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Jul 19, 2013

Reverse Culture Schock

Many years ago, when I was completing my stint at Notre Dame, we were warned of reverse cultural shock. It is a real phenomenon: people returning to their home country from extended stays abroad experience alienation, maladjustment, and feeling not quite home. I have never experienced it; perhaps because I have been back to Russia almost every year after about 1996. Maybe because I am thick, or perhaps because we lived in five different states in the US, and in three different places in Russia before that. I doubt military families experience much of it either when they return to their home towns.

Any move – domestic or international – brings about a little catastrophe in everyday life. One no longer knows where things are. I also noticed that little glitches can bring about large anxiety, because we tend to worry about bigger things, and project our anxiety on silly things. I remember in 1999 I was shocked Ohio did not have any banks with internet interface, which was fairly common in Seattle. But, of course, within a year they caught on, and it was not a big deal either – you just had to go to the bank, which in a small town was never a problem.

So yesterday I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out the cell phone system in Russia. It is completely different than in the US – no monthly plans, and phones can be used to transfer money, and for many other things. Of course when I left Russia in 1991, cell phones did not exist. And now Russia boasts one of the most innovative cell phone industries. OK, so the darn things don’t work for me, because I don’t know anything about them. The machine ate my 5000 rubles, which I thought was a 100 rubles note (similar colors). OK, it did not like any of my credit cards, so I have to go and feed the machine with cash. But hey, this is really a small thing. At least I did not have to learn a whole new language.

Little annoyances like that happen. Sometime they are cultural. Check out an ad; keep in mind Russian pronouns have gender-specific endings: “Looking for a he-waiter, he-barmen, he-cook, and she-dishwasher.” Talk about the sexist language. Or this one: “A Slavic family will rent an apartment.” Slavic is euphemism for White, non-Asian Russians. However, to my delight, I find the educational discourse here very similar to that in the US. The university life and organizational structure is very similar. So it is really one’s choice what to focus on – the small annoying things that really stand for a larger anxiety about the move? Or focus on big, important things that work well?

Not denying the reverse culture shock theory, I am just saying to all repatriates – get a grip; it's up to you, really. 

Jul 6, 2013

КЦП и реформа педагогического образования

Основная проблема российского педагогического образования лежит за пределами самого педагогического образования. Довольно незначительная часть выпускников педвузов и педфакультетов идет работать в школу. В результате учительский корпус стареет и редеет. Федеральный бюджет тратит cерьезные средства в форме КЦП (контрольные цифры приема), а проблема остатся нерешенной. Отсюда, отчасти и намерения МОНа реформировать педагогическое образование.

Проблема, в сущности, экономическая – связанная с особенностями российского рынка труда и системой финансирования высшего образования, унаследованная еще с советских времен. Если человек получает высшее образование бесплатно, и если рынок труда примет его вне зависимости от характера высшего образования, то рациональным выбором будет поступление в местный вуз на любую специальность. Покольку педвузов много и они есть почти везде, то естественно что многие молодые люди поступают в пед без малейшего желания быть педагогами. Это побочный эффект бесплатного высшего. Само по себе оно прекрасно, но побочные эфекты есть и у самого лучшего лекарства. В советские времена проблема отчасти решалась через инстит распределения. С невозможностью продолжения этого института проблема, естественно, обострилась. Радикальное расширение сферы высшего образования тоже обострило проблему. Надо добавить что трудоустройство не по профилю – проблема общая и для многих других специальностей.

К сожалению, даже если нам удастся улучшить качество педагогического образования, то это не решит проблемы недостатка учителей. Скорее наоборот, если мы будем готовить учителей лучше, то их будут еще более охотно брать на работу в других отраслях. А недостаток учителей будет сводить на нет усилия по повышению качества наших программ.

