymnasium was established in 1993. Since then, it has grown from ten to 160 pupils; it gains outstanding results in public examinations, and has alumni in all Moscow’s best higher education institutions, studying everything from physics to history and economics. The Shichalins, who also run a small academic publishing house, have even begun to publish their own textbooks. In a decade, they have created the most inspiring, effective and spirited teaching institution I have encountered in all my educationally pampered life.

Many members of staff are university teachers who accept their low pay because they appreciate the atmosphere and ideals of the school, and its respect for their professional freedom. At the same time, the Shichalins profit from the nation’s enduring pedagogical strengths.

However, as we've already been told in the first paragraph:

In Britain, it is easy to forget what an important human freedom non-state education represents. In post-totalitarian Russia, where civil liberties are in first bud in a hostile climate, this recently regained freedom is menaced, not so much by state ideology as by the rampages of power and money unrestrained by an adequate legal system. My children’s school, a modestly resourced 'Classical Gymnasium' founded ten years ago, is threatened with closure at the end of this academic year. Its rented premises have been sold by the City of Moscow to a shadowy company with only a mobile phone number as its address, which plans to build a massage centre on the site of this unique institution.

So what can be done?

The living tradition embodied by the Shichalins represents the best of Russia, but everything they have created since perestroika is now threatened by official corruption and indifference. Faced with the demise of their school, they recently called a crisis meeting to inform parents of its grave position, and to solicit ideas for its salvation. We need a miracle, everyone agreed, or, failing that, an oligarch who will help us to buy a building. Again and again Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s name was raised. Various parents claimed, with differing degrees of plausibility, that they had channels of inside access to Russia’s richest billionaire.

Before he was arrested by the FSB at gunpoint in the early hours of 25 October and incarcerated in the Matrosskaya Tishina prison, the oil tycoon had become known not only as a sponsor of the liberal opposition parties like Yavlinsky’s Yabloko, but also, through his Open Russia Foundation, as a Maecenas and a sponsor of independent education. In the past few years, Khodorkovsky has shrewdly spent money on enhancing his international reputation, including the US Library of Congress and Lord Snowdon among the beneficiaries of his charitable grants. At the same time he has, less visibly, given large sums of money to needy individuals and institutions whose activities have the potential to build a civil society for his native Russia. His arrest will hurt many besides the rich and the powerful.

There is scarce hope now of a handout from Khodorkovsky ...

Capitalism with a Stalinist face, they're calling it.

In the middle of all this gloom, there is this interesting titbit:

Traditional Russian mathematics teaching is considered unrivalled in the world. A Russian banker who, like many of his kind, is educating his children at one of London’s most prestigious public schools recently confided in me that, appalled by the low standard of maths teaching in Britain, he and some Russian friends have started a Saturday class for their children, with Russian teachers. 'I just don’t understand the English,' he said. 'Mathematics is everything.'

I've been emphasising here for some time that Eastern Europe is going to go into business educating Western Europe. I wonder if the Russians will go into business to teach maths to the English, in England. It doesn't seem to be getting any easier teaching anything to Russians in Russia, despite those enduring pedagogical strengths.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:16 AM
Category: This and that

There's a superb and magical shot of Moscow at night over at http://www.mimico-by-the-lake.com/moscow.htm.

Beware, though - beautiful as it is, it appears to be heavily copyrighted!

Comment by: Peter Atkinson on March 11, 2004 05:04 PM
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