Friday, February 20, 2015

Viktor, Vitya and Raisa Gorbachev

Ever since I decided to apply to Bright Ohio my wife and I have had some pretty heated discussions about education. As a philosopher I wonder how it is that we can have such different perspectives given our similar backgrounds. We both graduated from Ohio law schools and had very successful experiences in similar Ohio public high schools and universities but I think exceptional teachers are rare and she thinks they are common. And my theory as to why we are so far apart on this issue is geographical. She has been in Ohio her whole life but I went to school in Germany, California, Texas, Washington State, the Soviet Union and Maryland.

As an exchange student in the Soviet Union in 1991 Vitya Gorbachev and I had many illuminating arguments. When I wasn't gloating about how the U.S. military had wiped out the entire fleet of T-72 tanks during Gulf 1 without a single casualty we argued about who was smarter. And in this area I was an abominable failure. Despite having scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and the 95th percentile on the LSAT this kid was dominating me. Our game was simple, I would look up the most difficult, obscure word I could find in a Russian-English dictionary, ask him the meaning of the word and he would tell me, every single time. I resorted to jargon-like medical terminology that seemed to me to be too bizarre for even a doctor to know, and Vitya would calmly respond "that's some condition involving a lung infection", vague but accurate.

Later that summer Vitya was in hot water with Raisa and Viktor because he'd only got a 3 (out of 5) on his university entrance examinations. "It's because you're always smoking and drinking with that American" Viktor bellowed. It was then that it dawned on me that not only did this kid own me in the vocabulary showdown, he was mediocre by Soviet standards. It's like that "U.S.A. medium" condom joke in reverse, and in real life.

When I returned to the newly re-christened Russia to work in 1993 I married a Russian woman who was finishing her history degree at Moscow State University. One night we were drinking with some friends and someone made a reference to an American author that I didn't get. The next morning my wife began asking me about various American and English authors and was horrified at how few of them I knew. She had been to the U.S. and was not surprised that I was basically an uncultured buffoon, what was unforgivable was that we often told people that we both had degrees in history. Up until this conversation she had apparently been under the impression that a history degree from an American university would require one to have some knowledge of literature as did a history degree from a Soviet university.

To mitigate her shame in her choice of husbands she brought me with her to class after we'd both worked that day and introduced me to the English language literature section of the Moscow State University library. I was in heaven. My re-education took many years. I was starved for reading material in English and the Soviets obliged. All you bibliophiles will appreciate how enjoyable it is to read a great work in your mother tongue and the comic relief of the Russian footnotes politicizing everything from wardrobe choices to Indian involvement in the American Revolutionary War.

My father in law put himself in charge of my cinematic education. He introduced me to Alan Parker and reintroduced me to Stanley Kubrick. I gained such an appreciation for my own culture and it angered me that I had to be led to it by Soviet educated family members. Middle America does not cherish the gems of English and American literature. I didn't have to read Faulkner, Hemingway or Shakespeare in high school or University. I wonder if the Curmudgucation blog could spin that as evidence of a successful education. My test scores indicate that I am in the intellectual elite as compared to other Americans yet a mediocre Soviet teenager has encyclopedic knowledge of his mother tongue's vocabulary while mine is dismal.

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