Category Archives: democratic reform overseas

civic education in Russia

The Russian Education Ministry recently unveiled new curricular units for grades 1-11 under the label of “Talking About What is Important: Our Country is Russia.” I learned about the curriculum from this article in Meduza, but the magic of Google Translate allowed me to read the whole thing in English. It’s fascinating as a window into Russian pedagogy and state values, as well as a dim reflection of practices that some Americans would advocate–or even use already–for our children.

Perhaps the creepiest part comes in the Materials for Grades 5-7. Students compete in teams to answer quiz questions, such as “What is the tallest building in Europe?” (answer: Lakhta Center, St. Petersburg) and “What order do the colors appear in the Russian flag?”

At this point, the lesson plan says:

Teacher: While the results of the game are being summed up, I want to note that regardless of points scored, you are all great, because you know a lot about geography, history and culture of our country. …

We see manifestations of genuine patriotism even today, above all during the special military operation. Its launch on February 24 of this year was announced by the President of Russia V.V. Putin. In his speech, the President noted: “Circumstances require us to take decisive and immediate actions. The People’s Republic of Donbas turned to Russia with a request for help.” Among the goals of a special military operation are to protect the population of Donbas, subjected to bullying and harassment by the Kyiv regime, to disarm Ukraine, and to prevent the deployment of NATO military bases. The Russian armed forces, together with the forces of the DPR and LPR, are actively working to achieve these goals. Huge military and other assistance of the collective West to the Ukrainian authorities is prolonging the fighting and increases the number of victims of the operation.

Over the past months, we have learned the names of our heroes, Russian patriots. Here are some more facts. Captain Alexander Romanov during the battle discovered a group of Ukrainian nationalists and decided to push them into the minefield. As a result of the operation, the nationalists surrendered, Captain Romanov personally neutralized 26 men. Thanks to the successful operation, Russian troops occupied the salient without losses.

(The list of heroic feats continues.)

Another snippet, this one from grades 3-5, provides a portrait of a Russian classroom as the Ministry imagines it:

Teacher: Today let’s think together again about what it means to love your Motherland, and how to learn it. For this it is important to answer the question “What do we call the Motherland?”. It is both simple and very complex issue. Of course, the Motherland for us is our country Russia. And what else? I would like to hear your answers.

Sample answers of children: “The motherland is also the people who live in our country, and our family, and the place where we were born, and the culture”.

Teacher: Let’s listen to the lyrics of the song “Where the Motherland Begins” by Veniamin Basner to the words of Mikhail Matusovsky. …

I had the opportunity to work with Ukrainian teachers in Kyiv in 2017, so I knew their national curriculum at the time. It had patriotic elements, but also democratic, classically liberal, and cosmopolitan aspects, and it seemed to align with guidance from the Council of Europe. I did not see anything about democracy or individual rights in the new Russian materials, even as lip-service.

We must teach students about politics, government, history, and social issues–to equip them to participate on an equal footing. However, civic education is always dangerous, because the government is able to compel children to learn about itself. I realize that conservative critics believe that American public schools teach youth to support expansive state policies and bureaucracies that they oppose. For me, a greater risk is a curriculum that idolizes the nation and its existing system and policies–much like the Kremlin’s. These disagreements are inevitable and even healthy. The best we can do is to have an ongoing, critical, diverse, deliberative, and influential public debate about what students should learn, so that this crucial question is not settled by politicians alone.

when states are blind

Although an account by former Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev and a Washington Post article today by Greg Miller and Catherine Belton should be read with caution, these sources paint a consistent picture.

Before the February invasion, the Kremlin believed that the government of Ukraine was compromised and the Ukrainian public would support a Russian occupation. Russian agents had strong reasons to disbelieve both assumptions; they had even conducted reliable polls in Ukraine that showed a high willingness to fight. But they had no incentives to tell their superiors the truth.

