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Education: The Russian System

5 minute read

A big and somewhat frightening book last week gave President Kennedy a text for the opening announcement at his news conferences. The book was the National Science Foundation’s last-word analysis of the Soviet system of education, which reports that Russia’s much publicized output of scientists and engineers has “markedly accelerated.”

Kennedy reported that in contrast to the Soviet effort, U.S. universities are now enrolling and graduating fewer students in engineering, biological and physical sciences than in the peaks of recent years. At a time when the need for highly skilled Americans is sharply rising, he warned, the “inadequacy” of the supply is ”one of the most critical problems facing this nation.”

The N.S.F. report was written by Nicholas DeWitt, 38, a bearlike (250 lbs.) native of the Ukraine who owes his unSlavic name to Dutch-German ancestors.

A onetime aeronautical engineering student in Kharkov, he made his way to Boston in 1947, got an M.A. in international and regional studies at Harvard, and took out U.S. citizenship. He is now an associate at Harvard’s Russian Research Center, and one of the West’s leading experts on Russian education.

An Army of Technicians. DeWitt is not a doomsayer blind to the weaknesses in Soviet education. But he warns bluntly: “There must be no misunderstanding or underestimation of the Soviet scientific and technical manpower buildup. It has become the principal source of Communist strength.” The Russian goal is clear: to create an army of scientists and engineers who will build a physical power superior to the West’s. To do so, Russia now spends as much on education as the U.S., though it is only half as rich, and it gets more of what it wants for its money. In the 1960s. Russia will probably produce 4,000,000 university graduates—of whom 2,500,000 will be scientists and engineers, more than twice the likely U.S. output.

At the A.B. level, 57% of Russian degrees are in science, engineering, medicine and agriculture, against 25% in the U.S. (One-third of the Soviet engineering students are women, as compared with less than 1% in the U.S.) Three-quarters of Russian Ph.D. candidates are in the same fields, compared with 40% in the U.S.

DeWitt finds that the quality of Soviet training in technological fields is at least as good, sometimes better than in the U.S. and Western Europe. One reason is early exposure: physics is introduced in the fourth grade, and one-third of the Soviet secondary curriculum is devoted to science and mathematics. Moreover, says DeWitt. the very specialties that the state gives top priority are those freest from Marxist hobbles. The result is first-rate training.

The Unfavored Many. Nonetheless, Russian education has serious shortcomings. The median schooling completed by Russian adults is still only four years, compared with eleven in the U.S. Enrollment in Russian higher education as a whole is still considerably smaller than in the U.S. (see chart). The number of Russian youngsters aged eight to 14 was 36% lower in 1959 than in 1939 (because of heavy wartime losses in the fertile age brackets), threatening a critical shortage of skilled labor. Sweeping reforms of the Soviet school system (TIME, July 18, 1960) now send most of these youngsters into industry after eight years of school. Some of them may continue in part-time school; only a very small minority can study full time.

Writing in Izvestia, Russia’s Nobel Prizewinning Physicist Igor E. Tamm recently criticized this policy as no way to nurture real talent. Tamm fears that potential scientists are being lost to factory work, argues that competitive exams should determine university admission rather than the widely used standard of “political consciousness.” Tamm also envies the freedom of U.S. professors to conduct pure research, contrasts it with the Soviet system. Russian professors carry a teaching load of 20 hours a week, far more than U.S. professors. The Russians thus fall behind their fields, says Tamm, and cannot teach as well.

U.S. Flexibility. In contrast, the groundswell trend in U.S. education is not only greater opportunity, but also less narrow specialization. Russian universities cannot match the efforts of M.I.T. and Caltech aimed at preventing graduates from becoming technologically obsolete almost overnight. At M.I.T., for example, the entire curriculum is being broadened to emphasize underlying principles, a systems approach, and even humanities. The goal: men who can roll with the future.

DeWitt is fully aware that turning out technicians is a narrow? educational goal. If the aim is “to develop applied professional skills, enabling the individual to perform specialized, functional tasks, then Soviet higher education is unquestionably a success,” he says. But if, as the West believes, the aim is ”to develop a creative intellect critical of society and its values, then Soviet higher education is an obvious failure.”

The trick for the U.S. is thus to meet the critical shortage of scientists and technicians, as Kennedy says, while 1) shunning any slavish imitation of Russian goals, and 2) strengthening the U.S. lead in the liberal arts that produce broadly creative men.

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