N. Krupskaya
Original publication: erepository.uonbi.ac.ke
Translation: G. P. Ivanov-Mumjiev

The Organization of Self-Education (1922)

62 minutes | English | Self-Education The Soviet Union

From the pamphlet Organization of Self-Education (1922).

As featured in N. K. Krupskaya, On Education: Selected Articles and Speeches (FLPH, Moscow 1957).

For a very brief and concise summary of the rules laid down by Krupskaya here, see her “General Rules for Independent Study.” [1] For a reflection that covers some of the same points while placing more emphasis on important congruences with Lenin’s work and thought, see her “On Self-Education.” [2]



The October Socialist Revolution presented the toilers — workers and peasants — with extremely vast opportunities to rebuild their life. The worker felt he was the master of his enterprise: the peasant received land and saw his cherished dream come true. All that awakened them to activity, stimulated their enthusiasm.

But they soon realized that they were impotent because they lacked the most elementary knowledge. The war had done away with the countryside’s age-old isolation and had shown the peasant how mankind lived. He saw the achievements of science, and learned that knowledge made it possible to renovate soil and draw upon its tremendous power and riches. The worker had known that before.

By making the toiling folk masters of their own destiny, the Revolution awakened in them a desire to apply science to their own ends.

This desire revealed all the more clearly to the worker and the peasant that they had no knowledge and that they must acquire it.

The Soviet government fully sympathizes with their desire to study.

Under tsarism, extra-school education was miserably organized. The Soviet government pays special attention to work among adults, and spares no expense towards this end.

The fight against illiteracy is going apace. We have set up some 80,000 reading-rooms in the countryside, approximately 30,000 libraries, a whole network of Soviet Party schools, clubs, etc. The press has been utilized to the full and cultural facilities have been made use of for agitation; agitational campaigns have been conducted and diverse study courses organized.

Since the establishment of Soviet power five years ago, political educational institutions have done a great job in disseminating knowledge among the population.

The Red Army is another major centre of culture.

The two years that all young men serve in the Red Army are not spent in vain. It has schools for Red Army men of different educational levels, libraries and clubs (at present [in 1922 — N. K.], there are more than 1,200 Red Army clubs with 6,200 political, educational, agricultural and other circles, and an aggregate membership upwards of 130,000).

No less important educational work has been conducted by trade unions, women’s departments and the Youth League.

Special admission regulations and stipends have been instituted to enable as many peasants and workers as possible to join institutions of higher learning. Admission to secondary schools has been facilitated for workers’ and peasants’ children. Special schools — the workers’ faculties — have been established to train workers and peasants for universities and other institutions of higher learning.

All that, however, is far from enough to satisfy the working people’s demand for education. Self-education in Russia will play an exceptionally important role for a long time to come.

Self-education, however, can bring fruitful results only if one knows what to read, how to read, and how best to organize one’s studies.

We see constantly how helpless workers and peasants, fresh from their lathes and ploughs, are when they begin to study.

They never know how to go about it, what and how to read; they lack the elementary habits, that are necessary to study books. Very often a man can hardly read and yet he takes nothing less than Marx’s Capital, only to discover that he does not understand it.

The less energetic and persevering lose heart, they consider the job of studying too difficult and drop it. And it is difficult only because the man tackles Marx without having either the skill or knowledge to master the subject, because he goes bear-hunting with bare hands, so to speak.

The more energetic and persevering achieve what they are after, but in the process they often exert their efforts fruitlessly and — that happens too — overstrain themselves.

Much is being said and written in our country about organization of labour and production propaganda. What all that implies is chiefly organization of production.

Frederick Taylor and other engineers and specialists have analyzed in detail the question of organizing physical labour. [3] There are a great many books on how to organize labour in factories and plants, arrange lathes in workshops, distribute tools, divide labour, issue instructions and assess the work done. All these questions are discussed with the aim of avoiding waste of time and energy.

From the vlewpoint of efficient organization of labour, the best and the most qualified worker is the one who does his job with expediency, speed and the least expenditure of time and energy.

But while in the case of physical work we constantly stress the vast significance of properly organizing labour, in the case of mental work this self-evident truth is ignored, although it is of tremendous import for students and for those who are compelled to improve their knowledge through self-education.

The Choice of Material to Study

The sphere of human knowledge is extremely vast. In the course of ages people have acquired an incredible amount of knowledge about Nature and society. But there is no person who can absorb all that knowledge. To master it, he would have to live ten lives, and even that would not be enough. But then there is no need for man to know everything. Out of this mass of human knowledge, it is enough for him to choose what is most important, i.e., knowledge that makes man strong, that gives him power over Nature and developments, that teaches him how to make use of the forces and riches of Nature, how to change the life of human society. It is necessary to choose what is of greatest importance to man.

