Monday, December 6, 2010

Russian / Ukrainian vs. American Textbooks

What could be duller than comparing a bunch of textbooks? And yet that is precisely how I recently got some insight into basic cultural differences between the Slavic world and the English-speaking West.
Two months ago I began studying to prepare for a masters program in geography starting next fall. I plan to get my masters somewhere in Ukraine or Russia and have been studying Russian language textbooks on things like geology, geomorphology, ecology, etc.
One's first experience with a Soviet-era textbook can be daunting. You open what seems to be a fairly small and lightweight book only to find an unbroken wall of small-font text with nary an illustration to be found. Your eyes rest on the first sentence you see, perhaps something totally confounding like the following:
"С процессами медленной солифлюкции связаны такие формы рельефа, как солифлюкционные валы и гряды, приуроченные к основаниям увлажненных склонов, и сопряженные с ними "гофрированные" участки склонов -- солифлюкционные покровы с характерными формами полосной солифлюкции, а также делли". 
Most native Russian speakers wouldn't find this text out of the ordinary; it's just "academic language." They're used to it from school. But if I translate it into English while preserving the grammatical structure, you'll see just how complex the language is:
"With the processes of slow solifluction are connected such forms of relief as solifluction banks and ridges associated with the bases of moistened slopes, and coupled with them "corrugated" areas of slopes -- solifluction sheets with characteristic forms of strip solifluction, and also dellies."
With English sentence construction, you almost always know what the subject is from the very beginning. Structural nuances also don't depend on which endings happen to be on the end of words. I would argue that Russian and Ukrainian academic texts tend to be grammatical more challenging than their American counterparts.
Back to the visuals. If you flip through a few more pages of unbroken text, you may finally find a chart, diagram, or illustration. Instead of having arrows pointing to different parts of the illustration, Soviet-era and modern Russian/Ukrainian textbooks tend to fill in parts of the illustration with different markings. To find out what the markings mean, you look below the illustration to see the number of each marking type, then look below that for a list of what each number means. Two steps for something that could be identified with simple arrows!
In contrast, American textbooks are thick, have narrow columns which make the text easier to read, are printed on higher-quality paper, and are filled with visual differentiation -- charts, shaded side blocks, diagrams, and illustrations.
American textbooks also have a hefty price tag, costing 5-10 times more than their Ukrainian/Russian counterparts. Part of this is the result of corporate capitalism making things as overbuilt and expensive as possible in order to make more money, while forcing substitutes off the market.
But it's more than that. America's culture is deeply consumer-oriented, in stark contrast to most parts of the former USSR. Authors of everything from textbooks to refrigerator instructions try very hard to make it as easy and pleasant as possible for all readers to get the information they need. A side-effect is a certain "dumbing down" of inherently difficult subjects in order to reach a greater number of "consumers."
Making things easier to understand has its advantages and potential disadvantages. Many visuals in English language textbooks are elegantly informative and are truly worth a thousand words. On the other hand, when commercialization creeps into education some authors resort to entertainment in an effort to keep readers' limited attention, and some quality and accuracy is lost.
In contrast, Soviet and most post-Soviet textbooks typically lack any sort of entertaining elements and require significant effort to read. At first I was daunted by the lack of visual differentiation, but now I've come to see the books as something challenging to labor over, with satisfaction coming after you've taken the time to figure everything out. You can't just flip through them to look at the pretty pictures like you can many American textbooks.
Studying this kind of textbooks, I think, has contributed to Russians' and Ukrainians' strong abstract thinking, while American education prepares one for using applied knowledge with a weaker theoretical base.
In all Russian-language textbooks I've read, great attention is given to defining terms and laying out the central theoretical axioms and propositions of the field. In comparison English-language authors tend to give attention to definitions and theory in side columns rather in the main body of the text, which is devoted to descriptions of studies and methods.
On this subject Geert Hofstede, author of the excellent book Culture's Consequences, wrote the following:
"A country's UAI [uncertainty avoidance index] norm affects the type of intellectual activity in the country in an even more fundamental way. In high-UAI countries [these would include Russia and Ukraine], scholars look for certainties, for Theory with a capital T, for Truth. In low-UAI countries they take a more relativistic and pragmatic stand and look for usable knowledge.
The difference between the high-UAI and low-UAI approach is most pronounced in the social sciences. In low-UAI countries the scientific logic favors induction -- that is, the development of general principles from empirical facts. In high-UAI countries deduction -- that is, reasoning from general principles to specific situations -- is more popular. The great theoreticians and philosophers of the West tend to come from higher-UAI countries, especially Germany and Austria: Kant, Marx, Freud, Weber, and Popper, to mention but a few. Theories based on nonfalsifiable hypotheses, such as those developed by Freud and Marx, appeal most to scholars in high-UAI countries... In a society with a strong uncertainty avoidance norm scholars fear the risk of exposing their truths to experiments with unpredictable outcomes. On the other hand, in lower-UAI countries like the United States and Great Britain empirical studies dominate. The orthodox methodological justification of such studies is that the progress of scientific knowledge passes through the falsification of hypotheses in testing them on reality; actually attempting to falsify one's hypothesis requires that one have a large tolerance for uncertainty.
Of course, good hypotheses presuppose good theory. Social science research in the Anglo-American tradition often suffers from a lack of such theory. Empirical studies degenerate into fishing expeditions equipped with powerful computing tools that are doomed to find only trivialities because they do not know what to look for... A marriage between a high-UAI concern for theory and a low-UAI tolerance for empiricism represents the best of both worlds." (pg. 178)