sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

September 7, 2013

Shame and Loathing in Kharkov

Filed under: education, Soviet Union — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 3:30 pm

This Monday was Labor Day in the US, but our number one geo-political enemy celebrated the Day of Knowledge.  Before the Soviet Union croaked and it became necessary to spruce up the old Soviet holidays, the occasion wasn’t known as the Day of Knowledge.  It was simply September 1, the first day of the new school year, celebrated on the first weekday of September.  It was, and it still is, a huge deal for the entire country.  The high point of the day is the quaintly sexist assembly during which the tallest and the strongest Senior boy carries the cutest littlest first grade girl on his shoulder in front of fellow schoolmates, parents and teachers lined up around the perimeter of the school yard, and the girl, outfitted in holiday uniform and giant white bows, rings a bell.

Somewhere in Russia in 2011. Imagine perfect childhood

There is much to say about this holiday, which, on balance, was not bad, and I’ll post about it one day.  What got me reminiscing is an Instapundit link to an essay on culture shock by a student from India.  This is how he chose to start:

  • Nobody talks about grades here.
  • Everyone is highly private about their accomplishments and failures. Someone’s performance in any field is their performance alone. This is different compared to India where people flaunt their riches and share their accomplishments with everybody else.
Of all things American he singled out that, and oh, how I understand him.  When I was growing up in Kharkov, Soviet Union, we had no notion of grade privacy.  It’s not just that inquiring about a classmate’s grades wasn’t bad form, we didn’t’ need to.  Our grades were announced in front of the whole class or posted next to our names in a hallway.  Students who did well were often praised in front of the collective, while those at the bottom were shamed.
All teachers, including the nice ones, discussed our grades — such was the custom; most shamed students, and some did so with gusto.  I recall my 8th grade Russian lit teacher taking entire class hour to belittle a student for using words and expressions she didn’t understand.  The girl survived the humiliation, and, being a happily average girl, kept pulling average grades through high school.  The teacher, I’m pretty sure, was KGB because a) somebody in our school had to be KGB and b) her husband was a general, and they spent several years in Cuba.
(Not all abuse in my school was strictly emotional.  Most of the spanking went to troubled kids, about which I didn’t feel particularly bad then, and don’t feel particularly bad now, even though I realize in a long term this kind of discipline was probably useless.  But once my elementary school teacher hit a quiet, lonely girl for not following directions.  That episode remained ingrained in my mind because I didn’t understand why the teacher hurt her.  In retrospect I realize that the girl was autistic, and the teacher, who had 37 of us in her classroom, lost her temper.)
Before the onset of puberty, shaming discouraged failure in certain cases and prompted many middle of the road students to improve their grades.  What kid wants to be called a “fool” and a “cretin” in front of his friends?  Even those of us who were pretty sure we wouldn’t be singled out, set trembling as our elementary school teacher, a stunningly attractive woman with hourglass body, announced test marks.  Now she’s going through the bundle of 5’s (out of 5, that is), and now 4’s, and then 3’s.  We’d rather hear a 4 than a 3.
An unintended effect of shaming was discouragement of achievement.  Once we grew up a bit and got more introspective, we started talking of rather having a 2, the failing grade, than a 3.  A 2 looks like we didn’t care, but 3 made it seem like we tried, but didn’t get very far.
And think of it from the perspective of the student who regularly flunks a tests: he, a 7-year-old son of an alcoholic mother and no known dad, already resigned himself to be the whipping post of the teacher whom he hates, fears and admires at the same time.  But as soon as she’s done with him, some smarty pants kid, the one who gets a yummy sandwich out of his briefcase every afternoon at lunchtime, gets praise.  What, he thinks he’s better than everyone else?  Guess what, the delinquent also needs an outlet.
I, for one, allied myself with not too bright girls who were on good terms with the hooligans, and allowed them to copy my tests just so that they could put in a good word for me.  I also made sure to get a few 4’s each quarter.
In grade school, we were already well on our way of embracing mediocrity, disliking being both on top and on the bottom.  It’s not just that the Soviet economic system disincentivized achievement, and political system punished it, the entire culture was driven by envy and at odds with anything or anybody who dares to be extraordinary.
Add to it the ethnic dimension.  Not all Jews were nerds and there was no shortage of uber-brainy Russians or Ukrainians, but often, and stereotypically, the kid with exemplary grades had dark curls and sad eyes and his tormenters were Slavs.  And even if an otlichnik (a straight A student) was not himself a yid, at least not to his knowledge, it was no guarantee that racial epithets won’t fly when the hooligans give him what was coming.  Any questions about  the Soviet brain drain?
There is much not to like about American schools, particularly the insidious self-respect movement that treats students as fragile little things who need to be showered with praise.  Well, at least I can reasonably expect that teachers will respect my children’s humanity.