We are living in the era of social revolution, while at the same the old capitalist system is disintegrating and dying, giving way to the new, communist system. The capitalist system is built on exploitation and oppression; it is a system that led to the world-shaking imperialist war. And this war and its horrors tore the idealistic mantle off capitalism and revealed to the broad masses the injustice and the shady aspects of the capitalist system. The minds of the working people are working strenuously, seeking for new forms of social life. Russia has already launched on building a new life. That process is attended by extremely difficult conditions. This, naturally, is evoking tremendous interest in contemporary problems, and people want to understand them, to grasp their meaning.

People desiring to understand current events — and they are exceptionally important — should read newspapers, and such newspapers, for instance, as Pravda, provide them with an opportunity to understand a lot. A newspaper, however, can compel a mind to work only in a certain direction, draw attention to a certain fact and show how to approach the problem. Briefly, it can do what a talented and well-informed lecturer or orator does: push the mind on to the right path, show how to tackle things and outline important problems. But in addition to the newspaper one must read appropriate literature to grasp the significance of a given problem. One cannot hope to understand the various phenomena of the capitalist system if one does not understand its subtle mechanism. And so, if one wants to understand current developments, one must study the capitalist system, its structure, the relationship between the capitalist economy and the capitalist ideology. Moreover, one must have a good idea of the anti-capitalist forces that rise and develop in capitalist society. Therein lies the key to the understanding of current events.

Another and no less important question: in what direction is human society evolving? This is a cardinal, vital question. The Communists claim that, by virtue of the laws of development, capitalist society is advancing towards communism. To understand, where human society is going, one must study the laws of social development. The history of primitive culture reveals these laws especially vividly and in a very simple form and it is therefore necessary to study it. But one should not study only primitive culture; one should see how society developed, how these laws governed society later in history, how they operate in capitalist society. It will become clear then in what direction society is evolving.

Alongside questions of a social character one finds questions of natural phenomena. Man is a member of both human society and the animal world, and therefore it is not only men and social life that exert an infuence on him, but Nature and her phenomena too.

Consequently, we must study Nature and her phenomena in all their multiformity, as well as the laws of Nature, inanimate and animate. Natural science has worked out a definite approach to natural phenomena: observation, prediction, putting the prediction to a test. Thus, using this method and gradually studying Nature’s phenomena and her forces, science — experience accumulated and systemized by man — has acquired a mass of vastly important knowledge in this sphere, and that has enabled it to make the best use of Nature’s riches and forces in the interest of mankind. It is necessary to familiarize oneself with the knowledge man has acquired in the sphere of natural science, for that will give one a clear picture of man’s growing domination over Nature.

There is yet another aspect of natural science that is of particular interest. We study social life in its development; that is also the way we should approach natural science. The origin of the earth, of life on the earth, of the various species of plants and animals, of man — one must know all that if one is to understand one’s own role in Nature, to feel oneself an offspring of the earth. It is important, of course, to familiarize oneself not only with the final achievements of science, but also with the way they were arrived at, with the instruments and the facts that made them possible. What is important is that man should not take one’s word for it, but really feel that it is so. Once upon a time, in the remote past, people made up a number of legends on the origin of the earth, on the origin of the species and man. These legends prevail to this very day although they have been refuted by observations, researches and facts. That also should be studied.

It is quite a fad with some to claim that the book is an instrument of labour and not a means for developing one’s world outlook. “The book,” these people say, “is for productive work and not for acquisition of knowledge, not for ‘the development of a harmonious world outlook,’ as it was said before. That is what should be our motto.” They say, “We must make the book serve the hammer and sickle.”

These words are sweeping but senseless. What is the meaning of “the book is for productive work and not for acquisition of knowledge”? What in the world can that signify? The book serves precisely to acquire knowledge, which makes work more productive. And further there is the claim that “the book is for productive work and … not for ‘the development of a harmonious world outlook.’” Wrong again. What is a world outlook? It is this or that solution of the fundamental questions that determine our attitude to environment and Nature. Can we leave these fundamental questions unsolved? We cannot, for if we do, we shall not understand anything in life and shall be like blind kittens. What is a “harmonious” world outlook? It is one that is well considered, one that has answers to all the fundamental questions, answers that do not contradict but harmonize with each other, answers that form a sort of a whole. Is it good or bad when a man has considered all the fundamental questions and does not contradict himself? Good, especially when he has solved them correctly. Such a man knows what he must do and why, he is what we call a “class-conscious man.” There is every reason to believe that the work of a class-conscious man will be more productive than that of a man who does not know what is what. Consequently, one should not think that working out a correct world outlook for oneself is something archaic or delinquent. A Communist, at any rate, tries to be a good Marxist, a staunch exponent of the materialistic world outlook. He believes that this will help him to work and act with greater expediency, and, therefore, with greater efficiency.

