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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Vasyl Sukhmlynsky’s pedagogical heritage in the context of today

2 March, 2004 - 00:00

When you stand by the bust of our pedagogical genius Vasyl Sukhomlynsky at the Pavlysh village cemetery, you cannot help thinking about the Ukrainian people’s wonderful ability to produce brilliant teachers, as well as about the merciless fate that decreed so short a lifetime for their most prominent representatives. K. D. Ushynsky passed away at 47, A. S. Makarenko at 51, and V. O. Sukhomlynsky at 52. You involuntarily recall what S. L. Soloveichyk said in the now distant 1971: a teacher is not a poet, he cannot say his piece in his green years. It takes decades to gather life experience and shape pedagogical persuasions.

It also took Sukhomlynsky decades. He became principal of the Pavlysh Secondary School in July 1948 and held this office for 22 years. It is fantastic how much the Pavlysh principal, scholar, and writer managed to do in these those two decades: about fifty books, 500 articles, almost 1500 stories and fairy tales. He did all this despite the never-ending routine business of a school principal... One of the strongest impressions visitors to the Pavlysh State Pedagogical Memorial Museum gain is that of Sukhomlynsky’s numerous notebooks with the list of what he should do during the day, as well as his records of class inspections and extracurricular activities. These volumes are written in a very attractive and neat handwriting, which I think reflects this person’s acute sense of purpose and his organized nature. He had a clear idea of what he was going to do with his life.

Everyone who steps over the threshold of V. O. Sukhomlynsky’s school office, is overwhelmed by a strange feeling. I happened to visit many school principals’ offices. Today, they sometimes resemble (especially in the cities) a business office. But in this case we see utter simplicity: an old cheap bookcase, a desk, a chair, and a typewriter — nothing superfluous. It is here that he wrote his books and articles every day from 4 to 8 a.m. for 22 years, see the daybreak, and then go to meet his pupils.

He hurried to live a full-fledged life because, as S. Soloveichyk writes, he knew “he had been in fact killed in the war, but he mustered enough courage to live for another thirty years and was as lively as he could be throughout those years.” What kept him going was his boundless love for his pupils. He could not stand to see an unhappy child. It is for this reason that what he created is now called child-centered education. In the heat of a 1967 campaign unleashed against him by educational conservatives, V. O. Sukhomlynsky wrote with his heart literally bleeding, “I can’t live without the children. I wake up at two or three in the morning and work until dawn. I look forward to the morning, when children begin to chirp all around. I will never abandon children because I simply cannot live without them.”

Today, at the turn of the third millennium, 65 of his works have seen 371 publications with a total circulation of 15 million copies. They have been translated into 59 languages, while Sukhomlynsky’s most well-known book I Give My Heart to the Children has been published 55 times in 32 languages (source: O. V. Sukhomlynska).

In the two decades of his teaching career, V. O. Sukhomlynsky underwent a complex evolution in his philosophy of life. Some people who read his works sometimes forget this. Indeed, the pages of the outstanding pedagogue’s works are full of references to the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Krupskaya, Kalinin, Lunacharsky, and other Marxist authors. Yet, this in no way diminishes their importance today because his talent reached its apex precisely in the late 1950s and the 1960s. It was the time of Khrushchev’s thaw, a time of great hopes that society would be purged of Stalinism. It was the time that gave birth to such a social phenomenon as the dissident movement of the 1960s.

Working within the framework of the Soviet system, those dissidents restored a number of social and psychological qualities the intelligentsia had lost under Soviet power, such as inherent self-respect, individualism, adherence to universal human values, and respect for natural ethical standards. Even when taking an orthodox Marxist position, the sixties dissidents found it possible to criticize the current system if not openly, then in a veiled form. Suffice it to recall Ivan Dziuba who, relying on Marxist canons, made mincemeat of the Soviet nationalities policy in his brilliant work Internationalism or Russification? or the great historian Mykhailo Braichevsky who scathingly criticized the slogan “reunification of the two fraternal peoples” as a great-power and chauvinistic concept in the article “Annexation or Reunification?” (1966). Incidentally, Braichevsky quoted the works of Marx and Lenin over thirty times.

The same applies to V. O. Sukhomlynsky. Just think about the titles of the Pavlysh principal’s works published in those years: Believe in Man! (1960), Man Inimitable (1962), A Thought About Man (1963), The Path to a Child’s Heart (1963), Shaping Personality in the Soviet School (1965), and, finally, I Give My Heart to the Children (1969). This is true human-centrism, so strikingly different from the Stalinist vision of man as a cog in the communist machine, the obedient servant who implements the totalitarian system’s will in the spirit of “one man is nonsense; one man is zero.” It no accident that the Drohobych-based Professor Vyshnevsky characterizes the Pavlysh benefactor as a “sincere Ukrainian and a covert Christian humanist.”

O. V. Sukhomlynska says bluntly in her latest article that Vasyl Sukhomlynsky was part of the sixties movement. She cites a more than eloquent fact: the father kept a secretly typed copy of Dziuba’s Internationalism or Russification? He kept it hidden because possession of it could have carried a prison term... Further proof: when Oles Honchar was being harassed for his novel The Cathedral, Sukhomlynsky wrote to him, “Our school collective lives a rich spiritual life. Everybody has read your Cathedral. We see the novel as a spring that spouts the streams of fresh thought.” It will be emphasized that immediately after the pedagogue’s death Soloveichyk noted in the article, “Tell the Truth about Sukhomlynsky,” a very characteristic trait in the Pavlysh principal’s teaching activities: “...he adjusted his proposals to the standards folk pedagogy.” Could anybody but a 1960s dissident have written the words which even today should be put up over the desks of people’s deputies, ministers, vice premiers, and all kinds of officials: “It is as absurd to say that there can be two native languages as it is to imagine that one child was born by two mothers. A child has one mother only. Until the end of his life. Until his last breath”?

It hurt him that his works were first printed in Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, or Hungary, but not in his homeland. O. V. Sukhomlynska recently quoted in Uriadovy kurier Vasyl Sukhomlynsky’s lines that strike a chord, “No news from the publishers... I would like the fairy tales and short stories to be published in Ukrainian. It will be very bad if, to be published in Ukraine, they have to be translated into Russian and then from Russian back into Ukrainian.”

He traversed the tortuous road from authoritarian to democratic non-violent pedagogy. Prof. O. V. Sukhomlynska gave a very accurate description of this, “In the final period of his life, Vasyl Sukhomlynsky defended folk imperatives and values more and more assertively and emotionally. He relied on and tried to apply Ukrainian ethnic pedagogy to all stages of the teaching process, putting special emphasis on the native language, word, song, poetry, and fairy tale. Broadening the boundaries of pedagogy, he himself began to compose fairy tales, short stories, and parables for Pavlysh children taking into account the Ukrainian mentality and philosophy of life, making extensive use of them in the educational process.”

V. O. Sukhomlynsky left a huge pedagogical heritage both in terms of its size and humanistic content. Unfortunately, independent Ukraine has still not found the opportunity to publish the complete works of this genius born in Central Ukraine in sufficient circulation, including the enormous epistolary heritage of this teacher, scholar, and human being.

By Andriy IVANKO, Deputy Director, Kirovohrad Oblast Institute of In- Service Teacher Training; Chairman, Kirovohrad oblast branch of the Prosvita Society