Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | September 28, 2010

Manifesto of meritocratic eliticism

I republish, with small changes, an old post about my alma mater, ФМШ, the preparatory boarding school of Novosibirsk State University in Siberia.  It is made of several fragments from a article Physics and Mathematics School in a third of century (Физико-математической школе – треть века) writen in 1988 by my  physics lecturer at the School, Evgenii Bichenkov, and translated by my old friend owl, also a former student of the School.

The document that owl and I are to offer to your attention is a manifesto of meritocratic eliticism in education, a recipe for building a highly selective and academically intensive school. A word of warning: it was written in a different historic epoch, in different socio-economic, political and cultural environments. It is not a recipe for modern day Britain!

What follows are quotes from Bichenkov.

[…] What new was brought by the school into the practice of school education? What are the principal results of its activities in teaching basics of sciences at a school level? […]

So, what has been achieved by selection of students? I am deeply convinced that the very fact of selection and creation of children’s collective on the basis of selection is beneficial for a child. When they come from their schools, where all roles and places have been already assigned and fixed, children start their internal competitions for distribution over the scale of of their hierarchy of values. They cannot not to do that — such is their nature and their age. It is important that at that age they are offered decent moral and human rules of competitions and shown some good examples. It appears that the Novosibirsk FMSh has succeeded in that.

Next. To what degree selection was determined by true abilities? Did results match the declared aims?

Here I cannot give a definite answer. In many ways, the selection can still be affected by chance. The selection is obviously influenced by personal aspirations and interests of the child, by the family, teachers, friends, acquaintances; the results of olympiads are affected by competitiveness, persistence, level of maturity, after all. And of course, choice manifests the personality of the teacher, examiner.

Please notice that Bichenkov accepts as inevitable that different examiners apply different criterea for selection; it does not matter for him whether the criterea are uniform; what matters is that they should be fare and allow the examiner to select the best candidates.

A question arises at that point about choice of a teacher for gifted children. From the very beginning we put forward one restriction on the choice of a teacher — a teacher had to be a scientific researcher working in the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences. For all its apparent weakness, this restriction has happened to be a rather refined and correct criterion of selection; it moved aside some applicants to a post of a teacher at the FMSh who had nothing to offer besides their eagerness to get employment at the school, who had no any other objective qualifications for work with gifted children.

It turned out that, in the environment of Akademgorodok, being a scientist almost perfectly matched the requirements for a FMSh teacher, both in professional and human aspects. We live in a very specific community where we meet each other face-to-face and know by work, and have to constantly reckon with that. We were lucky that from the very foundation of Akademgorodok a scientist had been judged by his or her work, and judged according to high standards. Under such conditions a bad scientist just could not be a teacher at the FMSh, and if this happened, this happened only due to administrators’s mistake which had been soon corrected. I do not know how to select teachers in other places, not in Akademgorodok.

From our experience, the principal criterion of selection is personal achivement in a previous job: if an applicant is an engineer, he has to have success in his projects and be full of ideas; if a teacher, then an imaginative one and a school’s favourite; if a student, then an academically outstanding one, but also with an inventive soul, a good guy. The school workforce should be open to change, to flow of people. It should attract people of diverse interests and personalities. One may say that selection should use the principle of mutual complementability of people. In the environment of Akademgorodok, this principle emerged naturally. There were several different schools of physics and their representatives began to mix in physics the department of FMSh, cooperating and enriching each other with their knowledge. At first it had happened accidentally since the work at school could not be compared with a work at an university neither in pay nor prestige.[…]

I have expressed my opinion about two most fundamental questions for the specialized school: “Who is to be taught?” and “Who should teach?”. The third question is “What is to be taught?”. I will discuss it using physics as an example, but I will take risk of drawing some general conclusions. In our teaching practice we have worked out some “boundary conditions” which in many respects guide the development of our courses. Within the formal time frame of the so-called teaching plan, the main principles are the following:

  • Short training period, one or two year. We have to admit that the three year programme of study at the boarding school was not a success.
  • Short terms. The autumn term lasts from 1 September to about 10 December; two next weeks are reserved for midyear tests and examinations, then follow three weeks of winter vacations when children have a much needed rest from the dormitory. The second term lasts from 20 January to 20 May followed by examinations and summer vacation. In addition, there are short holidays in November and May.
  • Short weeks. For all the intensity of studies, a working week in FMSh is five days.
  • Short lecture courses. No lecture course can take more than two hours a week. At present, the total of compulsory lessons does not exceed 32 hours a week.

We came to this constraints not straight away and not straight on. Our starting point was Lavrentiev’s somewhat aphoristic quip: ‘A student should have free time to think about what he is actually taught.’

The content of physics course in FMSh was shaped by number of very different teachers. They worked in various fields of physics in different Institutes and they were people of different ages. Being limited in time and striving for expression of their own scientific interests, they could succumb to oversimplification of scientific knowledge and resort to primitive popularisation of science of the kind that all the standard school courses had suffered from. The other danger was an excessively deep development of a few narrow t themes. Having swung between these extreme points, we selected only the most important and essential topics within modern scientific knowledge. As a result, our compulsory courses contain only fundamental knowledge. It turned out that this knowledge was compact, logic of its usage was clear, and the transparency and depth of its inner connections were striking. As evidence of appreciation of our program I’ll cite the words of one of the former FMSh students; he is now 40 years old and his scientific career has been very successful. He said: ‘I studied physics in details at the Physical Department of Novosibirsk State University. I caught its basic principles, the pivot, the inner logic at FMSh.’

I will add my detailed commets later; meanwhile, I invite comments and questions from my readers.

Класс 10-7, Новосибирская ФМШ, июнь 1973 года

Can you guess who on this graduation photograph (ФМШ, class 10^7, June 1973) is the writer of this blog? Click on the photograph for a larger image.


  1. Alexandre —

    How wonderful it would have been to attend such a school! Is there a web-site about the alumni of the school, letting us know what careers the students and teachers later pursued, and where they all are now?

    — Peter

  2. Well, perhaps it is worth mentioning that two boys from the photo are now professors in British universities.

  3. There is a group of alumni from this school in LinkedIn…

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