How to Study the Necessary Material

For one going in for self-education it is extremely important to know what to start with and how to proceed. One must, naturally, take books one can understand, both the form and the contents. A man who does not know elementary mathematics will not understand higher mathematics, just as one who has no idea of philosophy will not master Hegel. But that is not all. If a man takes a book on a subject he has never thought of, a subject that leaves him unmoved, a subject he does not know how to connect with his store of knowledge or with life itself, reading such a book will hardly benefit him. It is different if the contents are on a familiar subject, if they provide an answer to what he is seeking for.

To illustrate, here is what happened to me a long time ago — in fact, about thirty years ago. Although I had finished a gymnasium, I had never heard (and in those days there was nothing extraordinary in that) that there was a science called political economy.

One day a girl-friend of mine brought me Ivanyukov’s book on political economy and urged me to read it. It was one of those popular books, both in form and content. Well, I started it. I chewed it for a long time, finally finished it, but got absolutely nothing out of it. A few months later, after I had started attending circle meetings, I realized why it was necessary to know political economy. I took to reading Marx, read the first volume of his Capital with great interest, and rather fast too. It taught me a great deal. For me, a thin popular book proved more difficult than a thick scientifc one.

A talented lecturer or a talented teacher, wrapped up in his subject, will always know how to interest others in it, how to turn their thoughts in the necessary direction, how to arouse their interest in the given question. Sometimes a lecture is not savory or deep, but if it sets the listener thinking and stimulates his curiosity, then it is a valuable lecture. In the old days, teachers of philology used literature to spur their pupils’ thoughts. An orator can do that at a meeting. Talks with comrades, joint discussions of problems can do a lot to stimulate curiosity and evoke interest. That is why collective, class or circle activity is so valuable — it is an excellent impetus, an impulse.

Let us dwell in detail on the question of interest.

Different people have different interests. Some are interested in social activity, others in technology, still others in the arts, etc. There is quite a difference between forcing oneself to study something and studying something one likes, something absorbing. The results are diametrically different too. For instance, we know how difficult it is for children to learn one thing when their heads are occupied with another. “Believe it or not, believe it or not, Pushkin’s earned another naught.” [4]

Why did Pushkin study badly at the lyceum? Was it because he was a pampered boy and an idler? Of course not. He studied badly because he was not taught what he wanted to learn, because his interests lay in the sphere of poetry. Here Is how Pushkin describes a poet’s mood when he lives outside his interests and then when his interests are aroused:

There’s very little he cares indeed
For the bustle of our world.
His poet’s soul is fast asleep,
His lyre remains unheard.
And of the worthless men on Earth
He’s one who least displays his worth.
But as soon as the word divine
Reaches his sensitive ear,
He starts with a movement aquiline
And of the best becomes a peer.

What Pushkin calls metaphorically the “word divine” is in reality interest.

The spiritual mood Pushkin describes in a poet may well apply to any man who displays a vivid, deep and unflagging interest in some definite subject. Take, for instance, a physician who is head over heels in love with his profession. Outside it, his soul is more often than not “fast asleep” — he is sluggish and indifferent to what is happening around him. But the moment one speaks of his speciality, he “starts with a movement aquiline.” If you observe people closely, you will see that most of them have something in which they are particularly interested. Some are interested in very broad subjects, like the rebuilding of human society; others are interested in fire fighting; still others in their children, etc. Usually, this interest is the result of some very deep impression, often remote. I know an expert fireman. When he was ten, he saw a conflagration and was tremendously impressed. He came home extremely excited and there was no one he did not describe the fire to. He had been struck by the job done by the firemen, his imagination was aroused and he painted the picture in most exaggerated colours. Then followed a long life — first dull years of the gymnasium, then a career as a minor official, and finally his heart-warming hobby: serving as a volunteer in the fire brigade of a little town.

Pushkin’s life work was determined by his old nurse’s poetical fairy-tales and the deep impression they made on him.

Every time we seek for the source of our special interest, we find it in the past, often in the remote past — in some emotional experience, i.e., in some experience that captivates one’s feelings.

It is interest that focuses our attention on a given subject. Attention can be induced and non-induced. Induced attention is not enduring, we have to revive it again and again. Non-induced attention does not require any efforts on the part of our will-power; moreover, it is fuller and deeper. A pupil who is not interested in history finds it difficult indeed to concentrate his attention on the teacher’s explanations. His thoughts are occupied by other things, he becomes inattentive and must whip up his attention repeatedly, and that costs him no little effort.

If, on the other hand, the pupil is interested in history, he follows his teacher attentively, without exerting any effort. The longer a man can concentrate on one and the same subject, the more chance he has to master it. A man who does not possess sufficient knowledge, and who is at the same time slow to catch on, cannot concentrate long on one subject and for that reason his interest in this subject wanes. The force of intellect lies in that a man, thanks to his studies and his fresh and original approach to the problem, repeatedly reinforces his aftertion to the same subject, “props up” his attention.

