Events in the U.S.S.R. Outpace School Curricula and Textbooks
The dramatic changes unfolding in the Soviet Union have riveted the world's attention on a region that, in the view of many educators, has gotten uneven coverage in U.S. classrooms in recent decades.
While the number of precollegiate students enrolled in Russian language classes has increased significantly since the dawn of perestroika in the mid-1980's, the extent to which children are learning about the history and culture of the Soviet Union is much more difficult to gauge.
Educators interviewed last week said that textbooks dealing with the Soviet Union are often relics of the Cold War, with information hopelessly out of date and language reflecting the antiCommunist sentiments of that era.
Instead, they said, teachers who try to incorporate current events into their lesson plans--such as last month's failed coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev or the spiraling calls for independence of most of the nation's republics-are forced to ditch textbooks in favor of newspapers and television.
Several educators also noted in interviews that the Soviet Union and its Eastern European neighbors often get only cursory treatment in world-history courses.
"I bet a whole lot of American students wondered: Who's this guy [Boris] Yeltsin and what, for heaven's sake, is the Russian Parliament and what's all the fuss about?" said Howard D. Mehlinger, a professor of education and Russian history at Indiana University.
"American students have little opportunity to learn about the Soviet Union in U.S. history except as they deal with American involvement abroad," he added. "World history is the place you expect to find it, but quite a few students don't study world history."
A new survey by the National Center for History in the Schools, for example, indicates that world-history courses, while taught in three-quarters of the nation's high schools, are required for graduation in only 66 percent of them.
The subject is not taught at all in 40 percent of the middle and junior nigh schools surveyed. The study, conducted during the 1989-90 school year, surveyed every 30th public high school and every 34th public school enrolling 7th and 8th graders.
"These events don't arise overnight in full bloom; they are formed over a long period of antecedent events," said Charlotte Crabtree, who co-directed the survey. "High School students who should be well on top of these issues simply aren't getting that background in 13 years of schooling."
The need for some historical background is particularly useful in helping students grasp the historical importance of the current tumult in the Soviet Union where Russians, who have a 1,000-year history of accepting authoritarian rule, refused to give up freedoms acquired only in the past few years.
Whether social studies should focus more on history, however, has been hotly debated in recent years.
California's new framework for teaching history, for example, lengthens the number of years students take history to three, and at least one national commission formed in recent years to examine how schools approach the subject has made similar recommendations.
But some experts contend an excessive emphasis on history leaves little room for teaching about citizenship principles and world cultures, among other areas. ('See Education Week, July 31, 1991.)
"Even the California framework, in talking about understanding the global nature of Communism, still seems to talk about it as a major force in the world today," said Sara Wallace, associate executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. "And that was published in July 1987."
Moreover, Ms. Crabtree said, world-history textbooks often include the Soviet Union in a final chapter describing events of the 20th century.
"Nothing gets adequate attention when everything is collapsed in one survey chapter," she said.
In addition, a number of educators said, the recent rapid pace of change worldwide--the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the massacre of student protesters in Beijing, and the Persian Gulf war, for instance-has made textbooks practically obsolete.
Most textbooks are at least two to three years out of date, Ms. Wallace said.
"Those days are past when you rely on textbooks for information," said Theresa Noonan, a social-studies teacher at Gulf Breeze (Fla.) High School.
Educators also criticized the anti-Soviet tone found in many textbooks.
Mr. Mehlinger, who participated in a 12-year-long joint project with Soviet educators to evaluate the portrayal of their countries in American and Soviet textbooks, said American textbooks published as late as 1985 tended to emphasize the negative aspects of Soviet life, such as the lack of political freedom.
"The only poets or writers you read about were the dissident ones," he said.
In both countries, he said, accounts of World War II sounded like "two different wars."
American texts neglected the Eastern front, where three-quarters of the German army was located, and Soviet texts depicted the bombing of Hiroshima as a U.S. attempt to blackmail the Soviet Union, which they said had already effectively put an end to the war by declaring war on Japan.
American books also mistakenly referred to Lenin, the Russian revolutionary figure whom the Soviets call Vladimir Ilyich, as Nicolai Lenin, Mr. Mehlinger said.
"They've become useful to use with students because they reflect so much of the Cold War dealings," said Marjorie Wall Bingham, who teaches about the Soviet Union at St. Louis Park (Minn.) High School. "They've become like historical documents."
