It’s not so often these days that I feel like sharing something longer than a Facebook status update, but it’s nice to still have a blog for these rare occasions.
Kostia now has a gig as a columnist for the Russian online magazine Snob. He gets paid to write rants, every blogger’s dream! Certainly every one of his columns is worthy of translation to English, but his most recent one mentions something dear to my heart: my alma mater, Simon’s Rock. Not only Simon’s Rock, but its similarities to Pushkin’s Lyceum, and its dissimilarities to Kostia’s own alma mater, and the value of a liberal arts education, and everything that needs to be better in Russia and this world. And so I’ve spent the day translating it. The original is here: http://www.snob.ru/selected/entry/50280
To my fellow Simon’s Rock alumni: the description of Simon’s Rock may be a tiny bit idealized, and for that I take partial, but not complete, responsibility.
Real education prepares one for a world that doesn’t exist yet
Imagine that your name is Sergei Lvovich and you want to enroll your slacker kid in a proper educational institution. So that he’ll, like, amount to something.
Your brother Vasily recommends an experimental boarding school nearby. With all the latest teaching methodologies, the personal approach, excellent facilities. Solid teaching staff with European experience. Each student gets his own room and four meals a day. They say the biggest big shots are thinking of sending their kids there.
“Est-ce que c’est vrai?”, you mutter. “Interesting, if so”.
The only problem is that your brother Vasily is an overgrown directionless hipster who never recommends anything good. Wanting confirmation that this is all on the up and up, you go to your uncle, who works directly under one of the big shots. He waves his hand dismissively. The individual approach and the dorm rooms, it’s all true, but the biggest boss of all has changed his mind about sending his kids there.
“The place would be great”, explains your uncle, “only, they don’t prepare the kids for life in this Russia, but for life in one that doesn’t exist and isn’t expected to”.
It’s a solid argument. You thank your uncle, hop in your carriage and go home, where all talk of these new-fangled schools is nipped in the bud. Your slacker kid isn’t going to get any freethinking lectures on natural law, be spared the rod, or have exciting conversations with his peers about the Constitution, equality, fraternity, whoring, or first love.
And thus, we will not have the lines “service to the muses does not tolerate vanity”, “my first friend, my priceless friend”, and, “in others’ [cunts] you see the straw, and in your own you don’t even see the logs”. There will be no depths of Siberian ores, nor souls’ beautiful impulses. Bluntly speaking, we won’t have anything at all. Because you, Sergei Lvovich, denied Pushkin the Lyceum.
I studied for five years in a place that was 30 minutes’ walk from the Lyceum, and with cold reason have long understood/the role in our native literature/played by it. However, the first time I was able to imagine what the Lyceum meant to Pushkin’s cohort was only this spring, near the town of Great Barrington. Seven thousand kilometers from Tsarskoye Selo. There, in a lush forest inhabited by skunks, sits an educational institution by the name of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.
Simon’s Rock differs from other American liberal arts colleges in the age of its students. It’s a so-called “early” college: students enroll here at sixteen instead of eighteen. Elizabeth Hall, the founder, noticed in the 60’s (when else?) that for many teenagers, the last two years of school are two years of belaboring the point. In the best case. In the usual case, it’s two more years in a vile little world that only values pretty jerks of both genders.
With regard to the geographical and social isolation from the surrounding universe, characteristic of many small colleges, Simon’s Rock is in a league of its own. Of course, students are allowed to leave the campus at any time of day, and Great Barrington is only a twenty-five minute walk away. But the best isolation, as we know, is voluntary. These sixteen-year-old young people (as well as the eleven-year-old son of Woody Allen), having arrived here, sometimes do not leave campus for months at a time. Because they don’t want to.
Why would they? Here there are no parents and no schoolteachers; instead they have liberal pedagogues. Who can be addressed by first name. And who are always interested in your opinion. They know pretty much everything, if not more, but when they’re wrong – and they’re wrong all the time! – you can argue with them. There are few pretty little idiots here; instead you have disheveled geeks with sparkling eyes. They, just like you, want one thing: to endlessly discuss music, literature, philosophy, human rights, protecting the environment, and peace on earth. In between discussions, everyone sleeps with each other and does their homework. Alcohol is prohibited here, because nobody is twenty-one years old yet, but in the absence of alcohol everyone walks around drunk and stoned on the most high-minded of thoughts and the deepest of feelings.
And then Simon’s Rock ends. Like this:
Don’t be fooled by my wife’s ear-to-ear grin. She already knows the awful truth: while she was studying, the world around Simon’s Rock didn’t change. Just like before, very few people are interested in her opinion. Wherever you spit, you hit a hierarchy taller than the Empire State Building. Where you have baseball instead of philosophy. Wal-Mart instead of concern for the environment. Narrow-minded specialization instead of the multi-disciplinary approach. Where the daughter of a social worker and a schoolteacher, just like before, starts life a hundred steps lower than the offspring of an oil baron. Why, you ask, did they mess with this girl’s head for four years?