The facts and subjects on which one focuses one’s attention are remembered much better. The famous scientist Pasteur remembered a mass of facts and trivial details connected with microbiology, but he could never remember Angelus which he recited daily with his wife. Here is what the well-known psychologist William James writes on the role of interest:

“Most men have a good memory for facts connected with their own pursuits. The college athlete who remains a dunce at his books will astonish you by his knowledge of men’s ‘records’ in various feats and games, and will be a walking dictionary of sporting statistics. The reason is that he is constantly going over these things in his mind, and comparing and making series of them. They form for him not so many odd facts, but a concept system — so they stick. So the merchant remembers prices, the politician other politicians’ speeches and votes, with a copiousness which amazes outsiders, but which the amount of thinking they bestow on these subjects easily explains.

The great memory for facts which a Darwin and a Spencer reveal in their books is not incompatible with the possession on their part of a brain with only a middlng degree of physiological retentiveness. Let a man early in life set himself the task of verifying such a theory as that of evolution, and facts will soon cluster and cling to him like grapes to their stem.

Their relations to the theory will hold them fast; and the more of these the mind is able to discern, the greater the erudition will become. Meanwhile the theorist may have little, if any, desultory memory. Unutilizable facts may be unnoted by him and forgotten as soon as heard. An ignorance almost as encyclopedic as his erudition may co-exist with the latter, and hide, as it were, in the interstices of its web.” [6]

Interest arouses attention, and attention is a prerequisite for memory.

All that is reflective of the great role played by interest. That is why in choosing the material for study it is necessary to take what interests one most, what one likes best. For some it may be social activity, for others technology, still for others the arts, etc.

The choice of one or another sphere of knowledge as a basis of study, however, does not mean that a man must not pay attention to other spheres. On the contrary. The only question here is, how is he to approach the other spheres.

You have, for instance, two students: one interested in technology and the other in social sciences. Both of them have to study, say, electrification. But here each approaches the subject in his own way. The technician will study the question from the point of view of what technical facilities are required for the electrification of the R.S.F.S.R. That will be the focal point of his studies. But, in planning the network of the necessary facilities, he will also reckon with the social conditions which will help best to build this network. Here, special interest will lead him to study social conditions.

The student interested in social sciences will approach the problem from the social angle: electrification is indispensable as a material foundation for the Soviet system. But to determine whether or not it is possible to electrify the R.S.F.S.R., he will have to familiarize himself with electricity, electrical equipment, etc.

It is not for nothing that in our country one of the most popular books on electrification, and one that can well serve as an excellent textbook, has been written by an ordinary social worker (I. I. Stepanov) and not by an electrical engineer. This example shows us that interest determines not so much the content of the acquired knowledge as the approach to this knowledge, the core ground which all other knowledge revolves. William James affirms,

“Every new idea, every new piece of knowledge should be linked, ‘assimilated,’ [as psychologists say — N. K] to the knowledge and ideas the student already possesses. The new must, if one may use the expression, hook up to the old.

… Nothing is more congenial than to be able to assimilate the new to the old, to meet each threatening violator or burster of our well-known series of concepts, as it comes in, see through its unwontedness, and ticket it off as an old friend in disguise. This victorious assimilation of the new is in fact the type of all intellectual pleasure. The lust for it is curiosity. The relation of the new to the old, before the assimilation is performed, is wonder. We feel neither curiosity nor wonder concerning things so far beyond us that we have no concepts to refer them to or standards by which to measure them.”

Quoting Darwin by way of illustration, James says that the Fijians were surprised by little boats, but not by big vessels.

It is only what one knows little of that stimulates one’s thirst for more knowledge. James continues,

“The great maxim in pedagogy is to knit every new piece of knowledge on to a pre-existing curiosity, i.e., to assimilate its matter in some way to what is already known. Hence the advantage of comparing all that is far off and foreign to something that is near home, of making the unknown plain by the example of the known, and of connecting all the instruction with the personal experience of the pupil.

If the teacher is to explain the distance of the sun from the earth, let him ask: ‘If anyone there in the sun fired off a cannon straight at you, what should you do?’ ‘Get out of the way,’ would be the answer. ‘No need of that,’ the teacher might reply. ‘You may quietly go to sleep in your room, and get up again, you may wait till your confirmation day, you may learn a trade, and grow as old as I am — then only will the cannonball be getting near, then you may jump to one side! See, so great as that is the sun’s distance!” [7]

To link the newly acquired knowledge with what is already known, to rely on it — that is the rule one should be guided by in choosing the necessary study material. The question is not one of getting a smattering of various sciences and of becoming a walking encyclopedia, but one of gradually perfecting the knowledge one already possesses, of knitting the newly acquired knowledge on to what is already known. Hence, it is a question of taking interest as a basis and of constantly reinforcing it.

