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The Ages of Learning: The Cultural Construction of Old Age, Youth, and Generations at Russian Universities between the 18th and the 20th centuries

Priority areas of development: humanitarian

The project aims to find out what cultural and political practices were involved in the social construction of age and what economic factors determined the age ratio and age-specific segmentations of university faculty communities in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russia.

The empirical basis of the study includes ego-documents (letters, diaries, memoirs), university papers (minutes of meetings at chair, faculty, university board, and Academy Presidium levels), legislative documents, and executive orders. All the primary sources were taken from the archives of universities of Moscow, Kazan, Kiev, and St. Petersburg (Central State Archive of Moscow, State Archive of Kyev, Central State Historical Archive of Ukraine in Kyev, National Archive of Tatarstan Republic, Central State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg), Ministry of Public Education (Russian State Historical Archive), the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the State Archive of the Russian Federation.

The research uses interdisciplinary methods applied in history and other disciplines to explore issues of age, cultural practices, and social construction. First and foremost, those are aging studies and cultural anthropology of time. These approaches allowed us to study social and cultural processes of aging and rejuvenation at Russian universities, age policies, and interaction between different age groups.

A survey of secondary literature shows that, although time-related topics have become very popular in modern university historiography worldwide, it is the sociology of education where they are most widespread. American sociologists are particularly active in this field. They state distinct generation gaps in university communities. The emergence of the ‘digital generation’ of students has led to intense discussions and forced university administrations to change forms of teaching and learning and to update curriculums, which had repercussions for staffing policies. The new relationships between the technically advanced students and their old-fashioned professors made it crucial to discuss generation issues in modern high education.

Unlike American sociologists, Francophone and especially Hispanic scholars show little interest in age issues. This is probably because universities in these countries are funded by the state, making them less dependent on students’ demand for their educational services. University historians in Spain, Portugal, and France tend to focus on the Middle Ages and Modern Time to study the modes of temporality, the various personal and collective times, and the concepts of historical time.

As far as the history of Russian universities is concerned, studying age policies and age groups proved to be fruitful because it helped to explain latent changes in the government’s ‘manual mode’ (i.e. not reflected in executive orders of the Ministry of Public Education) management practices. T.V. Kostina and A.V. Kupriyanov’s study of ‘staff aging’ and ‘staff rejuvenation’ at Russian universities before 1917 showed that these processes depended on the goals set to universities by the imperial government. These goals included making a national science, distracting students from political activity, representing Russia in ‘the global science’, cutting the expenses etc.

The prosopographic method does not provide an opportunity to analyze generational identity, but it allows us to catch the factors crucial to its formation. Mass layoffs and the recruitment of new professors usually were interpreted as succession of generations, with those quitting the scene and those taking their places being characterized in cultural and psychological terms.

Сollective biographies of Russian universities can be written by studying the lives of faculty members representing certain generations or schools, for example, classical philologists. Such a study showed that, although historians of this discipline have always declared its continuous development in Russia, the founding fathers themselves did not feel they were a community. Indeed, they barely maintained relationships with each other and remained loners without pupils. It turned out that the existence of such thing as the Russian school of classical philology is provided for by a chain of biographical texts embedded in a single metanarrative.

At Russian universities of the second half of the nineteenth century, generations were constructed in a different way. The juxtaposition of ‘old’ and ‘young’ professors, as well as ‘old’ and ‘young’ students, took place along political lines. It led to a change in the semantics of age concepts. Generational groups that were close in terms of age could have contributed to a continuity of intellectual values, but their ideological and cultural differences generated a gap.

Having failed to get support and recognition from professors and students after the 1917 revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks began to create their own students and their own professorship. From the beginning of the 1920s on, universities were filled with mature people with two wars and a preparatory department behind them. Young ‘red professors’ came to take over university chairs. This changed the attitudes, the ethos and the limits of permissible in academic relations. Recognition and respect typical of the imperial universities where professors were sacred figures gave way to challenging authorities, political outrage and suspicion.

A different sort of generational issues was revealed by the study of the post-World War II Soviet academia. As the Communist Party and Soviet state leaders were aging, the concepts of ‘young’ and ‘old’ were relativized. Old age began to be associated with a right life and merits, while the youth was now viewed as a preparatory stage subject to patronizing. This meant that the ‘young’ age of faculty members tended to be stretched and of the onset of ‘old’ age was postponed beyond the limits of human lifetime. As a side effect of this development, the intellectual potential and working ability of young scholars were used to compensate for old professors’ fading performance, which prevented the former from conducting independent research and becoming professors themselves.

Perestroika sharply ‘rejuvenated’ the political leadership of the USSR, which entailed, among other things, ‘rejuvenation’ of academia. However, universities did not have economic resources for this. Statistical data show a growing proportion of young scholars and professors in universities, but memoirs give ample evidence of brain drain and aging of university communities. The reformers of the Academy of Sciences insisted on certain quantitative changes. Research institutes had quotas for ‘young specialists’ to be recruited every year and for scholars reaching retirement age to be fired. Such personnel policy barely took into account the performance of individual scholars. The ‘rejuvenation’ campaign meant a formal compliance with administrative guidelines that had no clearly defined purpose.

Economic factors influenced the age ratio and the segmentation of university communities. However, their impact was not as straightforward as one might suppose. ‘Rejuvenation’ campaigns took place in the 1830s, when the funding of imperial universities was increased, as well as in the late Soviet time under conditions of a drastic reduction in the funding of universities. Political and cultural factors played the decisive role. The university administrations and the ministerial bureaucracy are interested in rotation of university staff, while academia workers resist it. In the collision of opposite logics (renewal vs. stability), one side always wins, and its victory leads to a changing personnel policy.

The results of the research under this project can be used in teaching for the preparation of lecture courses and seminars on the history of science and higher education in Russia and the USSR.


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