The 'Current Events' Approach
Ms. Bingham and other educators said they have come to rely instead on newspapers, periodicals targeted for student use, and television and video accounts to keep on top of fast-unfolding world events.
The pace of change in the world has been a boon for the classroom-media industry.
Scholastic Inc., for example, which publishes three social-studies magazines geared to students, experienced a 15 percent increase in subscriptions at the height of the Persian Gulf war.
"It all really started a few years ago with the changes in Eastern Europe spurred by Gorbachev's reforms, and it hasn't stopped since," said Lee Kravitz, the magazines' editorial director.
Some educators worry, however, that the "current events" approach draws on hastily drawn accounts that may be inaccurate or reflect the political biases of the writers or publications.
"One of the skills you have to really try to teach is distinguishing between fact and opinion," Ms. Noonan of Gulf Breeze, Fla., said.
Faced with those and other obstacles, some classroom teachers may forgo any discussion at all of the events in the Soviet Union, Ms. Wallace of the social-studies council noted. "I hope not many," she added.
On the 'Visual Landscape'
For educators last week, the situation in the Soviet Union evoked a parallel with the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
At that time, teachers reported that their students had a surprisingly poor background for understanding the tumult in Eastern Europe. Some educators also expressed concern that the nationwide push for a less "Eurocentric" world view would further squeeze such studies from the curriculum. (See Education Week, Jan. 10, 1990.)
In contrast to Eastern Europe, however, the Soviet Union has always had a more prominent place in the classroom, Ms. Bingham of St. Louis Park, Minn., said.
"Eastern Europe wasn't part of students' visual landscape," she said. "They didn't see movies about the threat from Czechoslovakia."
"Things like 'The Hunt for Red October' are much more part of their visual landscape," she said.
In addition, a number of states at the height of the Cold War mandated courses dealing with the Soviet Union or Communism.
Many such laws and courses remain in place today, said Ms. Wallace of the N.C.S.S., adding that such information is usually conveyed in comparative-government courses.
In the small number of U.S. schools that were already in session when news of the attempted Soviet coup broke, teachers said students expressed intense interest in the subject.
Every student in Ms. Noonan's classes, for example, chose to bring in newspaper accounts about that event for current-events assignments that week.
"A lot of my students are not traditionally academically successful, and they had a lot of interesting theories about it," Ms. Noonan said. "One boy asked if it was possible that it had been staged by Gorbachev to increase his popularity."
"I thought that was pretty bright," she added.
Interest in the region has also been piqued in recent years, educators said, by the lifting of travel restrictions to the Soviet Union. The change has spurred a number of teacher and student exchanges between the Soviet Union and the United States. (See related story, page 27.)
Alan Shapiro, a retired social-studies teacher who oversees a growing network of Soviet, Polish, and American teachers for Educators for Social Responsibility, said the trips and contacts with Soviet citizens often have a "galvanizing effect" on the teaching of participating educators.
"You know intellectually that Soviets all have to be human beings," he said. "But being with people and finding they are like yourself makes a big difference." The National Endowment for the
Humanities also reports a slight increase since 1985 in the number of grants awarded to teachers and high-school students for studies of the Soviet Union.
The total number of those grants has increased from 44 in 1985, when the Soviet Union was still seen by some prominent politicians as an "evil empire,"to 52 last year.
And school efforts to offer a more "global" view of history have resulted in increased study of the Soviet Union in some states. The New York State Regents examination, for example, added more questions on the Soviet Union following a 1987 effort to "globalize" the state's social-studies curriculum.
The most significant signs of increasing interest in the subject, however, appear to have come in the area of Russian-language studies.
According to the Joint National Center on Languages, which tracks foreign-language course-taking, the number of high-school students studying Russian increased from 6,405 in 1985 to 15,000 during the 1990-91 school year.
Of all students studying a foreign language, the percentage enrolled in Russian increased from .05 percent in 1985 to .15 percent last year.
"It went from nonexistent to almost existent," said Jamie Draper,
the center's associate director. She said the highest number of
students taking Russian--26,000-was recorded in 1965 at the height of
the Cold War.
Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 1Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Events in the U.S.S.R. Outpace School Curricula and Textbooks