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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Annals of the Neo-Soviet Union: Textbook Censorship is Renewed

The Moscow Times reports that Russia has adopted a neo-Soviet textbook review process which will force Russians to continue living in ignorance indefinitely, just the way a dictatorship likes the people to be kept:

India is a continent, the oceans are infested with squid that stretch 20 meters, and the human soul is known to leave the body during sleep. These are just a few of the many, many errors found in grade-school textbooks across the country.

Now, the state is returning to its old Soviet ways to cleanse textbooks of obvious and embarrassing mistakes, although some educators wonder what kind of cleansing is taking place. Last year, a new review process was adopted. A lot of work remains: In 2006, just 18 percent of the textbooks reviewed passed muster.

"There are many typos and errors that are simply ridiculous," said Sergei Sidorenko, a member of the panel from the Russian Academy of Sciences charged with weeding out the errors.

The Education and Science Ministry could not provide exact figures for how many error-filled textbooks were in circulation. Nor is it clear when all books in use will have the Academy's stamp of approval. Svetlana Teterina, who heads the textbook division at the ministry, said the government was targeting fall 2007, but given there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books yet to be reviewed, that date seems overly optimistic.

The problem dates to the Soviet collapse, when the rigorous, communist-era system of reviewing -- and, in many cases, whitewashing or editing -- textbooks ended. Beginning in the early 1990s, publishers were required only to get the approval of two "independent experts," Teterina said. Often, those experts were paid off to facilitate publication.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many schoolteachers do not know enough to spot errors.

Larisa, a Moscow-region research biologist with a son in the ninth grade, was appalled by her son's biology textbooks. She declined to give her last name for fear he would suffer consequences in the classroom.

Larisa noted that in her son's textbook, bacteria were incorrectly referred to as bacilli, plant sugars were improperly classified, and a discussion of cell structure omitted the mention of cell membranes. The missing cell membrane -- and the schoolteacher's failure to incorporate it into her lectures -- was noticed by at least one student, who recalled a guest lecture on cells Larisa had given her son's class a few years earlier. After the student brought it to the teacher's attention, Larisa's son was apparently penalized.

"Since then, my son can't get anything above a 4 in biology," she said. Students are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with five being the highest mark.

These are not the only mistakes and oddities found in Russian science books, Sidorenko said. One biology text, he said, included a section on the soul, which has never been empirically proven to exist. Several chemistry books, he said, assign the wrong formulas to substances.

And math books, Sidorenko observed, are rife with sloppy problems. One problem, he recalled, stated that Masha lived 3 kilometers from school, and Kolya lived 5 kilometers from school, and then asked: How far away from each other do they live? The correct answer given was 8 kilometers. But Sidorenko pointed out that would only be true if Masha and Kolya lived at perfectly antipodal locations, or opposite coordinates. Because the problem does not specify this, the answer could be anywhere between 2 and 8.

Problems like this were largely absent in times past.

Under the Soviet regime, textbooks were reviewed by multiple boards and panels of experts and teachers at the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Pedagogic Sciences (now the Academy of Education), and then were tested in special schools before being mass produced by state publishers.

The education ministry's recent recentralization of the review process is strongly reminiscent of the old, more airtight system, said Dmitry Zuyev, who served as editor-in-chief of Prosveshcheniye, one of the Soviet Union's major academic publishing houses, from 1969 to 1993.

In keeping with their Soviet predecessors, Russian authorities place a premium on history -- once viewed as the scientific basis for socialism, and now considered a key ingredient in the making of an upstanding Russian citizen.

"History books are very important in bringing up Russian citizens," Teterina said. "They receive our special attention and interest." She added that four of the "most responsible publishers" have sent in history books for early review.

Platon Manotskov, who has been teaching history in St. Petersburg grade schools for 37 years, said the only errors he had spotted in textbooks over the years were relatively minor -- for example, wrong dates.

The more serious problem facing history teachers, Manotskov said, was that the education ministry's new teaching mandated jettisoning the traditional, chronologically organized curriculum. Now, he said, students study world history in a compressed, two-year period and then focus on selected periods.

Manotskov was skeptical of the ministry's new review process. "I have a strong hunch that the ministry means something else by mistakes -- not factual errors but rather interpretations of history," he said. "I would not want, as a teacher, to be strictly told to inculcate civic pride or to teach within a certain ideological framework, and I'm afraid that might happen."

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