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“The bell is for the teacher only!” Education in the USSR


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“The bell is for the teacher only!” Education in the USSR

Many myths about the USSR persist in Ukrainian society to this day. Those myths usually depict the Soviet Union as a perfect model of a country and society in which life was easier and better. Education, in this case, is no exception. Let us find out whether Soviet universities and schools genuinely were the best in the world. Perhaps it is merely another narrative of Soviet propaganda?

Universality, accessibility, and free admission were the three pillars of Soviet education, according to teachers and scholars of the Soviet Union. Indeed, education was available to all; however, soviet education was overly “general” and covered too many subjects.

Teachers pressured their pupils to be more “diligent”. Kids had little option but to cram the material. Many schools had separate “special classes” for less academically successful pupils, which seriously hampered their self-esteem.

The teacher was the supreme authority. Then came the phrases like “The bell is for the teacher only!” and “The teacher is always right”. Likewise, the teacher was the sole source of correct information. When a student believed there was a mistake or absence of the correct answer in the knowledge assessment task, arguing against the mark was out of the question since the personal opinion was not allowed.

Children had no way to develop their individuality and learn to assert themselves. Quite the contrary, from first grade, schools taught that no one cared about their opinion.

Given the love for limitations in the USSR, only exact and some natural sciences can be said to have been taught decently. Indeed, physics and mathematics were top-notch; hence, after the start of the Perestroika era, scientists from the USSR became in demand even abroad. 

However, departments of cultural studies, history, or philology served no benefit to the USSR since they did not teach how to construct weapons or advance spacefaring technology. Hence, the communist party exploited those departments to advance its agenda; they became propaganda centers. Absolutely everyone and everything had to serve the regime.

Therefore, educational materials for students were rewritten to the liking of the USSR, particularly to match the ideologies of Marx and Engels. The interpretation of events had to comply with the ideological vision of the communist party. For instance, such events as the Soviet purges in the early 20th century did not even exist in the Soviet history books.

Another sphere in which Soviet education failed entirely was foreign languages.

After all, no language other than russian was needed since it could harm the union by breaching the “iron curtain” behind which the people lived. Moreover, good command of a foreign language was punishable.

Upon graduating from school, not many could communicate or properly read in English or other foreign languages. In general, the USSR education system sought to minimize any differences between students. To be like everyone else was the basic gist of all levels of education in the USSR.

That sameness was achieved through the propaganda of the ideal model of a teenager, a pioneer sporting a white shirt and red scarf. Schools also actively “inspired” the children with the story of Pavlik Morozov, who reported his father, an alleged “kulak”, to the secret police. 

At universities, even students in the natural sciences departments were forced to study the speeches of Marx or Lenin. Students had two options; either spend long evenings to “cram” the texts or refuse to learn and come up with excuses. 

Students had to present themselves as hardworking “communist youth” lest they risked being expelled from their university. To avert such a calamity, “dutiful” soviet parents sent their children to kindergartens as early as possible, believing it would teach them teamwork and appreciation of soviet society.

Already in kindergartens, children were being made the same. All children received the same amount of food; at the same time, there was a rule that “you don’t leave the table until you’ve eaten all”. Nowadays, child psychologists recognize that disciplining children in such a way is very traumatizing. 

In truth, it is difficult to objectively compare the quality of different education systems due to different contexts and peculiarities of education. Yet it is clear that the USSR education system did not respect the individuality of students. They could be clever and educated but had no right to exist outside a certain strictly outlined framework.


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