School Structure and Superficial Friendships — Russia and the US

February 16, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

American schools teach kids the ideal of universalism. Treating everyone equally without favoritism squares perfectly with our value on equality. But then what about unique personal relationships? If you treat everyone alike, no one can be special. That was the gist of the previous post about the superficiality of American friendships, at least as non-Americans perceive them, and the rules of Valentine’s Day in American classrooms.

Two days after posting that, I happened to listen to a conversation from last August between American economist Tyler Cowen and Masha Gessen, a journalist who came to the US from Russia at age 14, lived here for ten years and then returned to Russia. In 2013, she moved back to the US because of the threat that the government might take her adopted son from her because she is gay. (The full podcast is here.)

Cowen asks two questions, one right after the other, the first about friendships, the second about schools. He doesn’t explicitly say that one affects the other. Neither does Gessen. Maybe they don’t see the connection.

Cowen asks, “Why do Russians purge their own friends so often?” He  Cowen refers to “loyalty cycles.” Gessen is puzzled, maybe because of the words purge and loyalty. Cowen explains that Russian friendships end in total breaks “whereas Americans will drift apart.”   

Gessen answer that if Cowen is right (and she seems not totally convinced that he is), it’s because friendships between Russians are much more profound.   

Here is slightly edited transcript: 

Russian friendships are much more emotional and intense than American friendships. When I moved back to this country five and a half years ago, it was like a sense of whiplash, because I had friend here, I had lived her for twenty years. And I would get together with my friends, and then two hours later the get-together would be over. And [I would think]What was the point of that? Was that just to let each other know that we still exist?

Because you don’t really get into a conversation till about four hours in, right?, and a number of bottles of alcohol. If you’re going to really get down, it’s a 3 a.m., 4 a.m. proposition. You can’t just have dinner and go home.

Maybe you’re just referring to the intensity of Russian friendship. It’s like lovers, even in this country, don’t drift apart usually. You have to break up. You can’t really just stop calling. You can’t go from talking every day to talking every few weeks and then forget about each other’s existence.

Cowen’s next question is about the way Russian schools group children.

COWEN: Russian grade school – you sit in the same seats and next to the same people year after year after year. Is that a good system or a bad system?

GESSEN: My older kids were educated partly in Russia and partly here, and my youngest son is now in elementary school here. I find it disorienting that every year Americans shuffle their classes and put kids in a new social situation. 

There’s something amazing to having gone through life from the time you’re six or seven with the same people. I think it can foster really incredible friendships. It can also foster awful dynamics obviously.

Gessen’s answers suggest a strong relation between the personal (friendships) and the structural (classroom groupings). Oddly, neither Gessen nor Cowen mentions the possible link between the two. But even if they did see that sociological connection, they would see it from different sides of the table. Cowen is saying, in effect, “Russia takes away a kid’s choice over who to associate with. As a result, they wind up with these screwed-up friendships so that the Russian word for “friend” is “future enemy.”

From Gessen’s point of view, it’s not that America our way of friendship is the right and normal way. Instead she sees American friendships as superficial (What’s the point?). After all, when the group of kids a child sees everyday lasts only nine or ten months, when kids are forced to form new relationships every year, you really can’t expect them to develop deep and long-lasting friendships when they’re older.The Russian system can produce friendships that are “incredible” and “amazing.”

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