Thursday, September 10, 2015

Grading Knowledge

I've recently been trying to quantify my reading ability in various languages. To do this I'm measuring my reading speed and the number of unfamiliar words per thousand. I've chosen newspaper editorials as reading material. Why? Public-domain fiction is old, so it's got lots of archaic language. Getting several examples of modern fiction in every one of my languages would have cost money or required lots of time at a library. News articles have too many dates, names, places and numbers in them. Understanding those is too easy and has nothing to do with reading comprehension in a foreign tongue. So I'm reading editorials instead.

Last night I read one from Corriere Della Sera about the economic policies of Matteo Renzi, the current Prime Minister of Italy. That led me to the Italian Wikipedia article about him. Among other things it said that he passed his school graduation exam with a grade of 60/60. So of course I had to look at a wiki about the Italian school grading system. And then at the wikis about the grading systems of other countries. I know the Russian one from having gone to school in Moscow for 10 years, but I just had to look at that too.

I learned something new there:

"Between 1917 and 1935, the Communist government had tried to implement a radically new evaluation system with no grades at all, but it never fully took root."

I made some searches in Russian, and this turned out to be true. Lunacharsky, the first Commissar of Education, abolished grades in schools and universities. And this policy was only overturned in 1935!

You see, I recently had a long argument about Soviet history in the comment section of Anatoly Karlin's blog. I was saying that as Stalin got more power, he gradually turned the country in a conservative direction. Very few people outside the former USSR are aware of this, yet it was an enormously important process whose effects continue to be felt in global politics today. If you don't understand it, you're not going to understand the roots of either the first or the second Cold Wars.

I gave lots of examples of Stalin's right-ward turn in my comments to Anatoly's post. It was a broad political shift, so it affected life in a million ways. I had no idea about school grades though.

In the modern world getting rid of them is still an extremely leftist idea. Until now I've mostly associated it with Sweden. The desire to destroy, punish, shame or refuse to acknowledge excellence is one of the driving forces of leftism. Nietzsche traced it to envy and called it ressentiment. From the lefty point of view either everyone deserves a participation trophy or no one deserves anything at all. The fact that Stalin re-instituted school grades in 1935 agrees with my understanding of who he was and what he really did.

The amplitude of the right-left swings of recent Russian politics is astounding by the way. Under the late Tsars Russia was much more conservative than the West. In the early Soviet period it was the most leftist country on Earth by an enormous margin. In some ways it was more leftist than even the West of the 1970s. Homosexuality for example was legal in the USSR from 1917 to 1933. The 1930s were a transitional period, but from 1945 until the late 1980s Russia was again much more conservative than any Western country.

The amplitude of the swings has recently decreased though. The Yeltsin regime killed a lot of people through economic and social dislocation, and it was culturally leftist unlike the late USSR, but it was't more leftist than the West of its time. Putin's Russia is more socially conservative than the modern West, but not by much. At least for now. Because why couldn't this be a new transitional period?

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