Sunday, October 3, 2010

The bed of Procrustes: Norman Rockwell on education in the Soviet Union, circa 1965

Presented to the Club in 1965 by Norman Rockwell.

Norman Rockwell was a member of the Monday Evening Club from 1961 until his death in 1978.  In this paper, delivered about 1965 following Rockwell's visit to the Soviet Union in December 1963, Rockwell concludes by saying that he "never did paint" the picture he intended to do, juxtaposing U.S. and Soviet country classrooms. However, in 1967 he completed for Look magazine a picture called "Russian Schoolroom," (above) which later was stolen from a gallery in Missouri in 1973. In 1989, it turned up in the collection of film director Steven Spielberg (a noted Rockwell collector and longtime supporter of the Norman Rockwell Museum), and eventually became the subject of a complex legal tangle with possible connections to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The case was resolved in 2010 with the painting being awarded to Newport R.I. art dealer Judith Goffman Cutler. 

This paper is transcribed from an undated manuscript in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. The title "Bed of Procrustes" is written on the envelope in which it was originally contained, along with the words "ad lib."  In this transcription,  spelling and punctuation is generally left as it is in the original.
The Club is grateful for the assistance of Corry Kanzenburg and Jessika Drmacich of the collections staff at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. for providing access to the manuscript of this and other papers Rockwell presented to the Club, to the museum's director, Laurie Norton Moffatt, for alerting us to their existence (via a Facebook comment!) and to the Norman Rockwell Licensing Company for permission to publish the papers. 

Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL.

A year ago last December my wife and I journeyed to Moscow.  I was going as a specialist for the United States Information Service [sicactually the U.S. Information Agency].  My job was to work with our half of an exchange exhibit of graphic art.

I had a project.  This of course, was in addition to my work with the graphic show.

My project was to illustrate with a picture, or pictures, the elementary schools of Russia.  Look magazine was definitely interested so I made my inquiries among our personnel at the exhibit and also at the American embassy.  They, in turn, put in a request that I meet the minister of education in Moscow.

Things move slowly in Moscow — at least for an American with a project.  Not only is there a vast bureaucracy, but there is an amazingly devious procedure that just can not be cut short.  Then, too, there’s an atmosphere of mutual distrust.

After some weeks I was given an interview with the assistant minister and stated what I wanted to do.  I told him I wanted to paint a small country school, and its students, that would be comparable to just such a school in America, and that I wanted to do it honestly and fairly, as a way toward mutual understanding.  His associates were most smiling and amiable, and said that there were no small country schools near Moscow, but that they would arrange that I should visit an  elementary school.  I was very happy, we all bowed, and I left the massive building which was just off “Red Square.”  Two or three weeks later I hadn’t heard.  Then I talked to my embassy and exhibition friends and they laughed and said, “You’ll never hear from them.” But I was sure they were wrong because the officials had been so amiable and cooperative. Then another week went by and I began to get a bit restless.

By accident, at the Metropole Hotel, I met an American television director and his crew, who, after two years of intense negotiations, were going to make pictures in a school the next day. When I told Mr. Powers my predicament, he told me to meet him the next morning at eight o’clock and he would take me to the school as one of his assistant camera men – well, really not a camera man, I was to be disguised as the man who carried the cameras for the assistant camera man.  Next morning we piled into the television bus and arrived at the school as it opened.  It was a school that emphasized the teaching of English.  Once I was inside, there were no restraints whatsoever.  I listened and watched and sketched and measured everything.  Nobody questioned or interfered with me.

When I got back to the hotel that night I had a notice that the assistant minister of education had arranged that I could go with my wife, an interpreter, and a photographer to a very fine Moscow school (somehow or other he knew I had been to a school that day) — and it was a very find school. In fact, it was their showpiece.  The Russians have a sort of inferiority complex and want you to see only the best.

