REFLECTIONS OF THE STATE: THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MODELS OF THE UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA
By Lisa DeWaard, MA, MAT, Ph.D.
Managing Director and CEO of Hofstede Insights USA
Keywords: public schools, culture, hierarchy, democracy
The public education systems in Russia and the United States are as different as the two countries themselves. And, just like our understanding of the word “culture”, definitions of “education” differ greatly.
Public education systems are developed to instill in children the cultural values a nation lives by, as well as prepare them to participate in the functioning of the state as adults. Educational systems, like countries themselves, have unique pathways of development: some have ancient cornerstones, some are quite new, and others have seen sharp—even explosive—changes over time. In this paper, two systems will be described and compared: the public schooling system of Russia and the public schooling system of the United States. I will argue that each system of education in its current form reflects its cultural values, with results replicating each society’s nature.
Before examining the public school systems, let us first look at the values that shape the culture of each nation.
An analysis of each country using the Hofstede Six Dimensions of National Culture
Using the Six Dimensions of National Culture by Geert Hofstede as our analytical framework, we see that the countries are separated by more than 48 points on all but one of the dimensions, Masculinity, with a difference there of 26. These point differences are indicative of real-life culture shock potential. The higher the number, the greater the difference in value along each scale and the greater the potential for culture shock. Russia and the United States are about as different as the two nations can be
Points of difference:
PDI: 56 IDV 45. MAS. 26 UAI: 34 LTO: 34. IVR: 67
For those unfamiliar with the Six Dimensions of National Culture developed by Hofstede in his multiple publications (cf works cited for a sample of Hofstede’s influential publications), let me provide a short description of these values here. Power Distance (PDI) is a measure of the felt need for hierarchy in a society. The higher the score, the greater the need for and evidence of hierarchy in a particular country. Russia scores quite high and is one of the most hierarchical societies for which we have data. This has strong implications: not only is hierarchy seen as a good and right way to structure a society, the people without power agree that it is not only acceptable, but needed, that those with power get to play by different rules and are unequal before the law. The role of those with power is to use it to care for those without it. Hierarchical cultures typically value strength and will go to great lengths to develop the biggest monuments, the most frightening armies, and to put in power those who show great personal strength. The United States has a score of 40, indicating a need for hierarchy to establish chains of command for the sake of organizational convenience more than for displays of strength.
We find another substantial difference when we consider the second dimension, Individualism (IDV). Individualism and Power Distance are negatively correlated (with very few exceptions). Russia and the United States both follow the correlated pattern: Russia is high on PDI and low on IDV, suggesting a hierarchical and collectivist culture. In high PDI cultures, individuals tend to see themselves as members of interdependent groups. These groups can be the key to survival in hierarchical countries if the hierarchy is manipulated by those with power and corruption is rampant. The collective group is interdependent in all ways, including financial and emotional. The maintenance of harmony in the group is the highest priority because the group functions as a safety net if a job is lost or illness or other misfortune befalls a member. The United States rates the highest of all countries for which we have data on the IDV scale, with a score of 91. In the way that hierarchical societies tend to be collectivist, egalitarian societies tend to be individualist. The focus on the individual in the United States is one of its hallmark qualities: each individual should have the opportunity to develop themselves and their own interests and is expected to be independent and stand on their own as an adult.
Masculinity, the third dimension, relates to one’s motivation to work and the importance of non-work-related pursuits. Masculine cultures, like the United States, value ambition, dedication to one’s work, and career advancement. Feminine cultures, like Russia’s, value work-life balance and prefer cooperative to competitive learning. Colleagues typically do not compete with one another at work, instead prefer cooperation. Each country’s unique profile requires an examination of all of the scores together, and while Russia seems to be a highly competitive country, this is at the governmental level and not at the societal level. Indeed, the hierarchy is so prominent that someone less qualified can be promoted over someone more qualified simply because they come from a certain family or university. This makes competition fruitless and, therefore, not common.
Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) shapes nations in profound ways. Russia has one of the highest scores on this dimension, with a 95. Most of the cultures with high scores on this dimension are countries where war and disruption have been frequent, and Russia has been involved in many conflicts, many in living memory and on their own soil. These experiences have led to three marked impacts on their culture: 1. Fear of the unknown has led to a complex bureaucratic system to build predictability steps into daily life. This extensive bureaucracy is often hated but seen as necessary. 2. Changes happen slowly. With the high PDI (which teaches obedience) and the high UAI (which focuses on process over results), conditions that wouldn’t be in other places are tolerated. For example, with politicians, “the devil you know” is often preferred to a new candidate whose choices will create unforeseeable changes. 3. Deep expertise is valued, and generalists are not. Experts with very deep knowledge provide reassurance that they can offer solutions that can be counted upon. The US has a much lower score than Russia on this dimension. This means that the focus is on product over process. People tend to have a higher risk appetite in general and feel that failure can be a positive thing if it brings lessons for the future. An experimental approach is preferred over a research-intensive one. People are often much more comfortable with change and can pivot in the moment with less stress than those with high UAI.
Long-term orientation (LTO) provides another interesting difference between the two countries. Russia scores high, indicating more acceptance of gray thinking and less acceptance of black-or-white thinking. Planning can be short- or long-term; Russians tend to think less about the next year and more about the next generation. While there have been periods of strong censorship, it has often been the case that the people parrot the positions of the leaders, yet in private among friends, Russians can be quite skeptical. High PDI, UAI, and LTO paint a picture of a patient group of people who will say what needs to be said to survive even if they disagree privately with a position. The United States has a short-term orientation, indicating a preference for black-and-white thinking, a philosophy of absolute truth, and a focus on the near-term.
Finally, Indulgence versus Restraint (IVR) scores are also quite different. While Russia is a restrained culture in which duty to family and country outweighs personal pleasure, the United States is quite indulgent. It is common to be spontaneous, to live in the moment, and to have fun in all situations, even at work.
To sum up, Russia is a hierarchical culture in which life revolves around the needs of your social group, and the self is considered less important than the group. Life is a serious thing. Therefore, business is conducted in a more formal manner. Risk is avoided when possible and deep expertise is desired in problem-solving situations. The United States is a nation where all people are expected to be equal before the law and independent as adults. Competition and career development are integral to one’s identity, and risk-taking is considered a positive trait. Decisions are made with a focus on short(er)-term success, and having fun is not considered inconsistent with serious business.
The History of Education in Russia and the U.S.S.R.
Prior to the reign of Peter the Great, education in Russia was limited among the upper classes to tutors for wealthy sons. Among the lower classes, it consisted of the passing of a profession from fathers to sons. Some religious education in the form of liturgical knowledge in Old Church Slavonic happened in church services, which were (and still are) led in that language. However, no systematic plan for education had been in place, and neither was any more specialized education required for life in Russian society.
Peter the Great’s sweeping reforms and restructuring of all aspects of the nation—from constructing a new capitol in the swamps of the Bay of Finland and requiring all nobles to build palaces and relocate there to rearranging governmental positions to be based on merit and forcing Orthodox men to cut off their beards against their will—Peter forced all of the reforms through using the unlimited autocratic power he held as tsar. The opportunities he offered in the form of education and upward mobility were, however, limited to men (but not available to serfs) (cf. Massie, 1981). As Black (1973) notes:
“To be a woman in Muscovy and in the opening years of Peter the Great’s Imperial Russia was to be illiterate and a virtual slave to the wishes of father and husband. Even in upper society, education was not regarded as important until Peter made it a requirement for advancement in state service. After that, Russia’s noblemen begrudgingly educated their sons by employing private tutors, private boarding schools, a few scattered government institutions and, for the wealthy, in élite military academies. So far as their daughters were concerned, most fathers regarded education in anything but house managing skills as a waste of time” (p. 23).