It is not only important to have knowledge; it is important to systematize it properly.

The word “education” in this case means formation around the core of the concepts held by man of a whole tissue of new concepts that are closely linked with the core.

It is only too obvious that the peasant and the worker will absorb knowledge each in his own way, for their life experience and range of knowledge are different.

That is often forgotten when the curricula of various courses and adult schools are drawn up. The different level of the students is not taken into consideration. The question is not one of the volume of knowledge, but one of the order and form in which it is presented.

The book is the basic instrument for mastering any subject. It plays an exceptional role in contemporary life and in contemporary culture.

“Human culture is hereditary and represents an accumulation of experience, knowledge and inventions. If it were not so, and if each generation had to begin from scratch, man would not have advanced far beyond his primitive state. Experience and knowledge are passed on with the help of the book. It is precisely the book that crystallizes the capital of knowledge that is passed on by one generation to another, that is enriched by every generation, that grows faster and faster, and that accelerates human progress.” [8]

Therefore, it is necessary to learn how to work with a book, to form a habit of reading much and fast to oneself. It is necessary to learn to read absolutely automatically, without diverting one’s thoughts.

But that is not enough. One must understand what one reads. That is much more difficult, for it demands certain erudition, broader vision and a good store of words and concepts.

The quicker one matures, the quicker one understands what one reads. One must know, however, how to differentiate between what one understands and what one does not, and to analyze those parts which are vague. A good way is to read them again, to delve into the in comprehensible words, expressions and thoughts, and, in doing that, one should use political dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, popular books on the subject, etc. When the meaning of the word is clarified, it is useful to write out and memorize the whole phrase in which it occurs, to think up several analogous phrases with this word. In short, one should copy children. I recall watching a six-year-old girl who had just heard the word “momentarily” for the first time in her life. In the next half an hour she repeated the word a dozen times in different contexts. She did that unconsciously, of course. An adolescent or an adult should follow the same system to learn how to use thereto unknown words automatically when the need arises. The main thing is to catch on to the proper meaning and muance of the word and to be careful not to use it wrongly.

All this — delving into the meaning of unknown expressions and words — naturally deviates the reader’s attention from the basic idea in the book. To avoid that, one must strive to master the literary language as quickly as possible and to learn how to use it automatically.

It is also indispensable fully to comprehend what one has read, and here one must follow a definite system.

First of all, when one has finished reading a book (at the beginning it is better to do so with each chapter separately), one must analyze the author’s meaning, his main idea, the arguments he adduces in support of this idea. It is highly important to picture clearly how the author’s thoughts work. Proper understanding is the first step towards conscious perusal of books.

It does happen that it is difficult to grasp what the author wants to say and one has to re-read the book, sometimes even twice. In trying to analyze what one has read, one should not try to remember every minor detail or every word. That will do more harm than good. What one must try to do is pick out the essential, the main points, and examine how they are backed. Sometimes the author cites facts to illustrate his ideas or adduces arguments to support them. The best thing after reading a book is to draw up its plan in writing. But all that needs a lot of practice.

Then one must digest the contents of the book. If the main idea is illustrated by facts, one must see, first, whether they are correctly presented and, secondly, whether they are typical enough. One must try to think up analogous facts, or diametrically opposite ones. When the author adduces an argument in support of his ideas one must try to counterpose another, compare the two and decide which one is more correct. One must also try to find a different approach to the question. Having done all that, the reader must decide whether he agrees with the author and if not, in what.

In reading a book one must write down all one wants to and must remember — dates, names and figures. Very often it is useful to draw up a diagram on the basis of these figures to provide oneself with a clearer picture of what one has read. It is also necessary to write out all the thoughts and expressions one likes. But one should avoid long extracts which it is just as difficult to understand as the book itself. One must write out only what is essential, in the form of theses and in the same order as these things occur in books — and write them out clearly and legibly.

Thick copy-books, on which one spends a lot of time and into which one writes long extracts, extracts of which even the owner of the copy-book cannot make head or tail, are of very little use. On the other hand, copy-books with terse, concise and legibly written extracts, extracts which immediately remind him of what he has read and enable him to orientate himself on figures and other material, are extremely useful. It is thus that one must learn to write out extracts. One should practise this without being stingy with one’s time, beginning with short articles and gradually working out a habit of doing the thing in this labour-saving manner.

In certain cases, of course, it is useful to write out longer extracts. If the book is particularly interesting and important, one should not grudge the time spent in making a lengthy abstract, in writing out long quotations in full. This should be done, for instance, when one in tends to quote the book in a report or an article.

Further it is helpful to write out longer extracts when one has not yet mastered the art of writing, orthography or literary language. In these cases, copying is very useful. And it is better to copy what is interesting and related to what one has read — that is more fruitful than copying anything else.

But, as a rule, it is better to write out short, terse and concise extracts.

