Obedience training

This happy and cheerful period on my blog would not be complete without some mention of Anton Makarenko’s “Pedagogical poem,” aka “The Road to Life.” (Full text available here.) Makarenko, in case you don’t know, was one of the founders of Soviet pedagogy, best known for his work at the Gorky colony and the Dzerzhynsky colony, and for the book in question.

The Soviet government was chaotic and disorganized through much of the 1920s, with multiple factions and doctrines competing for dominance. On a practical level, the Bolsheviks had little if any experience with actual governance and running of the state institutions, and whatever blueprints they might have thought they had rarely survived confrontation with reality, so they made it up as they went along. Makarenko was one of such improvisers, controversial at first for his methods. Evidently, not everyone – even among Bolsheviks – shared his ideas, especially as they pertained to child labour and military-style organization of educational institutions. Stalin’s rule put an end to those voices in the 1930s. Makarenko was vindicated in a Resolution of the Central Committee of the Party on “pedological distortions” in 1936, became respected and imitated, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour in 1939. (Warning: that link is to a Soviet-era hagiography piece in PDF.)

In 1920, the Bolshevik authorities tasked Makarenko, a 32 year old teacher at the time, with establishing a new colony for juvenile delinquents in the countryside near Kharkiv, Ukraine. (This eventually became known as the Gorky colony.) Initially, the staff consisted of a manager and two more teachers; the buildings were in a state of disrepair, the furniture, equipment and almost everything else of value having been stolen. After two months or so of preparations, the colony welcomed its first six charges, who immediately set about ignoring their supposed superiors, undermining their authority, and demanding food and service while refusing to do any work. One was arrested for robbery and murder soon after his arrival. The colony continued in that manner for a few months, until Makarenko finally found a way into their hearts, which he describes thusly.

And then, one day, the storm broke. I suddenly lost my footing on the tight rope of pedagogical practice. One wintry morning I asked Zadorov to chop some wood for the kitchen stove, receiving the usual cheerfully insolent reply: “Do it thyself! God knows there are plenty of you here!”

It was the first time any of the boys addressed me with the familiar ‘thou.” Desperate with rage and indignation, driven to utter exasperation by the experiences of the previous months, I raised my hand and dealt Zadorov a blow full in the face. I hit him so hard that he lost his balance end fell against the stove. Again I struck him, seizing him by the collar and actually lifting him off his feet. And then I struck him the third time.

I saw to my astonishment that he was simply aghast. Pale as death, he kept putting on and taking off his cap with trembling hands. Perhaps I would have gone on hitting him, if he had not begun to whimper out: “Forgive me, Anton Semyonovich!”

And then… they happily lived ever after. When Makarenko ordered the boys to work that day, they complied:

To my astonishment, however, everything went off swimmingly. The boys and I worked away till dinnertime, cutting down the more stunted pine trees. They were a bit sulky, but the bracing frosty lair, the splendid, snow-crowned pines, and the fellowship of toil, mingling with the rhythm of axe and saw, did their work.

When a halt was called, all self-consciously dipped into my proffered store of coarse tobacco, and Zadorov, sending a puff of smoke towards the pine tops, suddenly burst out laughing:

“That was a good one!”

It was quite a pleasure to look at his rosy, laughing visage, and I couldn’t help smiling back at him.

“What? The work?” I asked.

“The work’s all right. I meant the way you licked me!”

He was a strong, strapping lad, and could certainly afford to laugh. I was astonished at myself for having dared to lay hands on such a Hercules.

With another peal of laughter, he picked up his axe and went up to a tree:

“What a joke! Oh, what a joke!”

We had dinner all together, with good appetites, bandying jokes, and nobody mentioned the occurrence of the morning.

The boys start to cooperate after that, and Zadorov becomes Makarenko’s trusted assistant, to the extent that Makarenko lends him a gun on a regular basis. Makarenko almost thinks of his own use of physical violence as a sacrifice on his part (“The Zadorov incident had cost me more than it had cost Zadorov himself”), but is determined to see this through:

I have to admit that I was beset by no qualms of conscience. Very well – I had struck one of my pupils. Keenly as I felt the pedagogical impropriety, the illegality of my action, at the same time I realized that the purity of our pedagogical conscience would have to be subordinated to the immediate task before me. I firmly decided to be a dictator if other methods failed.

