Adult Education in Soviet Russia
c. 1918-1919 — All-Russian Congress of National Education, Moscow, Soviet Russia
The war has taken millions of people from their ordinary life and placed them in abnormal conditions in which they had to face death. This, of course, compelled them to yearn for and seek a solution to the questions which had arisen in their midst. A great craving for knowledge appeared. Then the Revolution, particularly the October Revolution created, for the masses of toilers, problems of immense importance and difficulty. The old state of things bequeathed a sad legacy — darkness, ignorance, and the absence of the very elements of knowledge. In the work of reconstruction, the great majority of people felt at every turn their impotence through a lack of knowledge. They learned by bitter experience that knowledge means power, and so they began passionately and irresistibly to crave for it. The sabotage of the intelligentsia showed them most clearly that knowledge had hitherto been a prerogative and monopoly of the ruling classes.
Adult education could not thrive during the autocracy. Hundreds of regulations, circulars and orders, fettered, maimed, and spoiled the work. The adult student was always under supervision. The authorities did all in their power to hinder any living word or thought from reaching the masses. But there has been an end to all this. The work, however, has not passed into full power. That which has been accomplished is not more than a drop in the ocean.
The whole country should be covered with a network of elementary schools for adults who cannot read and write, and for such as can do so only slightly. There must be no illiterates in Communist Russia. Let every one who has knowledge realize that knowledge, just as any material blessing, should not be the possession of the few, but the property of all; chiefly, he should use his time as far as he can to give knowledge to others. In the work of giving instruction time must not be wasted — “as much as possible in as short a time as possible,” should be the method. In this connection care should be exercised to see in every case if the pupil really needs the instruction which is given. Many professional teachers adopt those methods in schools for adults which they followed in schools for children. They starve their pupils with explaining children’s tales, with dictation, with grammar exercises, and so forth. But adults at once pass to the reading of papers and pamphlets, the language of which is not difficult, to the coping out in exercise books of any articles which pleased them, to the writing down of their own ideas, to short original compositions . . . .
The elementary school is an immense problem, but the problem of the practical school is not less important. Hitherto, applied knowledge interested mainly those who wished to get on in the world. The changed conditions, however, have achieved this result: that the most progressive workers and peasants look upon applied knowledge as a fundamental need. Knowledge of a quite special kind is required for the control and management of production, for the stablishing of agricultural Communities on the basis of improved management. The workers and peasants feel that without such knowledge they are unable to master the conditions of life. The character of special education must, however, be different from what it used to be. Previously a professional training sought to fit a worker for some mechanical action — to grind, to be a locksmith, to plane, and so on; but now, in addition to all that, a professional training must enable the worker to understand the industry in which he is engaged in its entirely, and its place in the world market. Science must light up its particular nature, the history of the ramifications of the industry must be made known, and that must be connected with the study of the history of labor and of civilization; light must be shed upon it from the side of economics and politics, and so forth. In short, together with purely technical methods, a professional training should give a breadth of outlook, a grasp of the conditions in which the industry developed, such as are essential to a worker who is to be a masterly creator of the commonwealth — but were not of much use to the mere wage earner.
Finally, schools of a higher type, i.e., People’s Universities, must be established. The reform of the higher school has opened the door of the university to all who want it. But that reform, as such, does not, of course open the higher school to those who so far have had no education at
all. To choose a particular branch of study, which one might more full pursue, it is necessary to have a more or less clear idea with regard to the branches of knowledge in existence: one must have a general education, and know the methods by which knowledge is acquired. Anyone entering a University without such a preliminary qualification, would soon be obliged to withdraw from it. Higher type schools should therefore give that preliminary general education to such as do not possess it.
In close connection with adult education is the organization of discussions and lectures, of cinematographic gatherings, excursions, and museums.
I will not dwell at length on these necessary complementary activities in adults education, but will only make a few observations about them . . .
The cinematograph, like the school, may be a great instrument of emancipation, or of enslavement. In the bourgeois system it was a powerful means to instill into the masses bourgeois ideas and feelings. There is a cinematograph section at the Commissariat for Public Instruction. Six million roubles have been assigned to it in order that films may be produced which will suggest quite other ideas and feelings — i.e., feelings of human solidarity, internationalism, the idea of carefully organizing all production in the interest of the masses of the people, and so on. Provincial cinemas will make use of these films — at present they have no suitable films, or such as deprave the soul are circulated, or, at best, such pictures as are not very harmful.
In museums a great deal has bene made, so far, of Natural History, Ethnography, Hygiene, and so on. A social section has been absent. Now, however, in Moscow, and the Socialist Academy, a Social Museum has ben organized. There are in it, at present, a set of colored, very artistically produced, diagrams, dealing with problems of militarism, of concentration of manufacture, and so on. The program of the museum is dealt with by a special commission of Socialist Communists. Colored copies of these diagrams, pictures, etc., will be prepared and sent out to the museums in the provinces.
The organization of libraries is as important as the establishment of schools for adults. A terrible waste is going on in that sphere at present. Every union, every village, organizes its own library, and a great deal of money is spent in this way. Yet these libraries are poor, and their readers are not satisfied. The scantiness of our cultural forces, and the impoverished state of the boo market, should lead us to strict economy of forces and books. Yet there is nowhere so much overlapping as in the department of library organization. For every locality a carefully-planned network of libraries should be arranged, having a central library, or libraries, and a range of points which should be served by travelling libraries in the American style. . .
But it must not be forgotten that the most important work in a library is the selection of books. At present people who are not well informed often do the purchasing work . . . . To help the librarian in such work there should exist “a standard catalogue.” A particular Commission of Specialists is now at work at the Commissariat of Instruction to produce such a catalogue (showing the most important books in all branches of knowledge). To help local institutions to purchase books for libraries and schools there is organized a Department of Supply at the Commissariat of Public Instruction. It will supply provincial warehouses as well as separated educational institutions with books, school appurtenances and aids.
I will not deal with the place of Art in adult education. That is a big subject. There are particular departments at the Commissariat of Public Instruction — Music, Drama, Fine Arts — and the department for adult education is closely connection with them . . . .
All the phases of Adult Education will fully develop only then when the most active a direct participation in them will be exercised by those sections of the population for whom they exist. Every library should have its committee of readers, every school its committee of teachers and pupils. And so on. Then the work will live and last.
And workers and peasants should share not only in the organizing of particular Adult Education institutions. By taking part in the departments of “the Soviet for Public Instruction” they will share in every branch of Adult Education as a whole, and thus will lift it to that summit which will make knowledge of the possession of the vast majority of the citizens of the Soviet Republic.
Source: Narodnoe Prosvyeschenie (Public Enlightenment)
Also: Early American Women: A Documentary History, 1600-1900, ed. Nancy Woloch (New York McGraw-Hill Education) 2002, pp. 465-468.