Peter the Great did not stop at the founding of secondary schools, but also established the first university in Russia in 1724: Saint Petersburg State University.
When Catherine took power four decades later, the absolute nature of the power of the monarch had not changed. “in 1762, Russia was an absolute monarchy, placed at the despotic end of the spectrum which extended through the Prussia of Frederick II to the France of Louis XV. There were no institutional limitations on the power of the ruler, who was even entitled to name his successor, or more often her. There were no constituted bodies or ‘estates’, no ‘intermediate powers’ that existed elsewhere in Europe. As head of the executive, the sovereign exercised authority through a series of functional colleges headed by boards under presidents, whose work was co-ordinated by an appointed administrative Senate of some twenty or thirty people. This misleadingly-named body had no legislative powers, which were lodged entirely in the ruler” (de Madariaga 1990, p. 289). This allowed her to initiate her own reforms in many areas, including education. Catherine, an avid reader and correspondent with Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu, desired to educate young women. In 1764, she founded the Smol’ny Institute for Noble Maidens, which was located in the Smol’ny Monastery in Saint Petersburg and was the first effort to create a system of secondary education for ladies. At first, it was open only to aristocratic girls, but Catherine later extended the opportunity to girls of high intelligence from other social strata.
Alexander the First has often been credited with the founding of a system of education for the Russian people, but as Brower (1970, p. 128) writes: “The school reforms of the early eighteenth century underline two themes of education in Tsarist Russia…The new schools resulted from government decree and represented the population an obligation, not a right. The modernization of Russia was a revolution from above, in which…education and much else all acquired their force to the extent that they were defended by autocratic power. Thus, from the time of Peter the Great, education was forced on Russia from above, by the state, and from without, by Western learning and pedagogy. Alien to the population on two counts, it was bound to produce stress within Russian society.” There was also a fear that education would lead to revolt. Educational material was standardized and centralized (ibid).
These many attempts at developing a consistent educational system in the 18th and 19th centuries were not entirely successful; universal schooling was only officially instituted after the establishment of the Soviet Union (Brandenberger 2010) and was used as a method to indoctrinate the masses into the Marxist/Leninist ideology, which was considered essential for the future success of the country.
The United States of America
With a much shorter history and a radically different approach to nation-building than Russia, the United States’ public schooling system came about in a very different way. Although the initial group(s) of immigrants came from England, Scotland, and Ireland, subsequent immigration waves came from all areas of the globe. What unites Americans is not a common ancestry or ethnic group. Instead, it is the notion of liberty and the philosophy of democracy expressed according to the Six Dimensions of National Culture (see above). As a republic of associated state governments, education was the responsibility of each state and has remained so through today. The federal government’s role in the education of children is restricted by the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This amendment, passed in 1789 and ratified in 1791, has historically applied to education. In fact, the website of the U.S. Department of Education states: “Please note that in the U.S., the federal role in education is limited. Because of the Tenth Amendment, most education policy is decided at the state and local levels. So, if you have a question about a policy or issue, you may want to check with the relevant organization in your state or school district.” The Department of Education does publish recommended Standards for Education, but can only suggest them, not mandate them. As a result, education does vary from state to state, and local and state policy groups lead changes to curricula and other advances.
As the number of the “common” schools funded by communities to educate the children of their regions increased during the early 19th century, one of the foundational goals has been to provide a space for cultural and political assimilation: “a common meeting place where children from different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds might come together under the banner of pluralist democracy.” (Bartrum 2008, pp. 269-270). In this manner, the motivation for early schools in the United States was to promote democracy, an idea that required an educated population. I argue that this remains the primary motivation of government schooling in the US today.
How each system reflects its culture
As a culture expert, former educator, a participant in both the US and Russian educational systems, and a board member at a private school in St. Petersburg, Russia, I present an analysis of how and why each system reflects its national culture of origin, thereby reinforcing the basic cultural values of each nation.
