Perceptions of Armenia’s Soviet past vary from generation to generation, from person to person. While people may long for certain aspects of the country’s Soviet past, they’re glad to part with others. One of the Soviet educational practices that should not be revived, according to dialogue participants, is student recruitment in agricultural labor organized by school principals. Back then, students were taken to farms for harvest work. Zaruhi, a teacher from Tavush and a former pioneer who experienced this practice firsthand, recalls the practice disapprovingly. She used to ask herself why, as a pupil, she had to work for the Soviet Union in the fall. Interestingly, decades later, she and her husband are now advised by their neighbors to do the same with their students. “We have a plot of land. My husband is a principal. The neighbors say, ‘We used to help [as students], why don't you take the children to help?’” says Zaruhi.
Considering the Soviet Union’s socialist ideology, involving youth in harvest work most likely had educational purposes to prepare them for the labor force later on. However, Zaruhi’s disapproval of the practice suggests that she viewed this forced labor as a violation of students’ rights, raising ethical concerns about the abuse of administrative power. The motives behind neighbors’ encouragement of the practice today perhaps have little to do with education. On one hand, it’s a way for the older folks to carry on an experience they have lived through. On the other hand, this perpetuation of the practice could also be seen as a form of exploitation, where adults seek to gain from the labor of young people under the cover of education.
In contrast, something that several dialogue participants consider a positive quality of the Soviet educational system is the respect toward teachers. Without clearly defining what respect toward teachers entails, according to one of the teachers, there was more of it before. However, it could be argued that within this system, there were clearly defined power relations, with teachers holding a position of authority over students. Moreover, this kind of imposed respect toward teachers is perhaps not exclusive to the Soviet system in particular. Still, it reflects a hierarchical structure within the educational system and society at large, where school children, a vulnerable group, are often perceived as inferior to adults.
“One of the principals once asked, ‘Who should take care of teachers’ reputation? First of all, teachers should consider what clothes they wear; what they post on the internet,’” says Gagik. According to another teacher, the school principal of her village didn’t allow female teachers to wear any pants, even in the cold seasons — only skirts and dresses, which, according to the male principal, “makes students respect the teacher and take her more seriously.” It would be naive to believe teachers’ appearance affects the quality of their teaching. Principals’ interest in what teachers wear or what they do aside from their teaching job might indicate that in the heads of many, to be considered a good teacher, one must conform to the principals’ morality standards, including restrictions on what to wear. There’s also the gender factor. In a pretty much patriarchal society, there are often double standards of morality as well as gender expectations for men and women.
This article is based on dialogue between history teachers and students within the scope of the “Intergenerational Dialogue” project led by Paradigma Educational Foundation in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. The real names of dialogue participants have been changed to protect their privacy.