Sunday, March 4, 2012

"The Situation Was Under Control"

One of the reasons the Russian radical revolutionaries, and even liberals, acted with such reckless abandon against the regime was their conviction that they could do so with impunity because it was virtually indestructible." Richard Pipes.

"Only intellectuals have universal grievances: only they believe that nothing will change unless everything changes."

"Students of revolutions have observed that, as a rule, the grievances of the people look backward rather than forward."

"It is a mistake to attribute the February Revolution to fatigue with the war. The contrary is true. Russians wanted to pursue the war more effectively..."

"Another advantage of Lenin's derived from the fact that he did not care about Russia."

I used to teach writing and adult learning theory in an adult degree completion program. We followed a specific formula outlined by an educational theorist named David Kolb. Kolb proposed that learning takes place in a continuous loop that can broken down into four discrete phases: in the first phase of the learning circle, we think about some subject in concrete terms; in the second phase, we reflect on the subject; in the third phase, we try to generalize about the subject, or place it into some sort of abstract or theoretical framework; in the fourth and final phase, we test out our newly acquired knowledge, especially in new and unexplored contexts.

In order to "learn about learning," we asked students to write a paper on some learning event they had experienced earlier in their lives. For instance, a student might write about getting fired ten years previously. They would describe the event, analyze it, research it, and then propose some way to test out some general principle of employment in their lives. The Kolb model made a lot of sense, although most students couldn't seem to identify too many areas of their lives in which real learning had taken place, at least by the rather rigorous standards of David Kolb. In the end, a large portion of my students wrote about the death of a loved one.

Theoretically, one can learn from death, but in reality, most of these students were reduced to dry recitals of the "stages of grief" literature. For me, the irony was that many students also discovered that psychologists didn't even agree that being deliberate and self-conscious about the grieving process actually accelerated the so-called "healing process." In other words, we were allegedly teaching students how the learning cycle operates, but in the process we came face to face with the fact that learning was frequently absent from our lives. As a teacher, I also wondered about how I would write one of the papers I routinely assigned. When and where in my life had I learned something important? It was hard to isolate the moments in which real learning had taken place, or could take place even now, when analyzed retrospectively.

Even now, I wonder when and how I actually learn. For whenever I do come up with a true life lesson--like not dating long distance--I am often confronted with the need to do exactly that thing which I had foresworn after so much reflection. The truth is that life is messy and unpredictable and perhaps unknowable. After years of college teaching, I became an administrator and came up against the administrative equivalent of the limitations on learning. In higher education, there is a cult of assessment, and assessment is something akin to personal learning. According to every conceivable authority on institutions of higher learning, colleges and universities should spend vast amount of resources on their institutional learning cycles. It's not enough to improve one's teaching and learning processes: one must document that learning, and implement the learned lessons in new contexts.

Of course, there is an irony here too. Notwithstanding the myriad examples of solid assessment that flood educational journals and conferences, nobody seems to be able to prove that assessment in general, assessment as a general theoretical model, has actually improved those institutions who implement it, or try to. That is to say, we can assess whether one approach to mathematics is succeeding better than another one, but we don't really know whether those who practice assessment are making their institution more effective overall. Intuitively, we might think that an institution that knows which practices work best is by definition going to out-compete the institution which fails to analyze the difference between various practices. But this isn't quite the case. For does the assessing institution really analyze the full opportunity costs of its own culture of evidence? Does it know whether spending money on assessment is more useful than spending that money elsewhere?

The analogy might be the Japanese economic model of the 1980s, before the bubble burst. While the U.S. engaged in a great deal of research and development, the Japanese saved their money and merely copied the American innovations. Which strategy was more effective? While it's true that research and development is a useful enterprise, it's not necessarily true that everybody should be doing it. The problem resembles a similar problem with strategic planning. Although institutions of higher learning are almost always committed to strategic planning, who has ever been able to prove that strategic planning makes universities more likely to prosper or, more modestly, that the cost of strategic planning is justified by the results of strategic planning?

