Reader luna asks:
I am a big fan of your posts about life in the FSU and would like to know more!
Particularly, what was math and science education like in the FSU? You have said earlier that education in general was quite crappy. But scientific hearsay is that a lot of good physics and mathematics was done in the USSR, take sending humans to space for example. If the science education was also crappy, what would you say is the reason for this success?
I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer this question because this is always a subject of heated discussions between me and N. He got his first degree at one of the most prestigious math programs in the FSU and is the product of the (post) Soviet science education. Naturally, he has very good things to say about that system of education while I don’t, to put it very mildly.
It is true that there were never any attempts to bring ideology into the study of physics and mathematics in the USSR. As a result, these fields were left free of ideological conditioning and many people used them as a respite from the endless Communist slogans that were hammered into their brains at every step. Mathematics was an international language that made one feel part of the world instead of a terrified little creature separated from the rest of humanity by the Iron Curtain. Many brilliant mathematicians and physicists came out of this education system.
However, what they received cannot possibly be called a university education. The reason why people go to college is to become well-rounded individuals who have a number of skills and a stock of knowledge in a variety of disciplines. In the American system of higher education – which, I insist, still offers the best higher education in the world- all students have to take a significant number of General Education courses outside of their Major concentration. You can’t come to college, take 40 courses in math, and graduate without ever taking a peek outside of your calculus textbook.
In the USSR, students of all disciplines also had to take a variety of Gen Ed courses (foreign languages, the history of the Communist Party, something called “Scientific Atheism,” etc.) but the value of those courses was non-existent. There were, of course, people who worked on developing their non-mathematical interests outside of the classroom. They were not the majority, however. I can’t tell you how many brilliant programmers and mathematicians I have met who were as intellectually stimulating to talk to as 5-year-olds. They knew their equations, programming languages, and logarithms, but that was all they knew.
The difference between a university and a vocational school is precisely that a university offers you more than an insight into a single discipline. This is why I always say that there was good vocational training in the sciences in the USSR but there was no education.