by Ilya Buynevich
Walking near Temple University, I noticed a flyer advocating for “socialism in our lifetime.” The message from an outside group reads in full, “Socialist Revolution: Join the fight for socialism in our lifetime.” Having grown up in Soviet-era Ukraine and now a tenured professor at Temple, I feel strongly that most college-age Americans do not understand what they are saying when they advocate for socialism.
Today, many American college students do not understand that they are advocating for a system that goes beyond what even the Soviets promoted. There is a real distinction that students do not appreciate between the romanticized idea of state socialism in Scandinavia and the reality of socialism – what I experienced as a student in the Soviet Union.
Most student activists tout equity and many undergraduates champion socialism as a means to achieve equity – a process to engineer outcomes. Where I grew up, this would mean giving everyone the same grade, so it was never a factor in Soviet higher education.
Soviet universities admitted roughly half of each cohort based on merit: grades in three placement exams. Yes, nepotism and bribes existed in the system, but applicants needed to be exceptionally smart to gain entrance in highly selective majors (international relations, law, or performing arts) at prestigious urban universities. The system prized engineered equality – nearly all were equally poor – but never used a concept of equity to fix results.
My classmates and I were judged by our academic performances and faced high academic standards, especially during oral-style examinations (80-90% were in this format). I remain eternally thankful to my secondary school teachers and professors. They prepared us to succeed and graded us based on skill, and I was able to complete my education in the United States and earn a doctoral degree at Boston University.
In America today, some universities are getting rid of standardized testing in the name of equity, a concept that has no clearly defined assessment guidelines. Removing SATs and ACTs compounds the problem of lower standards in higher education. When administrators in the Soviet Union wanted to tip the scales on class enrollment, they would make the examinations much harder.
The system I grew up in chose rigor over easiness. It chose merit.
But praise for my teachers should not be misconstrued with praise for the Soviet system, which typically rewarded academic members of the Communist Party with opportunities for promotion and international conference travel. Soviet universities produced excellent scientists despite (not thanks to) the political system, but that does not diminish the fact that merit-based admissions and assessments helped me and thousands of others excel in our fields.
My message to those individuals who hung the flyer and everyone else who agrees with its message is clear: Before you advocate for socialism here, try experiencing it somewhere else. You will not find the utopia you are searching for.
By the 1980s, the Soviet Union has ceased its most repressive labor camps and political punishments, but long lines and empty shelves persisted. Most families could not afford to buy a single car. Everyone had to work or face prison time for skipping a day without proper documentation – a policy that rebukes a false idea that socialism will liberate them from labor.
The reality is that experimenting with socialism in another country is a privilege that only free societies can provide. In contrast, no one back in the Soviet Union or currently in Venezuela can just decide and try out the U.S. lifestyle for a month. That is the fundamental difference between Soviet-style socialism and capitalism.
American universities are still highly regarded around the world. They need to (re-)embrace merit as the gold standard for accepting and assessing students. Meritocracy works and triumphs.
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Ilya Buynevich is a geologist, who teaches coastal geosciences at Temple University and served as a 2022-2023 Fulbright U.S. Scholar in Estonia. He grew up and began his education in Ukraine, followed by a PhD from Boston University and a scientific position at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Buynevich conducted research projects in the USA, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Brazil, Israel, Kuwait, Turkey, and the Bahamas. He is passionate about introducing young geoscientists to hands-on field experience and exploring how lessons learned from the past can help understand current issues facing our rapidly developing world.
Photo “Ilya Buynevich” by Temple University.