Friday, April 15, 2005

The Amazing Soviet Schooling

At this point, the discussion on SC&A is around cheating in schools. I thought about participating; but then I remembered this story and realized that I am not qualified to speak on the subject. Here goes.

It was 1984 and I was graduating from school. The way it worked there in my day was, classes ended on May 25th, and then in June, we had six exams. I was a good student, and actually managed to get all A’s on the exams. Therefore, it was expected of me to help others. Here’s how.

A day before our math exam, which was a written test, the math teacher gathered us all in her classroom to give us the last directions.

“Goldie,” she said, “tomorrow at the test, you will sit at this desk in front. Tanya,” (Tanya was another girl that was good at math), “you will sit next to Goldie.

“Goldie, you are responsible for everybody sitting on the left. Tanya, you take everybody on the right. You two make sure that everyone does well on this test”.

Need I explain to you what it meant? Next day, I came to the test, took my seat in front, did my own test in about ten minutes, and the hard work began – passing notes, sneaking into the bathroom, leaving notes there… The teacher told us later that Tanya and I had done a good job.

So what happened (my born-American readers will ask). Did anyone complain? Did Tanya or I get in trouble? Did the teacher lose her job? No, no, and no. It was considered perfectly normal. Now if Tanya or I would have refused to “help” (which never occurred to us), that would have caused an outrage. The teacher continued to work in our school for many years later. Did I mention that she was the secretary of the Communist Party committee in that school?

So basically, not only did everybody cheat, it was endorsed by the teachers. Later on in college, we had 10-12 oral tests every year, and each test, technically, required memorizing a thick book in advanced math, calculus, differential equations, etc. Except of course, nobody memorized anything. We would have landed in mental institutions if we even tried. We just snuck our notes with us into the tests. Everybody knew, and everybody pretended not to notice. That was the way things were when I was growing up. I cannot even say that our schools turned out badly educated students – on the contrary. The brain drain of the 90’s and 00’s, when thousands of Russian professionals were hired to work in the West on H1 visas, happened for a reason. We were good.

Why the widespread cheating? I don’t know. In school, maybe because the teachers were penalized if their students got bad grades, so that was maybe why they encouraged cheating. And in college, maybe because the test requirements were grossly unrealistic and everybody, including the professors, knew it. By the way, by my fourth year in college, we were finally allowed to officially use our notes during tests. Yay for common sense!

Now that we’re here, the rules of course are different, and I am certainly teaching my children to play by these rules. From what I see, the American schools set very realistic (sometimes, even, a tad low IMO) expectations for the students, and it is possible to succeed without copying somebody else’s work..

I will leave you here, my reader, to ponder on this post and scratch your head thinking bad thoughts about the Soviet mentality.

The Goldie has spoken at 8:46 AM

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