And this Speransky, with his ideas? Abolish serfdom! Limit autocracy! Nurture the youth for a new Russia! Well, he should have abolished and limited, before starting the whole lyceum thing. Look how it turned out: outside is the Russia of Arakcheev and the slave trade, while in a certain wing of the Catherine Palace, they are instilling the idea of “natural rights” in thirty young people who don’t actually have any. Allowing an uncensored press and mass protest. Is it any wonder that after such an education, four Lyceum graduates (13%) immediately joined the Decembrists, and two eventually ended up in a labor camp? The rebel Pushchin later confessed: his fellow mutineers told him that the views and convictions he had taken from the Lyceum had made him fit for the cause.
My alma mater, not to be mentioned in front of children, is another matter. Leningrad State Pushkin University is a jeweler’s replica of Russian reality. The University of Real Life!
This is not about the facilities, ladies and gentlemen: as the son of a miner and a schoolteacher, the facilities hardly bothered me. No, my institute of higher education reflected realities ideological and systemic. The ideology of Potemkin villages and jingoistic patriotism; the system of checking useless things off pointless lists. The educational process depended on the enthusiasm of particular instructors willing to give their best under any circumstances, and on the sloppy routines of the rest. The students were the lowest caste. It didn’t even occur to us that this process was supposed to be for our benefit. Nobody was interested in our opinion. The process existed for the benefit of the university’s permanent president, the father of the nation, who wielded absolute power and was able to punish and pardon on a whim.
My wife spent four years learning to believe in herself and in humanity; my education was a five-year course in applied cynicism. I learned a lot. Shall I tell you what I learned? This:
That most university courses are there for the sake of appearances. That in a transcript, an official document, you can write in a dozen courses that you didn’t take. That you are required to join the Club of the Funny and Inventive. That elective courses are not electable. That people are best managed through threats and hypocrisy. That the higher the authority, the more arrogant the ignorance. That power is above the law. That legally adult citizens of the Russian Federation can be forced to collect signatures for the “Our Home is Russia” party (the current generation of students learns that they can be whisked away to a pro-Putin demonstration and a viewing of Kremlin propaganda). That a factory churning out the Russian electorate can take the name “Pushkin”. Calling it “The Leningrad State Pushkin University” is like naming a KGB academy after Bulgakov. Why not? Didn’t he write a play about Stalin? He certainly did. So, he must have been a Soviet patriot.
See? I got a first-rate education. They prepared me for life in the Russia that exists. The only problem is that Russia shouldn’t be like this. And America should be better than it is, too. The whole world needs to be better, a lot better, than it is now. The product of any educational system can deduce this, but deduction isn’t enough. Inhumanity must be sensed instinctively – and so acutely that coming to terms with it is impossible. How can this be achieved? How do you develop a persistent allergy to the ugliness of the world in which you grew up? There is only one proven way: spend some time in another world.
Nearly 200 people gathered at this year’s Simon’s Rock reunion, at which I was an appendage to my wife. Fully-grown nerds hugged their aged professors. They attended lectures cooked up for the occasion. Everyone glowed with nostalgia and the alcohol that was no longer contraband. These people, spoiled by Simon’s Rock, all but wept from gratefulness for the four years they spent in this parallel world. Five, ten, twenty years ago, after the withdrawal and culture shock, they started to look for their place in the world off campus and slowly found it. The platforms from which the offspring of the oil barons launch themselves are not the only ones. There are many other paths: in science, film, humanitarian work, journalism and business, where the odds are given to self-confidence, multiplied by the ability to think and the inability to accept the world as it is.
While the Simon’s Rockers got drunk on nostalgia, I, forever a stranger at this party, couldn’t get the words “to us the whole world is a foreign land; our motherland is Tsarskoe Selo” out of my head. Pushkin’s graduating class, 30 noblemen’s sons who were spared the rod, with their high hopes, were a drop in the bucket in Russia in 1817. Most of the Lyceum graduates joined the military or civil service and became part of the system: one became Chancellor; another, an admiral; others, senators and privy councilors. But hardly any of the careerists idolized their school with the same passion as the “losers”, who never recovered from the “rays of the clear lyceum days”: the lazy poet Delvig, the irascible Küchelbecker, who spent ten years in solitary confinement, the convict Pushchin, who was so anxious to improve the motherland that before the rebellion he served briefly as a judge in the penal department (unheard of for a nobleman). The Lyceum did not cripple their fate – it was mangled by a society in which lyceums were too few.
Among the losers was the lowly courtier Pushkin (3.3%). Sergei Lvovich allowed his brother Vasily to take the slacker to the entrance exam personally.
As for the Leningrad State “Pushkin” University, I once tried to show my wife the place. I wanted to visit my old department, see one or two of my instructors. I explained to the security guard that I was a former student. But, you know. We didn’t have entry permits.
Sometimes I’m sorry that I’m not sorry about it.