Smolny Beyond Borders

A Liberal Arts Initiative

Two Comments On Longread About Smolny

On October 24, “Novaya Gazeta. Europe” published a longread about Smolny by Daria Kozlova. This text seems relevant to me. It shows how actively Smolny is fighting for its preservation. I admire the determination and courage of my fellow faculty members, and, of course, the loyalty of Smolny students to the ideas of liberal arts. I decided to write a small quasi-bureaucratic commentary on the article as a friendly reaction to it.

First, it is worth emphasizing once again the fundamental importance of the individual choice of courses by students for the liberal arts model from the very beginning of education. That is why the rejection of this option means the rejection of the model itself. Smolny is a completely unique project in Russia, where this freedom was, although not completely, realized. If you carefully study our old curricula, then on paper this freedom reached somewhere up to 70% of the courses, in reality it never exceeded 50% – 40%, given the limitations associated with scheduling conflicts. Pressure on the program from various university officials in order to reduce the degree of this freedom was almost always there, although there were people who sincerely helped us. In recent years, the situation has been constantly deteriorating, and a few years ago, the concept of a multidisciplinary bachelor’s degree, which was fundamental for Smolny, disappeared from ministerial documents. However, everything is known in comparison, and in other programs of Liberal Arts, such as RANEPA, Tyumen University, there has always been less choice. 

One can object to me that today there are new disciplinary programs, such as, for example, the programs of the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science of St. Petersburg State University, where the choice within the curriculum reaches 30% – 40%. Yes, this is true, but it happens within a narrowly disciplinary field. From this point of view, electivity in the liberal arts is much more radical and covers a very wide range of areas – from the arts, including the practical arts, to the natural sciences. There are examples such as Brown University with its open curriculum, when there is no general formal curriculum at all, and the program is formed for a specific student. We could only dream of something like this.

The second remark, in connection with the admission to the new program next year. Freedom of choice is determined not only by the structure of the curriculum in a particular semester and the proportion of elective disciplines, but also by the volume of supply of these disciplines for the entire contingent of students. That is, next year this total volume of supply will decrease by at least a quarter, and if we take into account all the same scheduling conflicts that the creators of the new curriculum, I have no doubt, did not think about, even more then a quarter. Therefore, we can say that the program, as it exists, is working for the last year. In addition, the destruction of the program naturally calls into question the name of the faculty – they are clearly trying to get rid of it as a symbolic brand.

Philip Fedchin
Technology Strategist – International Education, BCB
Director of the Gagarin Center