Putin also believed he was ordering something like 200,000 soldiers to invade and occupy a compliant Ukraine, but the real number may have been closer to 100,000. Commanders all down the line had incentives to lie about how many men had actually been recruited, had reported for duty, had remained on base, and had received basic training and essential equipment.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian security services received US and British intelligence that Russia was preparing to invade and duly reported those assessments to President Zelensky. But they also knew about poor Russian preparation and thought that the invasion was probably a bluff. At the same time, many Ukrainian officials feared that Russia had fatally compromised own security services–mirroring the Kremlin’s assumptions. US intelligence also underestimated Ukraine’s potential in the case of war, which may have delayed US military aid.

Clearly, the errors were worse on the Russian side, and they may be continuing. A study by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and colleagues claims that “business retreats and sanctions are catastrophically crippling the Russian economy,” contrary to what Russian government statistics currently suggest and what Russian leaders may sincerely believe. Likewise, Russian apologists for their own system who cite conservative values, like traditional gender roles and faith, seem blind to facts. Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have three of the four highest divorce rates in the world. Eight percent of Russians attend church regularly, as compared to 48% of supposedly decadent Americans and 19% of Ukrainians.

Time will tell who is right about the Russian economy and other issues. The general point is that no government can automatically or easily know what is going on. A government may not even know how many soldiers are enlisted in its own national army, let alone how the economy is really performing or how the public would respond to new events.

A government can allocate resources to collect information. When William the Conqueror suddenly obtained absolute power over England, one of his first acts was to order a census of its land and people, the Domesday Book. However, state capacity is always limited (there was no new English census for two hundred years after William’s), and money does not straightforwardly buy truth. It can even create incentives to mislead. Miller and Belton report that the Kremlin now regards Viktor Medvedchuk as a traitor because he delivered nothing in return for huge payments from Russian intelligence.

The more authoritarian a government is, the more it can give itself the right to collect information. It can employ surveillance, coercion, and even torture. On the other hand, authoritarian governments tend to monopolize information, depriving themselves of independent checks on what they believe. They invite people to lie to obtain preferment or avoid punishment. And they often focus on collecting information that most directly affects their own survival (such as the names of potential opponents) rather than information that would help them govern effectively.

I suppose that an authoritarian government that is broadly popular, such as the Soviet Union at the height of WWII, may perform decently well because individuals are motivated to try to do what they say they are doing. For instance, military officers don’t merely claim that they have followed orders; they do their best to follow them. But when authoritarian governments have lukewarm support, they are highly vulnerable to misinformation.

To various degrees, democratic governments restrict their own ability to collect information. At the limit, a highly democratic government could not employ spies, because it would be fully transparent to its own citizens. (That would deprive it of some ability to collect information–for better or worse.) There are many other reasons for democratic systems to misunderstand reality, including groupthink and confirmation bias, an urge for popularity, short time-horizons, failures to invest in research, and sheer human error.

We should never assume the reliability of information provided by any institution. For instance, today’s Washington Post article is not Gospel truth; it is a piece of reporting that depends on sources who have interests and journalists who have frameworks. But it is equally foolish to reject all official information as biased. Often the best we can do is to examine the processes and incentives that have generated data. For instance, if the people inside a system are reasonably protected against political interference and reasonably likely to be rewarded for accuracy, the system is more credible. And if information that comes from several autonomous organizations converges, the odds improve that the results are valid–although cultural and ideological biases could still operate at that level.

Overall, authoritarian governments tend to be unreliable sources. Often they pay the price for their own errors.

See also conflict v mistake as a framework for politics; is society an artifact or an ecosystem? (and what that means for citizens); China teaches the value of political pluralism; etc.

reflections on German/US learning exchanges

Tisch College has been proud to collaborate with the Arbeitskreis deutscher Bildungsstätten e.V. (“network of German educational institutions” or AdB) on a Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE). This project has allowed 24 people who educate for democracy and civic life in Germany or the USA to interact intensively online and to visit the two countries together. I personally learned a great deal about contrasting policies and institutional cultures and common challenges, especially the teaching of “hard histories.”

Americans have a lot to learn from Germany’s extensive system for adult education, which involves governmentally funded but substantially independent centers and institutes all across the country, staffed by professionals who have studied adult education. These institutions explicitly promote democracy. On the other hand, the US expects our colleges and universities to provide more public outreach and education, and we have strong social movements that offer a lot of learning opportunities–albeit generally without any state funds.

