Remembering Mikhail Krasovitsky: Vasilii Sukhomlinsky: The Ukrainian Teacher, Part 2.

Only now is it becoming clear what courage Sukhomlinsky showed in actually coming out against the one-side conception of the dynamics of children’s collectives, a conception, sanctioned in theory and practice:  the stringent demands, the linking of responsibility and dependence, the subordination of personal interests to the interests of the collective.  In his opinion, the main thing was to create a healthy community of children in which an atmosphere of respect for the individual and for the interests of each child within the community fostered the good.

It is known that in former socialist society an atmosphere of hostility developed in relations among people, including rudeness, malevolence and disrespect for individual identity.  That atmosphere left its mark on the schools, as well as in teachers’ attitudes towards students.  Even now, lack of culture often predominates, trampling on a child’s self-respect.  In these circumstances, one hears Sukhomlinsky’s voice:  “Benevolence, reasoned goodness, that’s what should be basic to the life of a children’s collective.  How beautiful this world is, and, at the same time, how profound, how complex and many-sided, the goodness of human relations.

Sukhomlinsky came out against our practice of group discussion of a student’s misdeeds.  The so-called “personal matters” method of imposing a form of conduct defined for adults was introduced in its distorted form in the schools.  In extreme cases, such group pressure(literally, torture) led to suicide.  And Sukhomlinsky insisted that it is inadmissible to take as an example for discussion in a collective the misdeeds of a child related to abnormal family circumstances, parental arbitrariness, the mistakes of the teacher, or perhaps a child’s response to some intimate experience.  “It might occur to the teacher to ask,” writes Sukhomlinsky, “What is it that is useful for the collective to look over in the child’s behavior?  Nothing.

It is difficult for the American reader to understand how courageous one had to be to resist in thought or deed the authoritarian pedagogy in those years.  Sukhomlinsky paid for it with his health. He was constantly persecuted by zealous guardians of Leninist-Marxist dogma, or by those who were just spiteful, such as Boris Likhachev.

Yet he was awarded the Medal of Socialist Labor.  He became a corresponding member of the Academy of Science of the USSR.  He was awarded every kind of honor.  His books were published, although some of his publications were warehoused for twenty years.

We have to allow that Sukhomlinsky, like many others, had to praise the Communist party in his works.  He had to write about teaching schoolchildren devotion to the ideas of communism, though it was obvious that many of these ideas contradicted his humanistic view.  If he had not, his work would not have seen the light of day.

But very frequently, using communist phraseology, he came out against lies in educating children.  For example, he asserted that it was inadmissible to create an atmosphere of “ideological sterility” around children and young people, to close one’s eyes to what is evil, unjust, vicious, or inconsiderate in life.  He insisted that above all the teacher must display honesty.

It is still incomprehensible how the following incident, drawn from one of Sukhomlinsky’s works, was published in those years.  During a political information meeting required in all classes, a 10th grade Komsomolka(member of the Young Communist League) was speaking about life in the USSR and abroad.  Of course, here everything was great, and there everything was terrible.  And then a boy asked this question:  “My mother sat for a month on the ground cleaning off beets…  She got sick, and is now in the hospital.  Why do women have to do such strenuous work?”  “Do you realize what you are saying?”, the teacher got angry.  What sort of Pioneer are you?”  “What kind of teacher are you?” asked the boy.  “Why should a person sit for months on the damp ground?  And you teach us to defend the truth!”(Personal note:  In 1973 I was in Leningrad with a group of fellow American students.  As part of our daily routine, we were required to attend lectures emphasizing the superiority of Leninist-Marxist doctrine.  When it came to a meeting of philosophers, my patience reached an end, and I blurted out:  “Isn’t the business of philosophy to encourage questioning?   What if someone entered your philosophy group with a different point of view?”  There was a shocked silence and threatening looks from my fellow Americans.  At last the answer came from the group:  “We wouldn’t need him!)

The posthumous fate of Sukhomlinsky’s works recapitulates the fate of many progressive ideas in our country.  Sukhomlinsky’s books were published, his birthday celebrated.  The Pavlysh school bears his name, and his daughter, Olga, is the head of a department in a Ukrainian teacher research institute.  Conferences take place celebrating his work, but only a small percentage of teachers have read his works in the original.  So, unfortunately, many of Sukhomlinsky’s ideas are entirely excluded from the schools.

One of Sukhomlinsky’s books is entitled, I Give My Heart to Children.  And I believe that says it all.

Vasilij Sukhomlinskij and his children after a harvest

Vasilii Sukhomlinsky and his children after a harvest