In some ways, these are epistemological problems. Isn't it difficult to know anything with any real certainty? A friend used to joke about this. When you'd ask her whether she thought the X or Y would happen, she'd reply: as I am not even sure I exist in the present, how can I be sure what the future will look like? A student of history, I sometimes wonder whether history isn't one large-scale effort to elide uncertainty about the limits of our self-knowledge. In some kind of social science equivalent of the Heisenberg principle, in which the physical phenomenon is changed by the very act of perceiving it, we tell stories about how we came to be, but have no way to verify those stories, and often seem to get farther from the truth the more we study the sources. In other words, our theories get more elaborately sophisticated as time goes on. And, just as the assessment gurus might end up with more accurate representations of reality of they rested on their "gut" instincts, one wonders if ignorance has its advantages when coming to terms with a complex past. At any rate, I think Richard Pipes' short book of essays, Three "Whys of the Russian Revolution," is Pipes own attempt to go back to the basics with respect to the Revolution.

Although the conservative Pipes is one of the best scholars of the Russian Revolution, he seems to be arguing that the early critics of the Revolution knew more than more modern ones did. As the émigré historians of the 1920s knew, the Russian Revolution wasn't inevitable; Lenin and the Bolsheviks won and maintained power as a result of their commitment to ruthless intrigue and brutal governance; and Stalin was the logical success of his mentor, Lenin, whose policies, aside from the fact that he executed countless Party members, he merely implemented.

In the first instance, Pipes reminds us that the Russian Revolution wasn't pre-ordained. While the Russian Empire was admittedly fragile, not even Lenin predicted its demise. The Tsar had weathered the 1905 Revolution had might have survived 1917 as well had he been interested in power more than he was interested in defeating Germany and defending his Western allies. Here I am reminded of a story I heard from a friend. She had a friend whose husband was always getting into trouble, and yet still she trusted him to take care of her. After a string of similar incidents, the husband got into some trouble with the law. The husband, being an inveterate rascal, never told his wife about his troubles. And when the judge demanded his presence in court, he finally told his wife that he would be gone that afternoon to attend to a small legal matter, a mere inconvenience. His wife, not really alarmed, asked him when he would return. Nonchalantly, he told her to prepare dinner for him. Parting from her, he told her "everything is under control." That very day the nefarious husband was sent away to do a five year prison term. In Russia too, everything appeared to be "under control." As Pipes writes, "If you read the Russian or foreign press before 1917, or memoirs of the time, you find that hardly anyone expected the downfall of the tsarism either. On the contrary, people believed that tsarism would survive for a long time to come." Truly, everything seemed to be fine before World War I, and even after several disastrous seasons of war, the monarchy did not appear to be on its last legs.

Of course, Pipes' argument isn't completely convincing, for even if the Tsar hadn't been a patriot, he couldn't very well have made peace with Russia's mortal enemy without sacrificing whatever remained of the Russian people's respect for him. Even so, Pipes is right to contradict Marx about the inevitability of revolution. On some level, nothing in life can be predicted. Just as nobody predicted the collapse of the USSR, nobody predicted its founding moment. Obviously, the Russian Empire has its weaknesses: it had no business fighting a major European war when it had only barely survived a much smaller conflict with Japan. Yet liberals or even more moderate socialists might have been Nicholas II's successors.

What's striking about Pipes account of the Bolshevik takeover is that he refuses to acknowledge that it constituted a true revolution at all. This is a relatively unique point of view, but one that even Trotsky supports in a roundabout way, for Trotsky once wrote that not more twenty or thirty thousand Bolsheviks in a nation of 150 million had anything to do with the Bolshevik seizure of power. If this be so, Pipes says that we can consider October a coup d'etat. In fact, the Bolsheviks took power bloodlessly, and under the premise that they were only doing so on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet, where in truth they represented only a minority position. Moreover, the Bolsheviks said they would rule only until a Constituent Assembly was called, although Lenin never had any intention of honoring any true democratic expression of the people's will.

Of course, if we attempt to de-certify the Russian Revolution we would be hard pressed to call any other revolution a true revolution either. It's rare enough to see any government overturned by anything remotely related to popular protest, but to see a truly mass uprising that isn't connected to military intrigue or ethnic strife is truly remarkable.