Asked by Sigmund Freud if people could be protected against the A-bomb, Albert Einstein skeptically noted that unfortunately nothing in the world was changing as slowly as the human mentality.However, under the pressure of new knowledge, inventions and discoveries brought about by civilization, it is bound to change as well. The invention of the microscope, steam engine, radio, A-bomb and computer has dramatically altered the lifestyle and consciousness of people. Science and technology make only part of the list. Among other things, the 20th century showed that there could be wars without winners. Technologically backward winners may trail behind losers. No wealth can buy happiness. No country feels secure from a mean neighbor even if it has the best weapons in the world.Some lessons of modern times were hard to learn, but civilized mankind learned something yet and, most importantly, started to acknowledge that the old experience may prove to be a hindrance rather than help in the new environment. • Napoleon was absolutely convinced that the ship could be propelled by wind only and declined the offer made by steamboat inventor Robert Fulton, letting the opportunity slip. In exile Napoleon allegedly admitted that the error cost him the crown. • Victorious Soviet commander Semyon Budyonny sincerely believed that tanks could never repulse a cavalry attack. • The Chinese assumed that the best way to cope with sparrows pecking crops was to exterminate them. However, later they had to buy those birds for hard currency. The Bible says that no one pours new wine in old wineskins. Just in the same way, new challenges require new approaches. And who is there to know what kinds of approaches are required to solve future problems?


Contradiction 1

We have to prepare our children for life in the world unknown to us.


In other words, we must teach our children how to live in the future world. This relatively fresh contradiction appeared when technological and scientific paradigms started to change within the lifespan of one generation.


My father was trained to work with tube radio circuits. He was a good specialist and perfectly knew his job. But within 10 years tubes began to give way to transistors and his skills rapidly became obsolete. He had to retrain and acquire virtually a new profession. He did succeed but the former confidence was gone. When microchips took over transistors, he faced great difficulties and failed to change. Before his retirement there appeared large-scale integrated circuits, gadgetry of the new generation.


It so happens that the technological knowledge we acquire today is of no use tomorrow. Is it true for education? The question is purely rhetorical.

If I had it my way, I would introduce a new grammar rule making us write education with a capital E. Humanization of a person is the primary goal of mankind, and it can be done through Education only.


Mankind is still very young and Education is also in the making. The man got rid of such a biological rudiment as the tail but retains psychological and social rudiments of fear, aggression, and the insatiable desire to occupy a higher position in his milieu. In my opinion, the still immature mankind needs much more education.


Presidents of different countries keep intimidating each other, guns and missiles instead of fangs and claws, hoping to win respect by defiant snarling on TV screens. Isn’t it a familiar picture?


The boy did not go to school and stubbornly refused to learn reading. No one understood why. Gradually it became clear that he was afraid to grow up. He was afraid of being put to jail for his childish escapades since they were unlikely to be forgiven. So he decided not to grow up. If he stayed a child forever nobody would punish him. He found a way to shun responsibility…


It seems that mankind is afraid to grow up and Education is replaced by its lifeless surrogate which is called a system of education. And for nearly 300 years this surrogate manages to undergo no significant changes.

Is it possible to make a cell phone with obsolete components, for example radio tubes? Yes it is, but it will be as large as a house, unreliable and power-consuming. Will anyone use such a phone? The answer is yes, provided that there is no alternative, but people are unlikely to enjoy it.


• WASHINGTON – Sixty-four percent of big U.S. companies are unhappy with the reading, writing and reasoning abilities of high-school graduates entering the work force, a poll of business executives said.[1]

• According to Jean Foucambert from the National Institute of Pedagogical Studies (France), 20 percent of children under the age of 12 perceive only a third of the information contained in the text, 30 percent read too slowly, and only one out of sixty can demonstrate fluent reading and adequate comprehension.

• From an interview with V.M. Filippov, Minister of Education of Russia:

– Vladimir, are you satisfied with the education received by your kids?

– No, not in the least.


We use an antiquated education system, though, in truth, there is no such thing as an antiquated education. An antiquated education is not Education at all. And an antiquated school[2] works against Education.

Today’s school conveys the knowledge that had become obsolete long before it entered the textbooks. The proposed reforms suggest we should do our best to catch up with yesterday, which resembles trying to run towards the Sun following our own shadow.