The concept of authority—often unlimited—is present in Russia from its first days over a millennia ago until today. While efforts have been made to dilute the power a leader holds and not have it fully concentrated in the hands of a single individual, the amount of control that Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia as of the writing of this paper, holds is much greater than that of many of the world’s leaders. Russians admire strength and prefer a leader who promotes the positive characteristics of their culture and history. This is clear in historical documents as well as modern ones and has been a part of the schooling system since Peter the Great. Indeed, among the nations for which Hofstede Insights has data, Russia scores 93 out of 100 for power distance, a score that indicates a clear preference for authority and hierarchy as well as one that implies that there are different sorts of people—such as bosses and workers—and that these people have different worth in society. While the Soviet Union sought to elevate the worker to a higher position in society, even going so far as to mandate a shift from informal address to formal (cf. DeWaard 2012) from bosses to subordinates, the underlying need for hierarchy and desire for strength did not weaken. Indeed, as we have seen in many authoritative regimes, such as the Soviet Union, those who had power also had wealth and privileges not shared by the masses.
The preference for hierarchy in Russian society combined with the high score on uncertainty avoidance combine to create a system in which experts—in this case, teachers—are the unquestioned experts in their subject matter. The focus at the primary and secondary levels of education is on the mastery of basic skills and the memorization of information transmitted by the teacher. At the university level, this continues. The ideal student does not interrupt or challenge the authority or knowledge of the teacher. Information is to be given back to the teacher in the same way it is delivered; in Russian, teachers “read lessons,” and students write reports and give oral examinations at the end of the semesters. While graduate students are given more opportunities to question, their studies are closely monitored, and the input of the advisor is crucial. And although this is changing, students in high UAI societies are typically given fewer opportunities to express their own analyses or present their opinions to the class. Additionally, knowledge is considered to belong to everyone, a reflection of the collectivist value in the culture. The unfortunate side effect is that cheating has long been rampant at the university level, with bookstores selling official cheat sheet books that students can take into their exams and use.
The low score on IDV indicates a preference for a collectivist approach to life, a way of thinking that takes into account all the feelings and opinions of the matters of the in-group and one that is reinforced by certain aspects of the educational apparatus. Students often go through their K-11 schooling with the same group of classmates, creating deep friendships and (often) lifelong bonds. In the university system, this repeats, and since students must choose their major upon enrolment, they go through the five years of university classes together as a group. Due to the low score on MAS, part of studying together is supporting one another through difficult times with coursework or in each others’ personal lives. As a collectivist culture, there is no separation of personal and private life; they are intertwined. The expected behavior in these groups is avoidance of disruption to the group’s harmony, so members will disagree in more implicit ways to not cause another member to lose face.
This system of education is quite successful in that it prepares students for the realities of work life and an understanding of how to succeed in their society after finishing their education. They know they must study a single study quite seriously to be considered an expert and employable. For this reason, Russian universities require students to choose their specialty subject upon enrolment, and they follow that trajectory for the five years of undergraduate education. No general education requirements are part of the curriculum, as these are expected to be covered over the course of the K-11 years of primary and secondary school.
The United States schools can be said to be successful in that they also reflect their societal values and prepare students for the reality of life beyond the university. Because choice is one of the hallmarks of a highly individualist culture, parents have three basic options for schooling their children in the US: public schooling (provided by the government and funded by the state), private schooling (sectarian or secular, incurs an additional cost), and homeschooling (in which parents teach their children outside of a traditional school setting). Students are also allowed to choose which classes they take in high school as long as they complete the requisite number of credits in various areas, such as mathematics, social studies, language studies, and others. With the lower score on uncertainty avoidance in the US, there is a preference for generalists over deep, narrow specialistsin many fields. The undergraduate education system allows students to choose their classes, but the major does not typically have to be chosen until the third year. The first two years are spent completing requirements for a broad range of general education courses, such as mathematics, science, history, and language(s). Low UAI cultures often prefer generalists because they believe that a person trained across a number of disciplines may be able to come up with unique solutions to problems. This preference for product over process is strong. It’s not uncommon to hear someone from the United States say, “why does it matter how I get there as long as I get the result?”
