''You can’t love your homeland and be humane at the same time''

Literary historian Aleksey Vdovin on whether it’s true today Americans read more and why the system of teaching of literature at Russian schools became obsolete

''You can’t love your homeland and be humane at the same time'' Photo: Anna Pravdyuk (hse.ru)

Russia stopped being the country reads the most in the world a long time ago. According to statistics, people read much more books in Europe and America than in Russia. This problem is systemic. One of the reasons is low expenditure on education and culture in the public budget. Another one is that our system of teaching of literature at schools still remains like in the 19 th century when the main goal was to educate a ''Russian person'' who loved his homeland. Today, in the era of globalism, these values don't stand tests. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, philologist Aleksey Vdovin expressed his opinion on these and other topics.

''All this old system creaks and its unoiled gears grind and it threatens to break down''

Aleksey, there is such a feeling that many people read all their books at school (or at university if they studied humanities) and don't read any more. Why did Russia stop being the country that reads the most in the world?

It's a complicated question. I can't give a short answer. Without claiming an exhaustive sociological explanation, I will say that the Soviet situation with a very high percentage of people reading fiction literature is a product of the totalitarian regime. There is even research that proves it. When the system collapsed, all returned to a conditionally normal situation when the percentage of reading citizens doesn't exceed 40-50% as well as everywhere in the modern world.

We need to compulsorily compare this with other countries. I've recently seen the USA's statistics: according to official numbers, the percentage of reading people is higher than in Russia, though many people have heard that Americans don't read. And in Europe, the percentage of reading people is much higher.

We also shouldn't forget that people started to perceive information via other channels a long time ago – television, video, the Internet. In a word, in my opinion, there is no sense in sighing and complaining all the time that during the Soviet era it was the country that read the most in the world. We need to look to the future and think how not to lose this not a high percentage we have.

European countries do a lot for it, while we do too little. A big number of bookshops have closed in Moscow in the last two years. The infrastructure to support not only readers but also writers in Russia is very bad. In brief, it's a systemic thing. It's stupid and dangerous to think that we can't have an army of the people who read literature and simultaneously have a tiny expenditure on education and culture in the public budget.

''In my opinion, there is no sense in sighing and complaining all the time that during the Soviet era it was the country that read the most in the world. We need to look to the future and think how not to lose this not a high percentage we have.'' Photo: a-nalgin.livejournal.com

How is it linked with the modern method of teaching of Russian literature at school? How effective is it?

This question is also very complicated. To tell the truth, I am against simple answers to it, I am against a popular opinion that our teachers teach badly or that the ministry's functionaries are guilty. In other words, we try to find one guilty person and throw him under the bus all the time. And whomever we find guilty, this doesn't solve the problems: the problem that pupils don't read at schools, how we teach kids to perceive and understand texts, whether we need unitary books, why schools often kill the interest in reading for ever, etc. Sergey Volkov, Nadezhda Shapiro, Lev Sobolev, Evgenia Abelyuk and other famous and best teachers in Moscow formulate the list of these problems better.

It's true. But there is a side we don't see. It's especially not seen from Russia. To understand where all these problems with literature at school came from, we need to look at the history of education, the system itself, the technique of teaching of literature at school. Moreover, not in the Soviet era, later – in the 19 th century.

There is good research in English how a public system of teaching of literature formed in Germany, France and England in the 19 th century. In a word, it tells that teaching of literature at school appeared in all countries, including Russia, as a modern technology to manage the population inside a regular bureaucratic country or, more precisely, a technology of teaching citizens to be citizens of a national country.

Roughly speaking, all we still see in the Federal State Educational Standard, all this patriotism, education of the people who know how to love the homeland and to be humane, in general, everything comes from the 19 th century. And, of course, we immediately see a contradiction: you can't love your homeland and be humane at the same time because love for your homeland presupposes a fight against its enemies, that's to say, potential wars, expansion, militarism. This contradiction is a generational curse of the very literary education system.

The further we go, the worse it is. A literature teaching method is built on an attempt to eliminate the fundamental contradiction between an aesthetic understanding of literature as art and educational, the didactical goal of education where a person develops as an individual through reading and interpretation of literature. In addition, he becomes a citizen of his own country and carrier of its culture. All literature teaching in Russia, from the 1850s to 2018, is between these poles, which are conditionally aesthetic and conditionally educational.

But if earlier these problems didn't come to the fore, in our era of globalisation, large-scale migrations, elimination of national borders and a fall in interest in oral art, all this old system creaks and its unoiled gears grind and it threatens to break down. We hear this creak and teeth gnashing.

In brief, the history of literary education suggests us that it's very difficult to change the situation without changing the whole system, moreover, very radically.

''All literature teaching in Russia, from the 1850s to 2018, is between these poles, which are conditionally aesthetic and conditionally educational.'' Photo: kpfu.ru

''In Russia, the list of compulsory literature to read at school is a holy cow''

How is the list of literature studied at school made up? Do you like it?

In Russia, the list of compulsory books to read at school is a holy cow. It's sacral. It can't be even discussed. Otherwise, a burst of anger falls on you from all sides. The opinion that's widely spread that, God forbid, if a kid doesn't read War and Peace at school, he, God forgive, will lose the Russian genetic code, won't get enough something so fundamental that he won't be Russian, a Russian citizen.

Meanwhile, I, as a historian of the literary canon, am fine that somebody doesn't read something at school. I have a very negative attitude to the mentioned opinion that not reading of something is a catastrophe to educate a person. In my opinion, I will emphasise once again, a literary historian and historian of school education's view, firstly, not the sacrosanctity of the reading list is the point but there must be freedom of choice in the small compulsory core. Secondly, it doesn't need to be sacral and firm. But here it's more difficult because the Unified State Exam is the outcome.

Does it mean that the Unified State Exam is not the best thing that happened to us?

No, of course. But I can't offer anything instead. The Unified State Exam is just a tool. It's important not to turn it into a goal.

What can you say about a unitary literature book?

Nothing good. The ministry's imposition of one literature book from the top is the murder of literature at school as a subject because there is no and there can't be one correct narration, the only correct interpretation of classical texts. It is a fact proved by literary studies and philology of the 20 th century.

Topics for compositions also set a certain pace of thinking. What do you think of it because today a lot is said about the education of a creatively thinking generation?

I think today in Russia there is a big difference between what is said in the media and on TV and how all people live in reality and how all works. It's maybe the biggest lie of our time. Here is your question – it's right about it.

There is a popular post with a list of topics for compositions of gymnasium students in the early 20th century on the Net. For instance, 'Word As Source of Happiness', 'Why Is Love Compared to Trip?', 'Homeland and Foreign Land', 'About Life's Rapidity', 'What Things are Russia's Wealth and Why?', 'About High Value of Person's Word and Writing', 'About Fragility of Happiness Based on Material Wealth Only'. And all people in comments are worried about what education was in the past and how awful the state of affairs is now. Can you comment?

As a historian, I'm against any idealisation of the past, moreover, a hundred years ago. Feeling nostalgia, people forget for some reason that everything in society doesn't exist on its own but in a complicated connection with other elements like in our organism. So if we think that old pre-revolutionary education is an ideal system and we can 'repeat it', it is a profound mistake, I think. Nothing in history can be repeated because the system has already changed, you can never enter the same river twice. And, yes, I will say that there weren't fewer problems at pre-revolutionary school than today, so the last thing we should do is to idealise it.

By Natallia Fyodorova