We have to honestly admit that education based on learning facts has outlived itself because facts quickly become obsolete, while their amount tends to infinity.

It’s reasonable to assume that the amount of aggregate knowledge of civilization is growing exponentially. There exists only indirect evidence substantiating this assumption but it is quite convincing.

Here is the Mumford chart reflecting the exponential growth of the number of significant inventions over time. Deviations from the curve are due to political and economic developments, wars, etc.

Mumford's Chart

Technology is changing faster and faster both at the workplace and at home. In modern industry and commerce the half-life period of useful technological knowledge is estimated at a year and a half. Thus, within the period of 18 months the initial technological knowledge of the worker loses half its value, while in three years three quarters become useless.


Of course, the system of education could not but notice this trend and reacted by more hours and overloading students. In an attempt to stay away from major changes, the old system of education came up with its own recipe for salvation, i.e. the transition to specialization at early stages of education. However, it stumbled on another contradiction.


Contradiction 2

Education should be highly specialized since one “can not embrace the unembraceable”. But a narrow specialist is hard to retrain, has poor command of interdisciplinary knowledge, and faces problems communicating with other specialists in solving common problems.


In short, this contradiction may be expressed by a formula “narrow specialization always leads to broad idiocy”.[3]


Apart from being first-class professionals, successful people should be successful citizens, successful parents, successful consumers, etc. A successful citizen understands how the government, the financial system and the civil society operate. A successful parent knows the rules and methods of bringing up a child. A successful consumer knows exactly what (s)he wants, as well as how and where to get it. In a rapidly changing world, facing production, marketing, social and even everyday problems requires a systematic and interdisciplinary approach, as well as the ability to see their long-term effects.


At the present neither higher nor secondary education meets this requirement. Large commercial companies are increasingly trying – with varied success – to cope with the problem in the house.


In an attempt to counter narrow specialization, the US Bell System has established the Humanitarian Institute for promising managers.


However, the existing contradiction is yet to be resolved and the current system of education can not do it in principle. This contradiction is closely connected with another one, which stems from the historically established system of science and learning.


Contradiction 3

Education has to be based on studying subjects since it copies the organizational structure of science. But subject-oriented education prevents perception of the world as a coherent whole.


It is common knowledge that one of the main goals of Education is to transfer culture, while it is known for its integrity and can be divisible only conventionally. The peculiarities of the language and the faith, for example, are bound to have an impact on the development of technology and art. In a sense, such dissimilar discoveries as painting of distant perspective by Leonardo da Vinci[4] and food preservation in a fridge by Charles Tellier could be called equipollent events in terms of human culture.


Dividing people into groups predisposed either to exact sciences or liberal arts is beyond criticism. Leonardo da Vinci is known to have been a distinguished fortifier who developed the idea of a submarine and a helicopter. Einstein played the violin, took interest in psychology and in 1933 together with Freud published the book “Why War?” Some might argue that they were geniuses. Yes they were, but maybe they were geniuses just because they did not confine themselves to particular subjects of studies only.


Today’s education in “subjects and portions” causes many ills. We even cultivated a constricted approach and took pride in it, boasting of being a specialist who knows nothing of other fields. This was quite expedient for the industrial society, where a person was required to do his part only and follow instructions in other respects.

It occurred to me more than once, that literature and history, physics and chemistry as well as other subjects of learning occupy different compartments of the human brain.


Teaching physics in an advanced class, I asked to solve a problem that required knowledge of chemistry. The results were deplorable. When we discussed it together, the students explained that they would have easily solved the problem if they had been prompted to draw upon chemistry.


After many years of education in “subjects and portions” it is hard to expect that systems thinking will come into existence all by itself. Here is how an eminent Russian educator K. Ushinsky figuratively described the results of such education for an average student:


Concepts and even ideas are arranged in his mind in dead strings, resembling rows of swallows benumbed by the cold. Despite being very close, the swallows are yet unaware of each other’s existence; and similarly the two closely related ideas can exist in such a truly murky mind for decades, failing to take notice of each other.


The necessity of integrated education is becoming increasingly urgent. The existing system is unable to provide it. Half-hearted attempts to introduce interdisciplinary connections are better than nothing, although they often come down to stating superficial and isolated facts like Mendeleev – a famous Russian chemist – is also known to have written poems.


