The Moscow Times, Friday, February 23

Culture Is Surprisingly Pragmatic

By Boris Kagarlitsky

Until fairly recently I enjoyed lecturing to students. However, lately I've discovered that something strange is happening to them. Universities are just now accepting the generation of students that went through the school system after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The names of the Party general secretaries mean about as much to them as do those of medieval kings or the heroes of ancient Greece.

That is natural enough, but what is less sensible is that it would appear that any cultural base whatsoever has also vanished together with Soviet ideological doctrines. When I am telling my students about the political structure of Victorian Britain in an effort to explain the difference between 19th-century liberalism and modern democracies, I may say something like, "Well, who remembers the chapter about elections in Dickens' 'Pickwick Papers'? ..."

Silence. No one has read it. I briefly explain who Charles Dickens was and why it's worth taking a look at his books. Then I realize that I need to explain who Queen Victoria was and when she ruled and ... I see my students gazing at me with looks of pure gratitude in their eyes. Quotations from Shakespeare provoke the same blank incomprehension, although the bard's name at least evokes recognition. Most of them have seen "Shakespeare in Love," for which I am grateful.

Of course, it isn't my job to give them the history of literature. My course is about political sociology. But it used to be perfectly natural that any educated person would know a bit more than the minimal collection of facts necessary for their specialization. Even more frightening is that alarming gaps are also appearing even within the limited area of their specialization.

The Soviet era, for all its faults, guaranteed people a more or less stable existence and allowed them time and opportunity to buy and read books. The less varied and dynamic real life became, the more many people needed to compensate by immersing themselves in the world of knowledge. Young people who never went abroad nonetheless spoke excellent English, and specialists in French history - although never having the chance to see Paris - surprised their Western colleagues with their profound knowledge of their discipline.

Today, people have far more opportunities, but far less time. Moreover, knowing books doesn't ensure a decent salary or even any general respect.

Our schools have to prepare "students who are ready for the market economy." Some schools do this better than others, but none of them are preparing broadly educated citizens. The educational reform that was announced recently is supposed to do still more to orient students toward pragmatic success in a market economy.

This is logical enough, but experience shows that narrow pragmatism is rarely a successful strategy. If a pragmatic meets with failure, no matter how much he tries, he has few choices and nowhere to turn.

Actually, the historic task of education has been to compensate for the pure pragmatism of primitive market "culture" by introducing new values, traditions and knowledge. That is why it is not surprising at all that so many people who passed through the Soviet educational system managed to do extremely well for themselves in the West.

It is paradoxical, but true: Now, when society is confronted with the cruel demands of competition, we need all the more an educational system that instills the widest and most varied range of values possible.





From: jeffrey sommers

To: , Juris Zagarins

Date: 2/27/01 7:03

Subject: FW: From Kagarlitsky

Greetings V id and Juris,

I thought you might be interested in this attached Kagarlitsky article from the Moscow Times. Juris, Boris Kagarlitsky is a fairly well known Russian intellectual who was jailed for 13 months under Brezhnev and Andropov for democratic organizing.

I don't know how things are at the lower levels, but things appear to be getting worse with higher ed. in Latvia. I have had several university students tell me there is little incentive to attend class. A business student I met yesterday told me her 10 page paper on economic theory was not even read by her professor. More shockingly, a environmental science graduate student reported the same thing. Her professor was too busy bother with her research paper. I do not think these are exceptions, but unfortunately, all to often the rule.

Anther undergraduate asserted that, "once you are admitted into the University of Latvia, essentially you have done all you need to graduate." While she surely overstated her case, it is certainly reflective of student perceptions of the low expectations the university has of them.

I have had faculty corroborate these charges. The problem in Latvian higher education has little to do with what is taught, but rather in nobody challenging the students to think and work. There are exceptions. The small social science school at Riga Stradins is one. Although it is not without problems--i.e., an underfunded library and program which has become a political football for Andris Skele to play with at the expense of students in his petty battles with that school's director.