  1. If I recall correctly, the Beslan terrorist attack on a school occurred on Septem.ber 1

    Comment by Always On Watch — September 7, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

  2. How did you live through that without a lot of emotional scar baggage?

    Comment by Conservatives on Fire — September 9, 2013 @ 7:36 am

  3. Reblogged this on Citizen Tom and commented:
    As Americans we have this notion of multi-culturalism. That involves the absurd notion that all cultures are equally good. They are not; however, because we have this absurd notion, we have not set about protecting and building upon the best elements of our culture. If all cultures are equally good, doesn’t our culture have to be just as good as every other culture? So why then would we have to do anything?

    What are the best elements of our culture? Even as they peddle the virtues of multiculturalism, that something busybody politicians dream of telling us. They dream of shaping our society into a world of their making.

    God has given each of us the right to pursue our own happiness, and God has also given us the responsibility of protecting our children from busybodies. In a free society where men and women protect their God-given rights, we would make our own choices. That includes school choices. In a society run by busybodies…..

    Check out Shame and Loathing in Kharkov. Consider the virtues of an “open society.” Then contemplate where our school system is headed. Contemplate where our society is headed. Don’t we live in a society where big corporations and big government demand to know everything about each of us? Don’t they demand our:

    School records.
    Medical records.
    Financial records.
    Daily purchases.
    Phone records.
    Email traffic.
    And so forth.

    Do you really think what our government and all those big corporations know about us and our children will remain private? Perhaps our government will not publicly shame us with what it knows, but don’t we know how power corrupts the heart of the man who seeks it? Should we not ask? What will our leaders do with all the information they have and are collecting on each of us? Why do they think they need to know so much about us?

    Comment by Citizen Tom — September 9, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

  4. I’m so glad to read this post and some of these comments. Why is there so much silence about this in our different communities? Especially in the western world where there is freedom of speech, at least to a reasonable extent, to communicate and enlighten average member of the public about the danger of granting the government so power to control our privacy. I suppose many are willing to trade these valuable Rights for the promise of security and better standard of living. It’s alarming and worrying! May God help us. Thanks you and Blessings!

    Comment by shadeakinbiyi — September 10, 2013 @ 8:53 am

  5. Great post. The funny thing about American schools today, is how their respect for a child’s humanity takes the form of giving him a label that excuses him from his own behavior. And excuses the teachers from the responsibility to teach him how to excel. They can load all the praise they want, but still manage to clip lil Johnny’s wings.

    Weird how many different ways societies can fail.

    Comment by nooneofanyimport — September 11, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

    • I agree. Americans schools went to far in the other direction. Children are shielded from disappointment, and they know it. They know that the words of praise are meaningless.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — September 16, 2013 @ 9:27 am

  6. […] but I remember my baby teeth drilled and pulled without anesthesia, sadistic teachers, slave labor, flashers lurking in archways, almost good children’s movies and all sorts of […]

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  7. […] pretty well for me.  My schooling was filled with anxieties and propaganda; even now I have rather mixed feelings about it.  But it gave me a structure within which to become an independent […]

    Pingback by By All Means, Houghton Mifflin, Sell Me Some Textbooks! | sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — January 22, 2016 @ 9:30 am

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