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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Teaching Tolerance

Over the last two weeks, writers on this page have examined educational systems in this country and in the West. I would like to discuss here the difficulty in comparing educational systems and offer a few personal reflections on the Russian system. As a professional educator who has taught in many parts of the world and is now teaching in the faculty of philosophy at Moscow State University, I have seen many systems from the inside and feel I can comment on their differences.

Comparing educational systems is fraught with perils, not least of which is the difficulty of determining what is to be compared; often one is comparing apples and oranges. To compare Russian apples with American oranges is unfair, as most of us would admit, yet that is often done by those who are strongly biased for or against a certain fruit. Though statistical studies may seek to quantify the differences in various systems, I will offer here some of my direct experiences, based on many years of educating students in countries throughout the world.

The best Russian students that I have had the joy of teaching compare favorably with the best students anywhere in the world. They are capable and well-read, perhaps even more so than their counterparts elsewhere; and, occasionally, they can speak English better even than native speakers. The one skill that needs to be more developed here is that of writing essays. Yet I admit that in other countries, I have had to encourage schools to set up "boot camps," where incoming students can learn some of the basic skills they will need.

I have also had to teach students here who are often referred to as "commercial students" or who have been admitted to the faculty through influence or outright bribery. The less said about them the better, perhaps. Their kind is found everywhere. Whether through lack of native ability or outright laziness, they can barely pass their courses but are promoted anyway by the system, whether in Russia or in other countries. The West does not have a monopoly on students who only want to party and have a good time.

I have witnessed cheating by some students here, but probably no more than in North America, in part because I examine my students in English, and it is hard to fake the ability to speak the language. Plagiarism is endemic in all parts of the world. The only difference is that in the West it is universally acknowledged as wrong and is the subject of sanctions, such as expulsion. The onus, however, is always on the professor to prove that there has been plagiarism. Yet even in this country, where the stigma against it does not seem to be as strong, I have seen students penalized.

Admittedly, my perspective of Russia’s educational system is somewhat limited, since I have taught only at schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Yet I have observed that teachers, who are the most crucial part of the system, display similar traits all over the world. While teachers at the elementary and secondary levels need certification, it is possible to teach at the university level immediately after leaving graduate school and without taking any courses in pedagogy. This is universally true. I had professors in my undergraduate days in the United States who used notes yellowed with age. My students have complained to me about some of their professors here, and all I can do is commiserate with them through sharing my stories.

But the problem here goes deeper than geriatric professors who use antiquated teaching methods. Teachers in this country are underpaid and overworked. That good teaching and outstanding research are still practiced here indicates the resilience and fortitude of colleagues who elsewhere might have left the profession in droves. It is certainly not true, as I have sometimes heard people who have never been teachers argue, that "those who cannot do, teach." Russian teachers are some of the most capable and hard-working teachers anywhere, and I am proud to be able to count some of them as friends.

Recently, I had the opportunity to be involved in two conferences, one in the Netherlands, the other in Russia. Both were attended by scholars from many countries. I was able, especially at the second conference, to observe Russians, most of whom teach full-time, at work. Their presentations, in spite of the adverse conditions under which they struggle, ranged from excellent to mediocre, but many belonged to the former category.

Library facilities in this country can hardly be described as user-friendly, not to mention the lack of financial resources for new acquisitions. Yet in spite of this, and despite a dearth of computers in most facilities, it is a miracle that students and professors do high-caliber academic work. This does not mean that the educational system in Russia is as good as it should be. Aside from even the obvious neglect of many buildings because of a lack of funds, the system has deteriorated from its former days of glory. Thus, no one involved with the system here can afford to rest on his or her laurels. A nostalgia for the past will not solve present and future problems.

What is required are fewer odious comparisons of systems — which only serve to buttress prejudices. Instead, we need to promote a greater willingness to understand and to learn from each other.

Adrian Helleman is a professor of philosophy living and working in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.