Physically, it could have been a large American city school, except for the inevitable giant statue of Lenin out in front.  Externally, it was of white concrete block construction.  Inside, it was light and spacious, with many plants and bulletin boards.  I was fascinated by the children's clothing: every child wore a uniform.  The girls wore identical brown dresses under identical brown pinafores.  The boys wore ill-fitting gray jackets and long gray trousers.  Almost without exception, everyone wore the red handkerchief of the “Young Pioneers,” who are, of course, the boy and girl scouts of Russia.  The only variation, which was amusing, was the shoes. They were of every type, color and condition.

The majority of the children wore their good conduct medal, which was a “Baby Lenin” button—a good-sized button, gold colored with a bas-relief of a curly-haired baby Lenin.  It was only to be worn when their conduct was ideologically and otherwise perfect.

Another thing that struck me was that every room had its Lenin corner with a white marble statue of Lenin, and behind it the red flag with hammer and sickle and fresh flowers laid on the base of the statue.  Also repeated everywhere were Lenin’s favorite words to students: “Study, study and study in order to become a good communist.”

We were very fortunate that at our all-Russian hotel there was a group of four American doctors.  Naturally we got acquainted, and we found that they were not doctors of medicine but Ph.D.’s in the field of education and were making a third trip to Russia for the American comparative education society, as guests of the Russian trade union of education, culture and science.  The outstanding member of the group was a Dr. Rudman of the University of Michigan [sicthis was Herbert C. Rudman, actually a professor at Michigan State University].  He spoke Russian and is one of the three greatest experts in America on Russian education, and is the author of a number of books and articles on the subject.  He was most affable, and most of this paper is based on what we learned from him directly and from books and papers he has forwarded to us.

To begin with, the Russian system of education is monolithic.  Every official is answerable to the central power, every act must fit itself to a master plan.  Decrees which establish the plan come directly from the presidium and central committee of the Communist Party, and become operative when consented to by the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., and the council of ministers of the U.S.S.R.

Now I come to the title of this paper:

The Bed of Procrustes

As you doubtless remember, “Procrustes,” in Greek legend, was a robber of Attica, who placed all who fell into his hands upon an iron bed.  If they were longer than the bed he cut off the redundant part: if shorter, he stretched them till they fitted it.  Hence any attempt to reduce men to one standard, one way of thinking, or one way of acting, is called “placing them on Procrustes’ bed.”

As Procrustes fitted every victim to his bed, so is every child molded to fit the Russian educational system, which is designed for one end: to give each child those qualities which will best serve the state.  The students are channeled through a common course of study in such a way as not to lose sight of individual occupational talent, and the system provides for increasing specialization in the senior year.  However, once the choice of specialization is made, the curriculum is rigid.  There is no opportunity for choosing elective subjects, and practically no one ever changes from one special course to another.

Since the revolution there have been four master educational plans, though all have been founded on the same three purposes: politically, to teach the principles of communism and to establish preference for it above all other systems; economically, to make the U.S.S.R. most productive of all nations; and culturally to give everyone access to all the glories of the Russian tradition and to educate them in the materialism of Karl Marx, which says that man owes everything to his control of material forces which are always in motion, and has no need of a universal spirit.  In 1931, there was a strong reaction against the system that had first been adopted.  It had been influenced by so-called progressive ideas and particularly by John Dewey.  The Russians were completely disillusioned and threw it out lock, stock and barrel, in favor of a traditional academic plan.  In 1958, Khrushchev announced that production was not increasing satisfactorily, that intellectual snobbery was gaining ground, and that labor was losing respect.  He drew up a new system, it was approved in 1958, and the change-over was supposed to be complete in 1965.  It is this plan that I will tell you about.