AdB has now published a detailed and valuable report from the project that is available online, in English. Among other components, it includes an essay by TECE fellows Navina Engelage, April Grayson, Gabrielle Lamplugh, Elena Neu, Teresa Pfaffinger and Sarah M. Surak on history “as an entry point to dialogue and civic education,” and an essay by fellows Laura Tavares, Christina Wiley, Emma Humphries, Sarah Wagner and Christian Johann on the context of political polarization in both countries.

social class in the French election

The left should represent the lower-income half of the population; the right should represent the top half. When that happens, the left will generally advocate government spending and regulation. Such policies may or may not be wise, but they can be changed if they fail and prove unpopular. Meanwhile, the right will advocate less government, which (again) may or may not be desirable but will not destroy the constitutional order. After all, limited government is a self-limiting political objective.

When the class-distribution turns upside down, the left will no longer advocate impressive social reforms, because its base will be privileged. And the right will no longer favor limited government, because tax cuts don’t help the poor much. The right will instead embrace government activism in the interests of traditional national, racial or religious hierarchies. The left will frustrate change, while the right–now eager to use the government for its objectives–will become genuinely dangerous.

This class inversion is evident in many wealthy democracies, although usually with exceptions and complexities. For instance, in the USA, Democrats now represent the 17 richest congressional districts and most of the richest 50. Put together, Democratic districts are wealthier than Republican ones, although Democratic candidates often win a bit more of the vote below $50,000/year than above that income level. It’s in this context that we now see Republicans eager to use state power against private companies on cultural issues.

A similar inversion was evident in France this week. The class called “cadres” could be translated as executives, although I understand that it is a larger category than that English word implies. Among the cadres, Macron (a centrist technocrat) won and Melenchon* (from the left) came in second, with Le Pen (right-wing) drawing only about 12%.

The “intermediate professions” split their votes about evenly. This is a large and diverse group (26% of all employees), ranging from teachers to technicians. I would guess that sub-groups within this 26% voted quite differently from each other.

At the bottom of the scale–the ordinary employees and workers–Le Pen won by pretty substantial margins. Melenchon edged out Macron among these two categories, but he ran far behind Le Pen. If we look instead at wages, Macron performed better at the higher end, while Le Pen and Melenchon split the lower end about evenly. Macron won the most retirees and came in third amongst the young.

In the first round, French voters had numerous choices, and three candidates finished pretty close to even. That makes the outcome somewhat difficult to compare to a two-party contest between left and right, as in the USA. But one could envision Biden as a kind of hybrid of Macron and Melenchon (we can debate which one he is closer to), and Le Pen as Trump. Then the class inversion is clear.

This pattern is by no means exclusive to France, but it presents dangers wherever it appears.

I do perceive France as combining relatively egalitarian economic policies with a particularly sharp gradient of prestige and power. As the figure below shows, France uses taxation and spending to transfer far more cash than the US does (albeit mostly to pensioners), yet an extraordinary proportion of French business, cultural, and political elites attend a few Parisian schools. This means that a welfare state that redistributes a great deal from rich to poor has a culturally elite look. That may be a refined version of an international problem.

Joumard, Pisu & Bloch 2012

*This blog isn’t letting me use accent marks, unfortunately. See also: the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; what does the European Green surge mean?; and why the white working class must organize

Miro, Aidez l’Espagne

We are fortunate to live near the Harvard Art Museums, and while visiting recently, I pulled open a drawer and saw one object inside: Joan Miro’s 1937 design for a fundraising stamp entitled “Help Spain” (Aidez L’Espagne). Miro’s handwritten text says, “In the current struggle, I see expired forces on the fascist side; on the other side, the people whose immense creative resources will give Spain a momentum that will astonish the world” (my translation).

Two years after this print was made, the Spanish fascists had won. For that reason, the image caught me short. I had to remind myself: sometimes the people do win; sometimes the creative forces prevail.