I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 when I first read this. I had been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember and my parents allowed me access to their entire collection. I already knew better than to believe everything I was told in real life, but I still trusted the wisdom of books, more perhaps than I trusted my own experience. This passage is so well etched in my memory because it marks the first time I felt books betrayed me.

I am still bothered when I read it now. Makarenko’s self-justifications are commonplace and uninteresting. Zadorov, however, remains a puzzle. I understand acknowledgement of power and submission to it – even a child is taught that much. I understand concessions and compromises. But would you, in response to getting punched in the face, “all but [fall] in love with” the person who did it? I know I wouldn’t. I’m having trouble imagining why anyone would.

Makarenko explains that “it’s not the beating they remember, it’s the passion, the fury of a human being,” and the boys were appreciative of that. It’s that he “chose a way which was dangerous for [him]self, but it was a human, not a bureaucratic way.” This sounds almost like an abusive relationship, except for the inverted chronology where the abuse takes place before the relationship even begins. At the same time – which is not to say that the two possibilities must be exclusive – a different voice keeps whispering “unreliable narrator” in my other ear. It is not uncommon for those in power to see what they want to see and believe it to be the genuine truth. The teacher’s comment that the boys were all but in love with their principal could have been made in jest but received in earnestness. It is easy, from a position of power, to mistake obedience for love and devotion.

In any case, it appears that the inmates came to see their principal as part of their gang. This is supported by Makarenko’s descriptions of the growing colony’s fascinating relationship with the law. In order to procure food supplies, he and his companions would ignore the procedures and bully their way into any offices and supply departments they could find. This was supplemented by what he calls “private enterprise,” or petty theft on part of the inmates. Makarenko turned a blind eye to this – what could he do, anyhow? Right? – and only intervened when the spoils were not shared appropriately with the collective, or when colony members stole from the colony itself or its personnel. At other times, the colony took law enforcement in its own hands. As Makarenko puts it, it was the “fascinating and vital struggle with hostile elements which fostered the first shy growth of a healthy collective spirit.” Less charitably, one might call it a gang mentality. This was indeed in keeping with the times, as the Polish-Soviet war still raged nearby and deadly violence was commonplace.

Academician Y. N. Medinsky in that Soviet-era hagiography piece linked above describes the same events as follows:

Makarenko understood that he could not make far-reaching demands on these people right away. This had to be done gradually but firmly. The colonists were greatly impressed by this firmness and even fearlessness on the part of Makarenko, by his immense self-control, his unremitting and devoted care for their interests. He started to build up a community out of the colonists by organizing a hard core of activists.

Right. Please take note of the “immense self-control” for future reference. Now, back to Makarenko himself, his “hard core” and the demoralized rest:

A few individuals of a somewhat higher degree of intelligence–Zadorov, Burun, Vetkovsky, Bratchenko, and, among the later arrivals, Karabanov and Mityagin–stood out in the crowd; the rest only gradually and slowly approached the acquisitions of human culture, and the poorer and hungrier we were, the longer it took them.

During our first year one of our greatest vexations was their perpetual tendency to quarrel among themselves, the appalling weakness of the ties which must exist in any collective, but which in their case broke down every minute over the merest trifles. To a great extent this arose not so much from enmity, as from this same pseudo-heroic pose, undiluted by the slightest political consciousness. Although many of them had dwelt in the tents of their class enemies, they had not the slightest awareness of belonging to any particular class. We had hardly any children of workers, the proletariat was for them something remote and unknown, while most of them harboured profound scorn for agricultural labour, or rather not so much for the labour, as for the labourer’s scheme of life and mentality. Hence there remained a wide field for all sorts of eccentricity, for the manifestation of personalities sunk in semibarbarity, demoralized by spiritual loneliness.

Remarkably, it is the absence of political consciousness that Makarenko is concerned with, rather than frivolities such as ethics or morality. Nor does he aim at establishing the latter as he moulds and forges the “collective spirit.” He chronicles relentlessly the colony’s material acquisitions, work routines, personnel changes, arrivals and departures of inmates, and the relations (often hostile and violent) with the residents of surrounding villages. The frequent altercations between colony members and the occasional hazing-like rituals are recorded in a mechanistic and disconnected manner. Any moral questions are decided according to the self-interest of the colony as a collective.