It provides for optional pre-school, with a small tuition fee, and for eight years of free compulsory elementary school, from ages 7 to 15, with increased emphasis on vocational work.  It envisaged two years to follow this of occupational work, primarily in factories and on collective farms, but apparently this has been only partially enforced.  Various ways are designed for students to return to senior elementary work.  On-the-job training is provided in factories and on collective farms, and night schools and correspondence schools are available.  Those who wish, return to full-time general education or vocational school, or to schools preparatory for professions and sciences.  In addition, there are special schools, some of which reach back into earlier years.  These are provided for the handicapped or for special training in ballet or art, or they emphasize military training.  Much has been heard about Russian boarding schools.  In practice, however, they seem to be chiefly for those without adequate supervision at home, or for problem children.  Even in special schools, however, a hard core of prescribed curriculum common to all schools is required.

Each republic of the U.S.S.R. has its own ministry of education.  There are some local variations, chiefly with respect to local languages or dialects.  As education becomes more vocational in character, local, economic and occupational conditions affect the schools more closely.  In actual practice, the ministries of all the Russian republics model themselves on the ministry in Moscow.

The purpose of all ministries is to assure results as designed by the central directive.  The Russians are very firm in the presupposition that all children have equal ability, though they recognize that tastes and special talents may vary.  Therefore, any failure to succeed is due o one of three causes: the students are lazy or bad, the teachers are inadequate, or the parents fail to give proper supervision.

Through a system of inspectors, directors, principals, class monitors and class meetings every effort is made to have all students succeed.  I’d like to mention briefly two further institutions that differ rather sharply from anything we know.

The first is the parents’ committee.  It differs from our parent-teachers association in that its purpose is wholly to assist in work that the school deems important.  Of the various sub-committees, that of teaching and upbringing is least like ours.  It provides supervision for those who do not have enough supervision at home.  The following passage from Dr. Rudman’s book [possibly Structure and Decision-making in Soviet Education] shows how it is involved in the discipline of the students:

If a child receives more than two marks of “2” in a week, the teacher or the director may give the parents’ group his name.  This subcommittee may then call the child to the school—to take him to task and warm him to study better.  Parents are also warned that their child is not doing as well as he should.  If this does not produce the desired result, the parents’ subcommittee may inform the trade union or party committee at the place of work of the parents.  The party or trade union then may call a meeting, where the parent of the pupil is publicly shamed for his failure as a parent and where advice is volunteered by his comrades as to how to make his child succeed in school.
In some cases, there are councils of aid on a district wide basis.  They are responsible for registration of all students.  Each member has a case load of five to seven students and arranges, if necessary, for supervision of their homework and special tutoring.  It also arranges meetings where students and parents become acquainted with one another’s work.  On bulletin boards in the schools, and also in the factories or collective farms, the pictures of parents and children are posted if all have done work of special merit.  If any member of the family fails to keep up his record, all pictures of that family are removed.  Further pressure is brought to bear on parents through newspapers, meetings of trade unions, occupational superiors, and even dismissal.

All that has been said heretofore is true, but I can’t help wondering does the title, “The bed of Procrustes” quite fits.  He tortured and amputated his visitors.  So, too, have Russian children been molded and disciplined to fit the design of the Russian state.  In my five weeks there in Moscow, I naturally saw many children on the streets, and then those two days in the schools I saw them being molded.  But, if I am completely honest, they seemed like normal children, maybe more stolid in their expressions, but certainly healthy, and what seemed to be normally happy.  This is what puzzles me.  Realizing the disciplines and regimentation they nave been under, compared with our system which allows for so much more freedom of the individual in choice and behavior, why is there so little difference in the appearance of the children?

May I add a short postscript?

My original theme was to promote mutual understanding by picturing the similarity of the American and Russian schools, but this theme was destroyed by what I had learned about the narrowness and repressions of the Russian system.  On the other hand, the narrowness and repressions were belied, from a picture standpoint, by the apparent normal and happy appearance of these Moscow children.

So I never did paint the picture.

[Note: see introductory section above regarding "Russian Schoolroom" later painted by Rockwell in 1967.]

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