One can argue that subject-oriented education has not outlived itself and can still meet the challenges of life, but there is no doubt that the scholarship becomes as demanded as ever in accordance with the Mumford chart.

And here we face another contradiction.


Contradiction 4

Stricter education requirements only widen the gap between high-graders and low-graders.


Mass migrations, mixed marriages and Internet dating bring people closer to each other and make them mingle. There are almost no geographical fences, and it becomes increasingly easy to overcome the language barriers.


However, there develops a tendency of dividing people into educated and uneducated. The former group welcomes tomorrow while the latter prefers yesterday. Against the existing background this socially destructive tendency does not leap to the eye but it is there alright, and it splits the mankind into two parts.


There have always been good and poor students. But in the world of today the impact of education on destiny becomes increasingly critical. I believe that very shortly education will mean more for the success in life than any other starting opportunity, such as the origin, wealth, etc.


In April 1996, while walking in Moscow, I was surprised coming across a job offer on a bulletin board of the automobile construction institute, inviting young people with higher education to work as mechanics or electricians for a ZIL dealership. On-job teaching and promotion were guaranteed. Today such offers surprise nobody.


Today the hands of mechanics working for Ford dealerships can still be dirty with lubricants but they use Hewlett-Packard computer networks, backed by elaborate troubleshooting tools, and have an instant online access to technical drawings and data. On receiving the data on the car to be repaired, the system identifies the defect and sets the repair sequence.


These people are not just dumb extensions to the computer. They have to expand their knowledge as well as continuously develop their skills since the car park is constantly renovated and computer programs become more and more sophisticated.



Demand for industrial, household, and social skills become so diverse, complex and varied that without proper education it is impossible to succeed in any facet of life.


In civilized countries the quality of life of most people directly depends on their education level. During 40 years of employment the Bachelor’s Degree enables its holders to earn 2 million dollars more than high school graduates. The Master’s Degree provides, on the average, for an additional 2.3 million dollars, and with time the gap widens.


The weekly wages of high school graduates dropped from $387.24 in 1969 to $335.20 in 1989. The 12% decline is attributed to a loss in productivity by so-called front-line workers. It is comparable to a wage gain of about 8% for a college graduate.[5]


The gap between educated and uneducated nations represents a serious social problem. Any attempt to solve it is bound to stumble on new contradictions. Consideration of these contradictions makes the topic of a separate article or even a book. We are going to consider one of them, the price contradiction, which is not the knottiest but surely the most debated one.


Contradiction 5

Education has to be expensive to be good and inexpensive to be available.


High-quality education is very expensive. It presupposes high salaries for teachers, advanced facilities and equipment, continuously updated content and many other things.


Since the times of Catherine the Great, the Romanov family was considered one of the richest in the world. Russian Emperor Alexander I spent one fifth of the Romanov family income to maintain an educational institution called the Tsarskoselsky Lyceum.

Being the owner of gold and silver mines in Latin American, the Jesuit Order was known for its fabulous wealth, and spent more than half of its earnings on educational programs.


It is pointless to hope that even a rich state can easily cope with this problem. Nowadays no one questions the necessity of state allocations to education. However, the contradiction is still there.


In 1986 the French government proposed to raise tuition fees in universities. This aroused such an outburst of students’ indignation that the Education Minister was forced to resign. But a few years later, 60 percent of students expressed their readiness to pay 2-3 times more than the existing so-called student tax, paid upon enrollment. The money was to help universities to raise the academic standards and radically improve the material support of the educational process.


There is another aspect of education costs, which is shaped by a well-known psychological effect: people do not value things that come for free. Once I came across an interesting book, bought several copies and handed them out to my friends and acquaintances. I soon found out that these books were not read. Then I changed tactics and started selling books. Strange as it may sound, “the readership ratio” immediately rose.


In Austria, higher education is free. There are no entrance exams, making any university open to any applicant/school graduate.

Austria boasts a world-highest student rate per 1000 residents. The quality of education is excellent.

Curiously enough, the number of specialists with higher education per 1000 people in Austria is one of the lowest in Europe! Duration of study there exceeds the optimum time up to two times. Each graduate costs the state much more than in other EU countries. So far, the only solution the authorities could offer is to introduce a rather symbolic fee of $ 315 per term.