Я не предлагаю возродить рапределение – у него не было бы сегодня никаких юридических оснований. Тем н менее, хотелось бы обратить на нтересную (хотя к сожалению и небольшую) американскую программу TEACH grant. Студентам, выбравшим орпределенные педагогические специальности, дают грант на оплату обучения. Если же по окончании вуза выпускник не идет в школу, то грант превращается в кредит – тоже довольно благоприятный, но деньги надо возвращать. Вообще в проекте реформы высшего образоани есть проект перехожа на подушевое финансирование. Но я бы пошел дальше: отменить бесплатное высшее, давать щедрые кредиты самым достойным, но с определенными, та сказать, веревочками привязанными к этим кредитам. Если человек не работает в приоритетной отрасли, то кредит надо авплачивать. Если работает – то он постепенно снижается до нуля.

Конечно, одновременно надо повышать качество педагогического образования. Министерство же думает о сокращении КЦП. Пед образование – как дырявая бочка, в которую надо все время лить воду, чтобы хоть как-то ее заполнить. Это проблема, но она не решается ни уменьшением объема вливаемой воды, ни улучшением качества этой воды. Без пересмотра режима КЦП реформа останется малоэфективной. 

Jul 2, 2013

Putin’s Southern Strategy

After losing significant political support by a portion of liberal intelligentsia (especially in the capitals), Putin’s party has decided to bet on the socially conservative Russian majority. Hence the shift towards religion, family, protecting the children, tough on crime and coppurtion, against gay rights, against the West, against the western-funded NGO’s, against punk music, etc. Hence the uniforms in schools and a single history textbook. Hence the officially proclaimed conservative ideology of the United Russia. Some people lament this development as a slip backwards, to an autocratic rule. I disagree; it may be the beginning of normal political life in Russia. It does not feel that normal if you’re on the liberal side of the emerging divide. I know, and yet let me explain.

Anyone who knows the history of American politics is familiar Nixon’s Southern Strategy. It was a very successful attempt to attract the White Southern vote to the Republican party (and away from their traditional Democratic affiliation) by catering to their racist instincts. Taking more broadly, the strategy is to use controversial “wedge” social issues to attract voters to your party, and then do whatever you feel like with the economic, social, and foreign policy. As a result, the contemporary Republican Party is a weird alliance of evangelical Christians, the anti-abortion and anti-gay groups, of pro-gun and military people with economic liberals, neocons, and libertarians.

I don’t know if someone within Putin’s cabinet actually studied the playbook of American politics, but it does not matter. The logic of political struggle is the same everywhere. If you want to retain power, you should cater to whatever social mores of population’s majority, and preferably also create an impression that your opponents are on the other side of those social issues. It is somewhat dishonest, manipulative, and yes, this is exactly what the NORMAL politics in a democratic society feels like.

The better is the enemy of the good. Unrealistic expectations about the democratic political process do more harm than good. Just think about this for a second: at least Putin and the United Russia are worried about getting the votes. That’s important! That is huge step forward! They don’t feel like they can impose whatever they want on the population without winning elections. That is called democracy.

Their opponents should stop bickering and philosophizing, build their own broad coalition, use their own wedge social issues (just like Democrats learned to do), and play the same dirty games to win the support of the public. That’s exactly what the democratic politics is. It is not the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, as generations of Russian intellectuals believed; nor is it your three dreams of Vera Pavlovna. Democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms (Churchill, I think?). It is frustrating, slow, unfair, it may appeal to the basest instincts of the population, and – your party may keep losing for a long period of time. Get used to it.

Let’s give them some credit: Putin and his advisers understood this sooner than any of his opponents, again.

However, there are other reasons to worry, namely – how much free hand will the repressive bureaucracy get, and what progress if any is made on developing the independent judiciary. The fourth power – the free mass media – is in retreat, and one cannot win elections by Fb alone. As the recent American experience shows, the security apparatus will always go too far without limiting it by other branches of government. There is just no way to let them self-regulate; unhindered they only know how to grow and justify their existence. This is the instinct of all bureaucracies; however, it is just a little scarier in security organizations.