As a culture with a lower score on PDI and a high score on IDV, it is considered a positive sign if a student asks a question or challenges the teacher’s information. This is not seen as impudent or rude; but rather as an indication that the student is adept at critical thinking and desiring to understand the issue on a deeper level. Students are encouraged to take unique approaches and to share their opinions. With the desire for competition from the high MAS score, students try to show interest in the topic and excel when possible. Because of this cultural predisposition, teamwork is actively taught as a part of post-schooling work life. Perhaps surprisingly, US students do learn to work together quite well, despite the prevalent desire to have their work scored independently of group mates. The combination of low PDI, high IDV, and low UAI encourages an environment in which students are often required to present information to their classmates, often without preparation. This teaches students to be able to pivot on the spot, which is expected at work post-schooling.
Also, due to the high score on IDV, there is a sharp separation of personal and professional life. Early on in secondary schools, since students have some say in which classes they take, it’s common never to have the same combination of students in two classes. This also continues at the university; it is rare to have the same students in the same classes unless the program is highly specialized and cohort work is part of the learning (for example, in nursing degrees). During this time, students are also expected to learn to work together even if they do not like one another. Harmony within groups is not expected and conflict is acceptable, which is made easier by not having the pressure to be friends with whom you don’t get along.
Finally, the US scores low on LTO and high on IVR, leading to an often polarized society and reliance on traditions (such as the continued use of our constitution, despite it being over 200 years old), but one in which there is no separation of work and fun. It is not considered unprofessional to joke around at work. This is modeled at school in scenarios where students are required to pick a side on an issue and defend their stance but are also allowed to have birthday parties in their classes and joke around with their instructors.
Conclusions and Implications
In the work we do at Hofstede Insights using the Six Dimensions of National Culture to solve cross-cultural problems, the majority of the time, those in conflict have the best of intentions to work together well, but different value patterns promote different work practices and lead to misunderstandings. In the same way that the dimensions can be used to diagnose problems, they can also be used to solve them. In this paper, I have compared and contrasted two countries that have often been (and currently are) at great political odds with one another. The values patterns of each are strongly reflected in the school systems in place as well as in the political realm. Both countries speak of their democracies, but the ways these are practiced (or not) reflects the values underlying them. As someone who speaks both English and Russian, has lived in the United States and Russia and feels equally at home in both places, I believe that there are many areas in which we misunderstand one another and, at the same time, many areas of potential cooperation that have not been explored.
For those teaching students from either of these cultures, you will likely note many differences in student behavior cited in this article. If you come from the United States, Russian students may appear reluctant to speak up without being called on, ask for more guidance on assignments than you are used to, and not want to risk giving an incorrect answer. If you are Russian teaching students from the United States, you may find them rude or arrogant for interrupting or voicing a dissenting opinion. In each of these cases, the behavior is likely learned from their previous educational experiences and intended to be positive. It is helpful to meet with the student to let them know your expectations for both behavior and work.
While our data have been validated and replicated numerous times, it is impossible to speak with certainty about any individual since each has a unique personality. The scores and suggestions do, however, provide useful guidance on what could be motivating behaviors in intercultural contexts. We estimate that the formation of the individual’s value system is complete around puberty and is formed from cultural influences, the behaviors and values of caregivers, the influence of peers, and each person’s unique personality. That being said, the data should be used with care and not in a proscriptive manner.
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 According to our data, roughly 85% of the world’s population lives in countries with a score above 50 on PDI.
 While many aspects of US society appear to show a distinct preference for shows of strength, these are related to the score on Masculinity and do not derive from Power Distance, since all citizens regardless of position are expected to be equal before the law.
 Exceptions to this correlation are cultures which have a high score on PDI and a high score on IDV and include France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Poland, Slovakia, and Malta.