Good education is expensive. But poor education costs us much more, since its aftermath may be devastating. We have entered an era when incompetence of an engineer, a general, a politician, no matter who, is fraught with social danger.


Contradiction 6

Education should be voluntary to be efficient, and compulsory to offset socially dangerous incompetence.


Lawyers have come up with a maxim that ignorance of the law does not exempt from responsibility. I would like to supplement that ignorance of the laws of chemistry does not relieve from responsibility for poisoning rivers, ignorance of the laws of physics does not free from liability for Chernobyl and the like, ignorance of the laws of the biosphere is not exempt from liability for ecological catastrophes.  It is so easy to manipulate people and make them act against their own interests and social development if they fail to understand economics, politics, and society laws. Ignorance is dangerous, which makes education a must. The scope of compulsory knowledge increasesexponentially. Ideally, of course, a student should study voluntarily and with pleasure. As a result, training will be highly effective. But how often do we see such a picture?


Imagine that you and I are in a music school and see a new boy. But no one tells him what instrument he is going to learn to play. Nobody forces him to take or do anything.

“May I go there and listen?”

“Yes, you may.”

“May I touch the key?”

“Yes, you may.”

“And may I touch the strings?”

“Yes, you may.”

You may do anything… The boy looks around and gradually gets accustomed with the school. Not immediately, not at one dash but he chooses an instrument. Now and only now, it makes sense to start teaching.

Learning is efficient if the subject has been chosen by the child himself. However, the child can choose nothing at all or choose one thing today and another tomorrow. What should we do if there is no end in sight? A cucumber in brine is sure to become salty. Until the grown-ups have learned to create an educational environment, encouraging a child to learn, the controversy will persist.Hong-Kong, Taiwan and some other countries, which have leaped out of poverty by staking on high standards of education, failed to resolve this contradiction. The hard pressure of compulsory education made it possible to occupy the high-tech niche and to raise the living standards but proved to be detrimental to the psychological makeup of the population. Full-fledged democracies run to another extreme. Teachers are reluctant to discipline their students keeping off the anger of the parents. In desperate attempts to encourage the activity of students, one teacher made a bet that he would eat rain-worms; another teacher entered into a side bet to throw a cake into her face. Many children from American poor families drop out of school, which has become a national problem. The educational level continues to decline. What should we do? The solution has yet to be found, though some measures are already being taken.


The authorities of West Virginia adopted a law, disqualifying from driving any student who dropped out of school. Such students could not take out a driving license and drive a car or a bike. As a result, the law not only cut down sharply the dropout rate, but returned many dropouts back to classes.


Education is the realm of complex contradictions, paradoxes, and open tasks. The best minds of the planet tried to tackle the problems posed by education.


In his letters to Jean Piaget, Albert Einstein expressed his admiration at the courage of the scientist who vowed to study the process of forming the child’s thinking. Einstein called the physical problems he was working on himself a child’s play as measured against the mysteries of consciousness and subconscious of the child.[6]


Education is always an investment in future which explains the essence of Contradiction 7: we want to enjoy life and prosper today, while investing in future imposes restrictions on present.

Education requires close attention. Countries which deal with education in line with the leftover principle are doomed to live in accordance with the same principle. The paradoxes and contradictions of education must be challenged. And the found solutions have to be smart.


P.S. Why am I writing all this?


Recently I read a few popular American books on education with impressive circulations, written in good language and having plenty of merits. The authors offer various recipes for revolutionary changes in Education. But since they fail to see the contradictions, their proposals look deceptively easy and feasible.


They say that the right problem statement solves half the problem. If we really want to solve the problems of education rather than pretend doing it, we have to put straightforward questions allowing for existing contradictions. Otherwise we will only delude ourselv


[1]T. Henry Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Monday, July 16, 1990.

[2]By school the author implies both secondary and higher educational institutions.

[3]The formula is derived from a witticism by Bernard Shaw.

[4]Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was the first to work out the principles of linear perspective and Leonardo da Vinci   perfected the method by blurring the outlines of distant objects.

[5]T. Henry Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Monday, July 16, 1990.

[6]See http://www.igumo.ru/psih.html