And so, the first task is to clarify and master what one is reading.

The second is to digest what one has read.

The third is to write out the necessary extracts.

And, lastly, to decide whether the book has given you new knowledge, whether this knowledge is necessary and useful, whether it has taught you any new methods of observation, work or study, whether it has stimulated any special moods and desires.

We have thus sketched a plan or a scheme for working on a book.

This plan, of course, can be altered, the questions can be formulated differently. In studying mathematics or natural sciences, for instance, we shall probably use only part of this scheme. What is important, however, is to have a definite scheme, for then our work will be much more fruitful. System plays an extremely significant part in any work. Very often it enables man to see what others do not. For instance, we know that when he reviewed his troops, Napoleon always noticed the minutest disorders in the men’s uniforms, which the officers had in vain tried to discover before the parade. The answer is simple: Napoleon had a definite system of reviewing troops and that enabled him to notice all the shortcomings.

Let us see how different specialists approach one and the same object. Each has his own system of observation. For instance, an artist looks at a plant from the point of view of colours and their brightness, lighting and grace of form. When he looks at the plant, the artist more often than not completely ignores how many stamens there are in a flower and how they are distributed — that is not part of his system of observation. The botanist, on the contrary, will first of all look at the stamens, leaves, etc., and will completely igmore how the flower is lighted at the moment and how it stands out against this or that background. It is the same in the case of reading: the most important thing is the approach. It enables one to notice what one might miss if one approached the book from a different angle. And little by little the definite approach to a book becomes a habit.

Books give us knowledge and acquaint us with the experience of others, but we can master this knowledge much better if we test it by our own experience. It is one thing to read: “During the storm the sea presents a splendid and majestic sight.” It is quite another to see it with one’s own eyes. [9] We read, for instance, that machines reduce production time, but it is only those who have produced goods first with their hands and then with machines who can really appreciate the fact. Reading about some surgical operation (of the eye or the ear) is not quite the same thing as performing that operation.

That is why an experienced man, a man who has seen people, rites and customs, often knows life better than a man who may be more erudite, but who is not sufficiently observant. It is not fortuitous that we speak highly of “experienced” doctors, “experienced” teachers, etc.

In the Middle Ages there was a very interesting and instructive custom. A man did not become an artisan on finishing his apprenticeship course unless he first travelled for a definite period of time, visited other towns, worked for various artisans, saw how his co-workers lived and worked in other places.

That is why it is extremely important for a man engaged in self-education to try to put the knowledge he has acquired from books to the test of his personal observations and experience.

Particularly effective in this respect are visits to agricultural and industrial museums and exhibitions, model farms and factories. We should make broad use of excursions, only we must see to it that they are conducted in a business-like manner and are not turned into picnics. We must jot down what we see, draw schemes (if we know how to), write down our impressions. We must take advantage of every opportunity to travel, to visit new places, see new people, see how they live and work. For even ordinary life offers rich material for observation and study. Only one must plan beforehand what one wants to see and why, then carry out this plan and draw the necessary conclusions.

This work will be livelier and more fruitful if an entire collective is drawn into it. That will enable the participants to discuss their observations and since each approaches things in his own way, from a different angle, the result will be an all-round study of the subject in question. All the more so, since the collective sees many things that individual observers may miss.

Economize Time and Energy

Americans are a practical people and they always say: “Time is money.” They have a whole branch of literature — unfortunately, we Russians know very little of it — dealing with the organization of studies in high schools and colleges, showing young Americans how to save energy and take a short-cut to success. The latter are taught all that very well, and we should learn it too.

At present we cannot permit ourselves the luxury of wasting time and energy.

We live on the border-line of two social systems: the old, capitalist system is dying, and the new, communist system is rising. In these days we cannot live as did our fathers and grandfathers. Every day brings something new, and we should be able to see it with our own eves, to judge and decide on it. But to do that correctly, we must know a lot.

That applies to the working class in general and to every worker in particular. There is no time to work leisurely, with one’s sleeves down. We must study as economically, i.e., as fast as possible.

History had fated Russia — a comparatively backward country — to be the first to raise the banner of social revolution and to hold it aloft for five years now; she must fortify her material foundation if she is to continue as the stronghold of the world revolution. To do that she must study feverishly, without let-up, with the maximum economy of time and energy.

Life itself is telling young workers and peasants to economize on that. The worker and the peasant spend most of their time toiling. It is only their free time that they can devote to self-education, and there is very little of it to spare.

And so, the historical hour in which we live, Russia’s special position and the living conditions of the greater part of the students, demand stringent economy of time and energy.

To achieve that it is indispensable:

  1. properly to regulate one’s time;
  2. to create the most favourable working conditions possible;
  3. to acquire the habits necessary to study books;
  4. to choose the appropriate material for study;
  5. properly to distribute one’s work;
  6. to work out forms of collective work with a view to saving time and energy;
  7. to have at one’s disposal the necessary aids and instructions.

