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Gorbachev's 'Glasnost' Policy Paves Way For Joint U.S.-Soviet Education Initiatives

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High-school students from 44 states gathered in Norfolk, Va., last week to exchange views with their Soviet counterparts in a satellite-transmitted "youth summit."

In a separate project, meanwhile, Soviet and American educators convened in Washington and New York City to begin implementing a landmark agreement to develop jointly curricular materials and teacher workshops.

Those gatherings highlight a promising new era of collaboration between the United States and the Soviet Union in school-related programs, their sponsors say.

Although educational exchanges between the two countries are not new, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of "glasnost," or openness, has helped spur development of a closely watched series of activities over the past year.

"Something happened in the Soviet Union last year," said Susan Alexander, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility, the U.S. group working with the Soviets on the joint curriculum project. ''They said 'yes' to everything proposed to them by an American."

Among other recent developments, the Citizen Exchange Council--a New York organization that has been sponsoring U.S.-Soviet exchanges since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962--this year, for the first time, launched such a program for high-school students.

And Choate-Rosemary Hall, a college-preparatory school in Wallingford, Conn., this year reached agreement on an exchange program with Moscow School Number 18, a mathematics and physics boarding school.

The agreement, the second of its kind to involve an American independent school, will allow five students from each school to spend a year at the other institution.

The aim of such programs, sponsors say, is to improve relations between the two countries by improving students' understanding of one another. Currently, they argue, each country's classroom instruction about the other tends to contribute to fear and mistrust.

"We must teach about the other country in a new way," argued Ms. Alexander, whose Cambridge, Mass., group develops materials for teaching about the Soviet Union.

"If we don't, we're going to blow each other up," she said.

Reagan-Gorbachev Agreement

As with similar projects in the past, the new joint programs have accompanied a thaw in relations between the two superpowers.

A cultural agreement signed by President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev at the Geneva summit in 1985 signified support for such undertakings at the highest levels of both governments.

The U.S. government funds some exchanges of researchers, and provides grants to assist other large-scale exchanges, according to Carol Doerflein, deputy country-affairs officer for the Soviet Union at the4United States Information Agency.

More frequently, she said, the federal government will provide "facilitative assistance"--such as help in filling out applications and in contacting Soviet agencies--to groups seeking to initiate exchanges.

But organizations can conduct joint programs without any assistance from the U.S. government, Ms. Doerflein noted.

While some of the new education projects had been planned long before Mr. Gorbachev's recent calls for "glasnost," Ms. Alexander and others said, the Soviet leader's new policy has provided considerable impetus for their growth.

"Since the advent of Gorbachev, America's interest in the Soviet Union is at a new high level," said Andrea Sengstacken, vice president of the Citizen Exchange Council.

Because of Mr. Gorbachev's highly publicized efforts to reform the Soviet system, added Emmanuel Harrison, a history teacher at the Dalton School in New York, "the Soviet Union is very prominent in the news.''

"The New York Times is almost like a Russian-history text these days," said Mr. Harrison, who is leading a group of high-school students on a cec-sponsored trip this month to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

Soviet Voices

Sponsors of the joint programs agree that each country's schools need to improve the quality of their instruction in the history and culture of the other superpower.

"In both societies, when we do educate about each other, we almost exclusively educate about negative things," said Ms. Alexander, who noted that a joint study of American and Soviet history and geography textbooks, completed last fall,8reached the same conclusion.

Under the agreement Educators for Social Responsibility concluded with Soviet representatives last week, the Soviet Union will send 20 teachers to Hampshire College in Massachusetts this summer, where they will study, with 20 American teachers, ways to improve instruction about the two countries.

In addition, the two groups of sponsors agreed to work together to develop curricular materials--including videotapes that would describe a typical day in a school in each country's capital city--and to exchange articles in professional journals.

The programs will enable teachers and students to learn about the Soviet Union through "Soviet voices," according to Ms. Alexander.

"One of the driving forces is enlarging the number and kinds of voices students experience in every subject," she said. "We are extending the range of viewpoints they experience."

'Youth Summit'

The "youth summit," scheduled for March 11 at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, was also designed to allow students to hear about the Soviet Union through Soviet voices, according to participants.

"We're both fed propaganda," said one of the students involved, Melissa F. McNulty, a senior at the Cambridge (Mass.) Pilot School. "On a thing like this, people can talk and find out what the truth is."

The teleconference was scheduled to be broadcast live over the Public Broadcasting System. Pbs also plans to offer videotapes of the event.

The Soviet news commentator Vladimir Posner and Stuart Loory, Washington bureau chief for the Cable News Network, were to moderel10late the discussion.

Scholars from Virginia universities have also developed curricular materials to accompany the program.

These materials have earned "very, very high marks" from teachers, according to Anne Raymond-Savage,director of Old Dominion's center for instructional services and executive producer of the teleconference.

N.E.A. Delegation

In addition to fostering greater understanding of each other's cultures, exchange programs can also help improve a variety of educational practices in the two nations, said Roxanne E. Bradshaw, secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association.

Ms. Bradshaw, who led a delegation of nea officials to the Soviet Union last fall, said the visit suggested, for example, ways to improve the teaching of foreign languages in American schools.

Soviet children, she noted, begin studying foreign languages intensively as early as the middle grades.

"That is something we can learn most from them," she said. "We're still the 'ugly Americans' when it comes to languages."

At the same time, Ms. Bradshaw said, the American delegation aided their Soviet hosts, who were debating whether to add a year of compulsory kindergarten to their education system. Currently, Soviet students begin school at age 7.

"They were concerned that 6-year-olds might be unable to withstand a whole day of instruction," Ms. Bradshaw said. "We assured them that they were developmental4ly ready."

But despite the relatively amicable tone of current U.S.-Soviet relations, some bureaucratic barriers remain in place, Ms. Bradshaw said.

She noted that the nea's exchange activities with their Soviet counterparts, the Education and Scientific Workers' Union, have been hampered by a U.S. policy prohibiting representatives of Communist-bloc trade unions from obtaining visas to visit the United States.

"That puts a tension on our relationship," she said. "We would like to expose them to our way of life."

The two groups will continue written exchanges and will meet in neutral countries, she added.

"We hope to keep the lines of communication open," she said.

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