The question that needs to be honestly examined is, is higher education for large numbers of students possible in the absence of social democracy? I phrase the question this way because Soviet Stalinism and neo-Stalinism are certainly too high a price to pay for it. Moreover, it is not only the Soviet bloc that has witnessed declines in education. At the higher ed. level both the US and Britain have seen reduced quality since their turn away from social democracy in the 1980s (grade inflation due to increased reliance on adjuncts, etc.). Anecdotally, England has seen more dramatic drops in performance than the US. Moreover, the US, of course, still excels a the highest levels of higher ed. in technical fields. Yet, at public institutions, funding cuts, which have accompanied the decline of social democracy, have undercut quality at the lower and middle-level state educational institutions. This has been exacerbated by students having to work more to pay for a lower quality education. Given these trends one must ask, can we have a technologically complex, and over the long-run, civilized, society in the absence of social democracy? How else can the short-term exigencies of the "market" and its demand to cut costs be reconciled with the medium to long-term necessities of investing in education and other social infrastructure? Mediating forces are surely needed to reconcile the system's contradictions. Democracy, of course, is the way to ensure that those mediating forces serve society rather than ever come to rule over it. Of course, when I say democracy I explicitly do not mean the scandalous form we currently see in the US where $200,000 special spaces were sold at the Republican presidential convention for priveleged access, or where significant donations can buy one a presidential pardon, as was the case at the end of Clinton's presidency. We can only hope sufficient public pressure might bring pressure the politicians to pass the McCain/Feingold bill (itself only a small strike against the problem). But, the smart money certainly is against it.

It may just be that we are all living on the equity of institutions built during the social democracy that existed in the US and West Europe after WW II (with some antecedents before the war). Under the current model of organizing the global economy begun in the 1970s, and more widely adopted since, nations appear to be having difficulty in determining how to find the resources and political will to sustain significant economic growth and reproduce their middle-classes. Both growth and large middle-classes were the result of the state working in symbiosis with the private sector to create the conditions for both rapid growth and the channels for investing it in things such as higher education, thus resulting in a virtuous circle creating every more growth and an ever larger middle-class. As social democracy declines under neoliberalism we now also see both growth and the middle-class under assault.

Instead of serious investigation of these problems all too often we have imbued simplistic concepts, such as, the "market," imbued with a human like agency that is supposed to remedy all difficulties. Once constructed, or in the language of its adherents, unleashed, like some perpetual motion machine it should operate in a natural equilibrium solving all economic and social problems. The "market" has become a universal answer to all problems, just as historical materialism was during Soviet times. The "market" has hardened into an ideology preventing pragmatic tackling of problems in the same way Soviet ideology did. Yet, in both cases these ideologies thrived, even while producing failures, because, to paraphrase MIT economist Paul Krugman, "surely ideas that proved bad in retrospect proved to be very good ideas for their principal architects."

The tragedy of Latvia's independence (and those of CIS and Soviet Bloc nations) is that its struggle for independence was won at precisely the moment when various forces were able to conflate the collapse of the failed Soviet model (which, of course, was a failure) with a theoretical victory for economic liberalism. East/Central Europe was sold on the idea that "There Is No Alternative" (TINA). Dependent on aid from the West and looking to replace the ideological and theoretical vacuum created by the Soviet collapse, those nations embraced a Washington Consensus model pushed by the US Treasury and the well funded intellectuals who supported it. Yet, in the two decades following WW II, economic growth under a social democractic/Keynesian program growth was double its subsequent (TINA) counterpart. Moreover, East Asia used planning and structural Keynesianism to go from poverty to employing nations such as England and the US as comparatively low-wage production sites by the 1990s.

Perhaps more troubling is that the current defenders of the neoliberal model resort to McCarthyite smear tactics to defend their model when questioned. Rather than engage debate on the merits of argument and evidence, all too often they resort to the distraction tactics of those whose ideas rest on power rather than public consent. Just as Soviet commissars might charge critics with being wreckers, kulaks, etc., neoliberals often resort to red baiting, adolescent name calling, etc., in lieu of reasoned argument. Two sides of the same coin....

Again, hopefully honest debate will eventually follow....

All the best,