A. Let us start with regulating time.

It is clear that if we are to spend our time fruitfully, we must know how properly to regulate it. How do we spend it as a rule?

We work regular hours only in factories or offices. The rest of the time we spend anyhow: chatting with friends, lying in bed and reading silly novels, etc. Then in the evening you realize how much time you have wasted, grab some useful book — and find that you are exhausted. To keep awake you smoke one cigarette after another, put the book aside and talk and argue with some friend almost until dawn. And in the morning you wake up jaded.

Foreigners know the value of time. Scientists, writers and professors go to bed and rise early, work when they feel fresh, go visiting as rarely as possible and order their time strictly. They keep regular hours for rising, working, dining, and resting. This routine greatly increases their capacity for work.

It is quite interesting to see how famous scientists and writers regulated their time.

Let us take Lev Tolstoy, for example. He wrote novels and stories — things that depend wholy on one’s mood, and yet his time was strictly regulated. He worked hard in the mornings, writing and rewriting one and the same thing over and over again. A writer cannot live like a hermit: he must associate with people, see how they live. Tolstoy, too, allotted time to this end, to reading, etc.

This side of his life is well described by Sergeyenko in his book How Lew Tolstoy Lives and Works.

This system was also followed by Emile Zola, who wrote a great many novels describing the various classes in capitalist society. Zola used to get up at six a. m., like Tolstoy, wrote in the mornings and spent the rest of the time studying the social strata he was writing about.

Take the life stories of the great musicians — say, Beethoven’s — and you will see how much time he spent playing on the piano and how stringently he regulated his time.

Even more strict with their time are the naturalists, doctors and scientists who work with microscopes in their laboratories or do anatomic research. It would be well, for instance, to read about Edison, Pasteur and other scholars.

The well-known surgeon Kocher followed a definite schedule day in and day out, even when he became old: he went to bed at the same hour, played tennis to exercise his hands for operations, etc.

There are thousands of similar examples. He who wants to achieve success must carefully regulate and save his time.

B. Another prerequisite for smooth work, without any wastage of time and energy, is the creation of the most favourable working conditions possible.

The most important thing is to be fresh and fit. A tired man works slowly and badly. The most suitable hours for work are, of course, in the morning and it is then that a normal man works best. Naturally, if one has to go to work very early, it is difficult to eke out time to study in the morning, but if one starts working at ten or eleven a. m., then the morning hours should be made use of. Going to bed too late often spoils everything, and that should be rectified. Evening studies are much more tiresome. To keep from sleeping man drinks strong tea, smokes cigarettes, argues — and the result is rapid exhaustion and decline of working capacity.

Another condition is fresh air. The brain works well and energetically only if the heart does so, and for that fresh air is indispensable. The room should not be too hot or stuffy. Before beginning work it is necessary to open the window and air the room. A room full of cigarette smoke or fumes makes work extremely difficult.

Another favourable condition is absence during worktime of everything that may divert one’s attention. You cannot study when it is noisy, when people talk and when you are continually bothered with trifling questions. It is necessary to learn to respect other people’s peace, not to make noise, whistle or talk when another man is studying. One must also learn how to study in a library or club. There is nothing to distract one in a library. Besides, libraries have encyclopedias, reference books, atlases, textbooks and such other aids as one needs for serious reading.

True, there are people who can study even when there is a lot of noise, but only when they are so engrossed that they do not care about what is going on around. The Greek geometrician Archimedes, it is said, was so absorbed in his sketches when an enemy soldier burst into his house that all he said was: “Don’t touch my circles.” But it is not everyone who can be so engrossed in his studies as not to see what is going on around, and for that reason it is better if he is not disturbed. Incidentally, to be successful, a student must not let other thoughts disturb him, or he will be like Yevgeny Onegin, of whom Pushkin wrote:

Although his eyes were reading,
His thoughts were far away…

That is why it is better to study in the morning: the impressions of the preceding day wear off and there are no new impressions to disturb one’s peace. If that peace is lacking and one does not feel like studying, it is necessary to work up one’s mood: walk fast up and down the room, whistle some tune, reminisce, read a couple of pages from a favourite author or do something of the same sort.

C. If one’s work is to be successful, one must acquire the habits necessarv to study books.

Among these habits is the ability to read and write, to calculate, to understand maps, etc.

One must learn to read fast and much to oneself, to jot down terse and concise notes and to approach a book with a definite aim. Why work out these habits? To work without wasting time and energy.

