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.