Now that back-to-school season is in full swing, let me tell you about the single most pressing unmet need of my ethnic minority community: education. Like other Russian-speaking Jews, I am forever thankful to this country for taking me in and for giving me liberty. Yet when I talk to people in our community about their wishes and anxieties, they always express discontentment with U.S. schools.
“How is it,” some ask, “that we are all engineers, but our children can’t do basic math?”
“What do the students read, exactly?” Others wonder.
“The only reason my child is doing well academically,” stated one mom of a second grader, “is because he attends a Russian program on Sundays.”
Since when do the bright eight-year-olds require tutoring?
Of course, Soviet schools like mine in childhood had their lion’s share of problems. Curriculum was infused with ideology, and teachers presented history through the Marxist-Leninist prism as the struggle of social classes defined by material condition. From time to time, a comrade would vanish from textbooks.
Under Joseph Stalin, ideological tentacles reached into biology when pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko proposed heritability of acquired characteristics. My late childhood had its fair share of “politinformation hours,” marching, and saluting. Some teachers were sadistic, and we girls had to wear itchy and hot woolen uniforms.
What worked very well, however, among all that misery was high expectations, written and oral exams, memorization, and, above all, the literary canon and math. The USSR adopted the 19th-century German educational model, with its own content. Such educational systems worked, arguably even producing the very people who eventually challenged the Soviet state.
In Soviet education, what Americans jokingly call the three Rs — reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic — were stellar, and these subjects gave us the structure within which to mature and form our own ideas, often against the party line. The emphasis on the lasting humanist values inherent in these disciplines is what sustained us in the darkest years.
In America, however, that very system has been weakened from within. Here’s an overview of what’s different between my childhood Soviet education and my kids’ U.S. public schools.
Math was the dissident’s favorite in the Soviet Union. It was believed that the subject is so logical and abstract, the party could never impose its will on it. After all, two plus two equals four — in the 10-digit system, at least — regardless of the edicts of the Politburo.
Maybe the Soviet bureaucrats weren’t clever enough, because the American educational bureaucracy did ruin mathematics. That, of course, was accomplished via the 1960s’ “new math,” which has been reincarnated yet again in Common Core. Those who didn’t subscribe to the new math teachings weren’t exiled to Gulags, but the kids who were taught in this manner failed to learn. Sometimes, the soft managerial power of destructive innovation is mightier than the NKVD.
With generations raised after the new math, schools are hard-pressed to find anyone who can teach the subject — not that the administrators would know, anyway. U.S. instructors readily admit they don’t understand or like the discipline. They end up confusing the students. A few years ago at my child’s back-to-school meeting, a third-grade teacher was chirping away about Common Core math and how it shows that in math, too, there is more than one way to find an answer.
I was taught something like “multiple methods,” and I find this line of thought ridiculous. Yes, there can be more than one way to get to the same answer, but we prefer the elegant, simplest solution. There is logic and beauty in mathematics that educated people of average intellect have to be able to appreciate.
I have spent quite a bit of time in my Russian language and literature classes memorizing poems and language rules. Several times every quarter, we were called up to recite a poem. Likewise, the rules of spelling and punctuation were to be memorized. We copied sentences from our textbooks — some of them straight commie propaganda, but others taken out of classic works of fiction — filling in correct prefixes and endings, putting punctuation marks in correct places.
After spending a week or two on an individual language rule, we would have a dictation test. Is it naive to expect an equal rigor from American public edutainment?
Russian is a vicious language, but English shouldn’t be that hard to master. It has more words, but fewer rules to follow and fewer exceptions to those rules. Teachers can take these rules one by one, explain, and practice over a period of a few weeks. With the kind of system I went through, most children graduating elementary school should be decent spellers.
Who am I kidding, though? No structure exists to support this kind of learning — not even textbooks! In our California elementary school, at the very end of second grade, students received handbooks with all the rules of the English language. Was that a joke? What is a nine-year-old expected to do with that manual? Thus, students are funneled into middle schools with hardly a clue about writing.
We didn’t have the scriptures in the Soviet Union, but we had our literature. The high moral stance of the Soviet dissidents was grounded in our canon, the 19th-century classics, and then mostly underground rarities of the 20th century. Through the works of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, our literature teachers affirmed the “right-minded, kind, and eternal” — as the Russian pedagogical cliché has it — in their classrooms. The system had to spin the classics with cheap Leninism, but we got to read these works in their entirety, and good teachers would sneak humanist messages into their lectures.
At home, we read world literature classics, including American ones. Somebody has to read them. If a Soviet kid was a reader, he would have read “Tom Sawyer.” I’ve read and reread it so many times, I had the opening page committed to memory, and I can go to the mat anytime to argue that it’s not only Mark Twain’s best novel but the best children’s book ever.
What do American children read? Peppy agitprop that, even when competently written, is merely a fit for the editorial criteria compliant with current politically correct talking points. Because of the ever-evolving nature of political discourse, many of these books become outdated soon after they come out. They are, by definition, ephemeral and disposable. The message we are sending to children is that nothing is eternally valuable.
That brings me to my last point: propaganda. American students get the same “politinformation hours” we did in the Soviet Union. They study Newsela, for instance, a kiddy news website with a heavy-handed left-wing spin. It’s easy to identify, but American kids are ill-equipped to resist it. Without the canon, and with diminishing influence of monotheism, without the streamline logic of mathematics, what is there to protect the children from the noxious influences of propaganda?
The proposed California ethnic studies curriculum has made waves recently. The plan, rife with Islamism, antisemitism, and a whole bunch of other hatreds, has been put on ice after complaints of Jewish groups. Of course it was antisemitic — it can’t not be.
The curriculum will be revised to include the Holocaust references and some other Jewish themes. It’s a good start, but none of it addresses the underlying problem with that neo-Soviet agenda: the divisive demagoguery, the substance-free jargon, and the requirement of performative activism. All of this is pushed on children who are already well-roundly miseducated. I have little reason to doubt that the curriculum will eventually be made a graduation requirement in California and other states — unless someone will make a fuss about it, that is.
I am very proud of my Russian Jewish heritage, of the crucial role we played in post-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia. In my culture, raising a well-rounded individual is one of the highest accomplishments. Ask the people in our community why we moved to the United States, and hear again and again: “For the kids.” Yet here we are, failing them in one of the most important ways.
I know other ethnic minority communities have similar experiences. I’ve heard them yell at teachers and administrators. The most significant way America fails its immigrants is not “white supremacy” or the border crisis. We invite some of the most educated people from around the world and put their children’s hearts, minds, and bodies into dehumanizing institutions we call “schools.”
What options do immigrants have? Homeschooling requires resources that are not always available. Besides, our experience shows that traditional public schools, when given the proper structure and curriculum, can teach very well. America had this very educational system 50 years ago — but, no, bureaucrats and special interests had to tinker with it, and they continue destruction by “innovating.” We need educational reactionaries to restore the once-working model.