I’d like to stop Makarenko and ask him to help me understand these youths. I’d like him to go beyond who did what and how they were punished or rewarded for it. I’d like to know what drove those boys who got into a knife fight, how specifically they came to see violence as their primary means of self-expression, how their thinking changed once they discovered other ways to relate. What parts of their history or psychological makeup enabled some of them to thrive at the colony? Why did others ultimately reject that life? But Makarenko makes a point of not even asking such questions. It never gets any deeper or more insightful than the samples provided above.

Makarenko raises to the rank of doctrine what others might employ as a coping strategy in similar circumstances: he does not inquire about the colonists’ histories and does not try to understand their motivations. His goal is for them to forget their past and lose themselves in the “collective” to the extent that the colony becomes their entire life, their alpha and their omega. Medinsky:

Makarenko, with consummate pedagogical tact, realised that if he displayed the slightest curiosity on the past it would entail a similar curiosity on the part of other teachers and an unhealthy interest towards the newcomer on the part of the colonists. The latters’ questions, for one thing, would awaken in them memories of their own past, and secondly, would pander to that habit of swaggering bravado and savouring of past adventures, often exaggerated and embellished, which was characteristic of these homeless adolescents. All this would have introduced an inevitable element of disintegration.

“Our communards do not spend on their past a single minute of their life. And I am proud of it.” said Makarenko.

But the principal reason why Makarenko refused to rummage in the scarred past of his charges was that he respected the human personality of the colonist.

He never treated his charges as former criminals. In each of them he saw, above all, the human being. He tried to pick out their good traits, believed in the potential powers and possibilities of each colonist, and was able to arouse in each of them, with solitary exceptions, these potential powers and a sense of self-respect.

“Good traits” are, as explained above, those that are good for the colony. “Eccentricity” and “spiritual loneliness,” such as I might engage in, are certainly not encouraged. I understand that inmates of a correctional institution might have fewer opportunities to nurture their eccentricities; I just wouldn’t call it “not treating them as former criminals.” But Makarenko insists on that exact combination. His insistence on separating his charges from their own history, his refusal to engage with their humanity on a deeper level while claiming to appeal to what he saw as their best features, remind me of darker things:

Like closing your eyes and then concluding that nothing exists, failing to engage your ability to reason about the mind of another person not only leads to indifference about others, it can also lead to the sense that others are relatively mindless. Most extreme examples typically involve some kind of hatred or prejudice that distances people from one another. The Nazis, building on centuries of anti-Semitic stereotypes, depicted the Jews as greedy rats without conscience or as gluttonous pigs lacking self-control. The Hutus in Rwanda depicted the Tutsis as mindless cockroaches before killing them by the hundreds of thousands. Exceptions in these extreme cases typically came from those who actually knew the targets of prejudice directly. General Crook had interviewed Standing Bear and his tribesmen in his office; they’d told him directly of their pain and suffering, of their hopes and dreams, of their beliefs and memories. He did not think of the Poncas as mindless savages, and so was willing to orchestrate the legal case in which he was named as the defendant. From these examples, we begin to learn important lessons about what it takes to recognize the existence of a fully human mind in another person, as well as the consequences of failing to recognize one.

Of course, Standing Bear is neither the first nor the last human being to have his mind overlooked and underestimated. The cross-cultural psychologist Gustav Jahoda catalogued how Europeans since the time of the ancient Greeks viewed those living in relatively primitive cultures as lacking a mind in one of two ways: either lacking self-control and emotions, like an animal, or lacking reason and intellect, like a child. So foreign in appearance, language, and manner, “they” did not simply become other people, they became lesser people. More specifically, they were seen as having lesser minds, diminished capacities to either reason or feel.

This might explain some part of how someone could genuinely believe that you will love them if they only hit you hard enough.

The meme is persistent. Stefan Kisielewski has some choice words for the Polish communist press in the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (translation mine):

Our press pushes the records of repulsiveness: its greatest worry as of lately has been that Dubcek and comrades understood that they must act differently, but did not in fact change their minds. They’re complaining that someone with a gun held to his head agreed to do what he was told, but did not admit that the owner of the gun was completely in the right and did not come to love him.

Indeed.

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