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К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №1 - 2005

Автор: Элмерс Д.

The questions I am most frequently asked by the students I have had in Russia and Kazakhstan are always the same. “Why are you here? Why do you want to teach here? Wouldn’t you rather be at home? Why are you dong this?” The answers are not easy to explain. When I was a young soldier in the years after World War II I was stationed for a few years in Berlin, before the city was divided by a wall in the 1960’s. I became very interested in the East German university students (most particularly the girls) because they were about my age, and I had never been to a university. Also they were studying Russian and not English, and I had to use what little German I knew to communicate, and that was good for me because I was trying hard to learn German.

I made some good friends, and although I dared not visit their university we spent much time together in bars and cafes and on weekends. They were supposedly all communists, although some said they were not, but we concerned ourselves with music, dancing, drinking, sports, etc., and not politics. Most of them, however, embraced the Soviet anti-religious, atheistic philosophy, with which I did not agree. However, I didn’t know enough German to argue, so we had good times together.

In 1994, after practicing law for many years as an attorney in Alaska, I decided I needed a vacation, and I returned eagerly to Berlin and the former DDR, (East Germany) to see friends still living and to visit and travel to places that were forbidden to me when I was there so many years before. There I could now visit Berlin’s Humboldt University that my friends had attended and where I could not have gone before, as it was now a free open university drawing students from all over Germany and Europe. I was free to sit in the libraries and to walk the hallways and campus and chat with the students who were so much like my young friends of almost a half century before. It was a deeply moving and emotional experience for me. I wondered if these young people had the same atheistic attitudes and suspicions of the western world that my young friends had in the years gone by. Some years later, as I was closing my law practice to retire at the end of the 1990’s, I thought of those young students and I wondered if perhaps I could instruct at some university or law school in East Germany or Eastern Europe. Unfortunately I found there were no openings for American instructors who spoke poor German, but I did learn that some Russian universities wanted English speaking instructors. To me that was an intriguing opportunity – a chance to visit a country and to meet people where I never dreamed I would be able to go. After two challenging and interesting years teaching in St. Petersburg, I returned to Germany to instruct for a branch of an American University there attended by American military personnel and their family members. Later, when most of my students had gone to Iraq, I looked for another job, and my friend Bill Bontrager told me about KAFU and Ust Kamenogorsk. So here I am.

I am frequently asked for my opinions about the students I teach, and what differences I have found between students in Russia, Kazakhstan or America. As for the younger undergraduate students I have taught in St. Petersburg and here, they are not significant. They are usually far more interested in the girl or guy sitting next to them than they are in the instruction that I am giving, and this is equally true in America. I also found that some of the male students were not as interested in their studies as the females were because they were attending the university primarily to avoid or delay their required military service. It was no different when I began my university studies in America in the late 1960’s. I had already been in the army for 20 years and like the other older male students, I had no further military obligation. (The average age of students in many US universities is older than here.) However, we could well understand why the younger students wished to avoid this burden that had been imposed on their older brothers and fathers, and we were not concerned with their lack of interest so long as it did not interfere with our studies.

I have also noticed that generally speaking (but not always) women have less difficulty in mastering foreign languages than men. I think that is because we men are too prideful. A famous American author and humorist, Mark Twain, once said “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.” But Mark Twain never had to master a foreign language. If he had, he probably would not have said that. (I find that the best way to make my students laugh in my classes is to say something in Russian!) Speaking out, making mistakes and looking foolish is essential to progress in a new language, and women are much more willing to be laughed at than men.

The most significant difference between American and Kazakh or Russian students is in the area of competition. Most American students compete fiercely with one another, and few students will assist another to get a good grade or pass a test unless they are close personal friends, and sometimes not even then. Unfortunately many are much more concerned with getting a good grade and maintaining a high “grade-point average” and class standing than they are about really learning the subject matter. But it is true that competition encourages excellence, and employers know that students that tried and studied hard will do the same in their future endeavors, and they select the top graduates accordingly. Law students who graduate in the top 5 or 10% of their class are often immediately hired by large law offices at rates of pay higher than many of their classmates will ever achieve in their entire careers. But of course there is much more to education and intellectual maturity than just high test scores. Some critics say that our system produces not scholars and thinkers, but only expert test takers, or worse yet, “educated fools”. Ум без разума беда!

On the other hand my students at St. Petersburg and here display commendable loyalty to and concern for their classmates. They want the whole class to continue on with no one left behind, and the most competent students do not hesitate to help or even provide exam answers for those who seldom attended classes or took any interest in the instruction. I try to commend and reward the best students because I believe it provides incentives for hard work and encourages excellence, but I find high achievers that are embarrassed by this and fear their classmates may resent their accomplishments. I admire such humility and loyalty to friends, but it can have a negative effect on your education. In America there are many thousands of universities, but historically surveys indicate that the majority of our national leaders in business, industry, the professions, and government come from a distinct minority of these institutions that have traditionally set and maintained high standards of student performance. These are the universities that attract the most applicants, whose diplomas are the most valued, and whose graduates are offered the best employments.

Here in Kazakhstan universities emerging in the free market economy since the end of the Soviet era are building their reputations in the here and now, on the accomplishments of their graduates and the performance of their present students. Don’t let your university down!

In closing I want to dwell on one problem that I see more of here than in any other university where I have attended or taught, and that is poor class attendance by some undergraduate students. I have known of university courses where students might pass their exams and the course without attending the classes, provided they diligently study the textbook and required reading, complete their written assignments, and appear for their exams. But here we usually have no textbooks, and virtually all the information you get about a subject comes from the instructor’s classroom presentations. If you are not there you lose your opportunity to learn and delay the progress of the others who do attend.

Your family, this university, your government and a merciful God have provided this time in your life to devote entirely to study. Most of you are not expected to hold a job or support your parents, and you are exempted from mandatory government or military service. But of course you are tempted by the freedoms of young adulthood. You want to earn some money, engage in sports, perhaps buy a car, clothes, and to pursue a man or woman that you find attractive. But the time for study is now. 5 or 6 years from now most of you will have a demanding job, a wife or husband and possibly children, bills and taxes to pay, and you will find it difficult or impossible to go back to school to study the things you should have learned but did not. The good Lord gives us only one life to live. There is no chance for a second time around to correct our mistakes.

Our world today is an ever-expanding competitive market place for workers, professionals, and business and industrial leaders. Workers in the US and the developed nations of western Europe are discovering to their dismay that in spite of whatever their governments try to do, they no longer have the abundant employment opportunities and hopes for prosperity that they once had, simply because they are now competing with millions of workers worldwide who will work harder for less pay than they do. So what about the world of university graduates who strive for management, professional and leadership positions? Multinational corporations and growing businesses today are drawing their entry level management and professional personnel from a world market place of qualified graduates, often with little regard to their nationalities. You may find yourself competing with graduates of foreign world-class universities who were compelled to perform, compete and excel. How well then will you do, if in your university you often skipped classes, ignored study assignments, and never passed or did well in many courses you took?

Permit me to close with a much-overworked English idiom. The bottom line is that the real value of the diploma you receive here will depend on the study and effort you put in to obtain it.

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №1 - 2005

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