Could we learn any lessons from book-loving Russia? Julian Elliott reports
On my first visit to St Petersburg, I was approached by a girl, no older than 10, who, in perfect English, asked me which of Dickens's works was my favourite. Racking my brain I responded, Oliver Twist, hoping that my recollection of the movie might help me bluff my way through further interrogation. The girl nodded pensively before replying: "Yes, that is one of my favourites also." Then she moved closer and asked: "And which of Pushkin's works do you most enjoy?" Humbled and embarrassed, I quickly changed the subject.
The findings of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which show that Russian children's attitudes to books are among the most positive to be found in 35 countries, come as no surprise to those who have visited this land. In America, children might ask an English visitor about sports or television - but in Russia they want to know about our great novelists.
Travellers cannot fail to notice how many Russian adults and young people in public places are reading books and serious magazines. This is no new phenomenon: Russians have long tended to spend longer reading and studying than their Western counterparts.
Such activity was traditionally not only for enjoyment but also wrapped up in Soviet notions of self-improvement. Communist ideology dictated that being cultivated and educated was a public duty, rather than a private pursuit. This had a particular influence on working-class youth. Russian studies from the 1920s show that young factory workers put strong emphasis on reading as a form of self-education.
The end of communism appears to have had little impact upon the nation's love of reading. For many the upheavals of the 1990s and the demise of Soviet ideologies left a spiritual vacuum and a crisis of values. Reading helped them to cope with such uncertainties. As Dostoevsky wrote, "without meaning to life, mankind is most likely to destroy itself although it might have a lot of material things and enough food".
In a recent study of 3,000 nine and 10-year-olds in Russia, England and the United States, Neil Hufton and I found that Russian children placed much greater importance on "being an educated person" as the main reason for working hard. By contrast, English and American youngsters stressed the importance of qualifications for getting a good job. Russian primary children tended to enjoy school more, spent many more hours doing homework, and saw their peers as positive educational role models.
Of course, children's behaviour reflects their society's values. Schools in Britain are often expected to be agents of change without any recognition that they cannot be independent of broader cultural factors. This is one reason, for example, why strongly individualistic societies such as England have particular trouble managing student behaviour. Similarly, the values and behaviour of many parents undermine the attempts of teachers to engender a love of reading.
In a further study of teenage attitudes to education in the three countries, we examined the views of children perceived by teachers as educationally unmotivated.
One such teenage boy, Andrei, informed me that: "Many teachers say I'm clever. But I became lazy recently, so I don't do homework properly. I think that if I start doing everything at home, I may become much better...
I feel like putting all my lessons aside and doing nothing... The thing I love to do most of all is just to lie on the sofa and dream about something."
I asked him what he might dream about. His response was unlike any teenager we interviewed in England: "About everything. How to change the world, like in the story 'Oblomov'."
In Russia, even a student identified by his school as unmotivated cannot help but offer allusions to great literature.
Letters, 23 Julian Elliott is associate director of research at the University of Sunderland's school of education and lifelong learning