Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In Praise of the Common Intellectual

One fantastic feat of the Bolshevik regime in Russia was pushing 150 million Russians in the 1920s through compulsory literacy courses. My grandmother, now ninety two years old, loves to recall how, as one of twelve siblings in Siberia, she had to share a pair of felt boots with her brother to go to school: he went in the mornings, she went in the afternoon. At the same time as Diagilev’s ballets were impressing the world with their cultural sophistication and Sikorsky had built his first helicopter, nine out of ten Russians still could not read or write.

The new Soviet state believed that knowledge is power, and the more knowledgeable the people the more powerful the state. And they seemed to have a point: we sent Sputnik and Gagarin into space, ahead of the Americans. By the 1950s everybody was not only literate, but most had secondary education and millions more were students in higher education.

"In the end neither manual workers
nor the intellectual elite maintained any self respect."

We were, of course, rightly proud of ourselves. But by this time the down side of free, mass, education was also becoming apparent. As sparks fly over the current education debate in Britain, as Labour calls for top up fees and promises to turn half the population of Britain into certificate wielding graduates, I, as someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, feel a foreboding sense of deja vu.

I remember how, as the numbers of Soviet students, graduates, bachelors and doctors grew, there were fewer and fewer people to plough fields or fix pipes. Indeed, when I was a university student in the 70s, such was the labour shortage that we students used to have to spend a month on a farm, sometimes longer, helping to dig potatoes, and in winter we were ‘mobilised’ to pack rotting vegetables or unload rail carriages. Without the students there wasn’t enough labour to keep the country running.

More seriously, and worryingly, by the time everyone had a university or college degrees, our entire culture had changed. Since everyone was "educated', education started being seen as something worthless - people started sneering at the educated. Academics and intellectuals became despised whereas excessive respect and admiration was suddenly showered on anyone who could a actually fix something - much as plumbers are becoming the new elite in today’s Britain. Social attitudes turned from respect and reverence for the teacher, for the learned few, to outright contempt for anyone who chose to spend years studying books, but couldn’t put up a shelf or fix a dripping tap. I remember an Academician at the prestigious Zhukovsky Academy who would always let the cleaner lady pass first saying “She is more important than me: I can’t do my job if she doesn’t do hers.”

In the end neither manual workers nor the intellectual elite maintained any self respect. Manual workers would not try to do their best as there were so few others to compare their work against. And graduates, even those form the very best educational institutions, grew, in the pervading anti-academic atmosphere, more frustrated and more depressed. As soon as the Soviet controls on emigration collapsed they started leaving the country for American scientific centres: today, for example, it is claimed that some one out of ten American mathematicians have been trained in Russian academic institutions. Others, of course, have been wooed by rogue dictators to their secret laboratories.

Of course it is true that a nation is doomed to fall behind if too little is invested in education. But at the same time, education should be elite: elite and well funded - but not for everybody. Belittle higher education by handing it round at random and you end up with the real brains, the ones you want to hang onto, departing the country leaving behind a mediocre, apparently overeducated, population in which the manual worker is king.

Having the best laboratories is fine so long as you have enough people left over to dust your microscopes and wash your test-tubes.

This article was first published in the Times (London)

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