Literature - Why Dostoyevsky is one of Russia's best teachers

24th January 2014 at 00:00
Kremlin schools chief says the greats instil `cultural values'

Russian novels are not known for their happy endings. But the country's education minister believes that the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov have ensured positive outcomes for thousands of students.

And Dmitry Livanov, the Russian minister of education and science, has suggested that the rest of the world should follow his country's lead by compelling students to study their own nation's literary canon.

Mr Livanov, who was speaking to TES during a visit to the UK for the Education World Forum this week, said it was a great source of pride for his country that all children read the Russian classics. Other nations, including England, should take note, he added.

"You can't leave a Russian school without having read poetry by Pushkin, novels by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky or short stories by Chekhov," Mr Livanov said.

Russia had a "golden font of cultural values" that every student had to know by the time they left school, he added.

"I was surprised, for example, that you could leave a British school without having learned Dickens," Mr Livanov said. "We believe one of the most important functions of school education is passing values from generation to generation.

"So we're telling people of our experiences, we're prepared to share it, and we're also learning the best practices from elsewhere."

Mr Livanov will find a kindred spirit in England's education secretary Michael Gove, who has made little secret of his desire for children to read the English literary canon.

"The great tradition of our literature - Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy - should be at the heart of school life," Mr Gove said back in 2010. "Our literature is the best in the world - it is every child's birthright and we should be proud to teach it in every school."

But the education secretary scrapped the existing reading list for schools, and his reworked national curriculum demands that two works of Shakespeare are studied by the age of 16, as well as "English literature both pre-1914 and contemporary".

This led Mr Livanov to express his surprise that England's students were not expected to study specific writers from its great literary past.

Asked what the rest of the world could learn from Russia's education system, Mr Livanov said: "Our way of teaching literature to children [is an example of what we do well]. Our children learn their literacy using the best works of literature."

Other countries are also trying to ensure that children leave school with a grasp of their cultural heritage, not least the US, which is introducing the Common Core State Standards - the first attempt at a national curriculum.

Already adopted by 45 states, the Common Core requires all students to read "seminal works of American literature". But, as in England, it stops short of a prescribed reading list.

The National Association for the Teaching of English (Nate), the UK's subject association for English teachers, said reading lists were problematic because it was too difficult to decide which authors should appear.

"We had a prescribed reading list from 1995 to the present day and I am glad that it has gone," said Bethan Marshall, chair of Nate. "Most children will read Dickens because they will study A Christmas Carol, and most will read the poetry of [Alfred Lord] Tennyson.

"But it is difficult to say that we should be prescribing the canonical texts because everyone disagrees with who should be in the canon.

"Plus, we are teaching children from all over the world, including Russians. Russia doesn't have such a cultural mix as we do [in the UK], so it is easier to pass on what they see as their cultural heritage."

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