Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!



In today’s world, the flavor of the day in education is for each student to have their own creative path to higher learning. The Soviet Union’s system was much different than this. During World War II, the classrooms were split between sexes and each group of children and while the students were under high pressure to succeed, the teachers were subjected to even higher stakes.

Teachers and other school employees could be punished for having a lunch break go over the planned time and the student’s behavior and success had a direct effect on the teacher’s job security.

The students’ curriculum was the same from the first grade to the tenth grade, with the only difference being different military training for the male and female groups. The heaviest emphasis for the students’ learning was on Russian language and literature, which encompassed 2,772 hours a year and math took up 1,980 hours. Compared with the average American pupil at the time, the Soviet students were much farther ahead in math and science.



While the Soviet Union’s school system seems extremely rigorous, the classroom was a source of structure and guidance for the pupils and it gave the Soviet youth a source of pride in that they were getting a quality education.



P. N. Shimbirev and I. T. Ogorodnikov, Pedagogika (Moscow, 1955), p. 103.


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10 Responses to Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!

  1. This was a good post because it brings education into the Soviet “way of life” that hasn’t been directly addressed. The prominence of math in Soviet education shows how education systems differed in the western and Soviet systems. It also gives us a glimpse into the future space race between the Soviets and US, showing how math and science education will push a country forward.

    • You make some good points in your comment: it is really interesting to see how the emphasis on math and science really pushed the Soviet Union forward in terms of the space race and other factors, especially considering how far behind the Soviet Union was at its inception compared to the United States.

    Leah Williams says:

    The first thing I thought of when reading this post is how the government wanted to instill good Soviet values early on in children to promote the Soviet way of life (as Katie mentioned too). If the teachers were under such pressure, I wonder if they had to go through a lot of screening or have specific characteristics in order to be qualified to teach in the first place (such as be a member of the party or something).

    • I’m sure the pressure on the teachers was immense! As we’ve discussed in class, the worst thing a Soviet citizen could lose is their job because their job affects their place in society and their life. Add in that most teachers and intellectuals were looked down upon for the chance that they might have differing views from those in power and I am sure that the Soviet teachers were under quite a magnifying glass!

  2. Well, having worked extensively and directly with many former soviet union (FSU) professionals over the years, I’d have to say that their education system has both advantages and disadvantages over that of the West. On the one hand, their scientists have an excellent grounding in the hard sciences; at one break-out session I conducted in Moscow it was impressive to see the PHDs in the room break out calculators, pencil and graph paper, and reconstruct gaussian analysis for a radioactive plume model. Most of us in the U.S. would just plug the data into any of a number of ready-made programs that crunch the numbers for us.
    But the other side to the regimented education system of the FSU is that it does not foster individual incentive. Indeed, one of the major planks of the Cold War strategy of the West was to recognize and institutionalize within the training doctrine the need to decentralize command authority; every soldier is taught to take individual initiative when required, while the Soviet model was subject to chaos any time leadership was decapitated.
    Recognizing individual incentive and alternate approaches to problem solving (i.e., thinking outside the box) is extremely rare in the FSU. The same fears that the collective state infused into the public to ensure an iron-fisted rule (ref. the Stalinest purges you wrote about earlier) helped ensure its eventual downfall. In the end, the West prevailed in the Cold War, and I’d argue that is at least partially due to our history of free speech, private enterprise, individual accountability, and a clear and demonstrable pathway to individual success through working harder and smarter.
    One might well argue that those very qualities are the very ones that are missing in the current malaise that has evolved since (at least) the Great Society of LBJ, but that would be topic for another day.

    • Thank you for your knowledgeable insight! It is nice getting perspective from someone who has first-hand experience with the former pupils of this system. I do agree with you that while their students were well-versed in followership and hard sciences, our students were more prepared for the dynamic world.

    Kelsey Shober says:

    This is great background information for the Cold War. While reading this I also had the Space Race in my head the whole time. This gives a great account for why exactly the US initiated a math and science “back to basics” education campaign in the 1950’s. The leadership situation is also unique. Given the party characteristics and their typical way of dealing with people, the stakes of being a teacher must have been particularly night.

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