Habit frees the mind for meditation. In animals most of the performances are automatic. Man is born with a tendency to do more things than he has ready-made arrangements for in his nerve centres. In adults, the number of automatic performances is so enormous that most of them must be the fruit of painful study. If practice did not make them perfect, nor habit economize nervous and muscular energy, man would be in a sorry plight indeed. As Henry Maudsley says:

“If an act became no easier after being done several times, if the careful direction of consciousness were necessary to its accomplishment on each occasion, it is evident that the whole activity of a lifetime might be confined to one or two deeds — that no progress could take place in development. A man might be occupied all day in dressing and undressing himsell: the attitude of his body would absorb all his attention and energy; the washing of his hands or the fastening of a button would be as difficult to him on each occasion as to the child on its first trial; and he would, furthermore, be completely exhausted by his exertions. … For while secondary automatic acts are accomplished with comparatively little weariness — in this regard approaching the organic movements, or the original reflex — the conscious effort of the will soon produces exhaustion.” [10]

We know how hard it is for an illiterate adult to spell and how difficult it is sometimes for a semi-literate person to sign his name, how long and how much effort it takes him to do it. It is clear that all these processes absorb all his attention and that he cannot concentrate on what he is reading. All his energy goes into mastering technique. That is why one should develop habits and make them automatic. Without that, serious study is impossible.

D. We have already spoken of the choice of material from the viewpoint of economizing time and energy. What is necessary here is to repeat in a few words what we have already said.

We must tackle the subject we can handle: read books written in a popular language and not special books that require special training. If we must read the latter, we must first acquire the necessary knowledge. Tackling something we cannot cope with is a plain waste of energy and time.

Of all the vast mass of human knowledge one should choose what is of special importance, what is essential for understanding the environment and learning to transform it. The worker and the peasant have no timer or energy to spare for unimportant knowledge.

Of course, in studying a subject, one must select the best books possible, books that illustrate this subject most fully, profoundly and correctly. And, lastly, one must begin with something one is most interested in, gradually expanding the sphere of one’s knowledge, mastering the most important of its branches and thus building up the original core of one’s knowledge.

E. One must learn to work according to a definite, prearranged plan. An inexperienced man usually tries to do too many things at one time: he grabs one book, drops it to take another, shifts from subject to subject without mastering any one of them. Such method of studying is unproductive and uneconomical. One should not jump from one thing to another: one should set oneself a definite target — and not too far-reaching or broad, but concrete and definite. Say, a man wants to study capitalism. That is a very comprehensive subject. To master it, one must break it up into a series of limited themes, and then choose one of them — say, modern capitalism. After that, one should break up this theme too: for instance, start studying modern capitalism in just one country — England. One should continue along this path and choose, say, the position of the British working class in the present stage of capitalism. Only when one has mastered this definite task should one proceed to the next concrete theme, and so on. This is the most economical way of fully mastering the subject. But to draw up such a plan, one must have some idea, even a general will do, of the theme as a whole.

Speaking of organization of labour, the well-known American engineer Frederick Taylor says that each employee, each worker, should be assigned a definite task. He writes,

“The more elementary the mind and character of the individual, the more necessary does it become that each task shall extend over a short period of time only. No school-teacher would think of telling children in a general way to study a certain book or subiect. It is practically universal to assign each day a definite lesson beginning on one specified page and line and ending on another; and the best progress is made when the conditions are such that a definite study hour or period can be assigned in which the lesson must ba learned.”

Taylor is absolutely right. In studying for the first time, one must assign oneself easy, simple tasks. Only then can one fulfil them.

Plan-drawing is quite difficult for a beginner because he usually has no clear idea of how much he should learn or how to break up the subject into separate themes. In this he should either ask comrades who are better acquainted with the general theme to assist him or take recourse to available manuals and aids. People attending courses are much better off in this respect. As our peasants say, “they live by other people’s brains.” Their plans are drawn up by their instructors. At the beginning that, of course, is simpler and to a certain degree better for an inexperienced man: there is no risk of his taking the wrong path. But, left to himself to work out plans and tasks, he will eventually find himself in a much more favourable position than the student attending courses, for he will learn how to draw up plans that suit best his individuality and his knowledge.

F. Let us dwell on the next question: does one save more time and energy studying individually or in a circle? That depends on how studies are arranged in a circle. If its members study conscientiously, if they attend meetings regularly and fulfil the obligations they take upon themselves and, moreover, if the circle is headed by an experienced instructor, then one saves more time and energy studying in it. Collective work can save time. For that it is necessary to introduce division of labour and distribute tasks rationally, to each according to his abilities. An exchange of opinion helps people to clarily and understand things. More, discussion stimulates interest and ideas. And yet another thing. Collective work pulls people up and makes them study more steadily. For these reasons, circle study is valuable, provided, of course, the above-mentioned conditions are abided by. But if the members of a circle come late for the meetings or miss them, if they do not study at home and consider circle discussion sufficient, i.e., if they do not do any serious, independent work, then it is better to resign from such a circle and study by oneself.

But whether one studies in a circle or independently, one must have all the necessary manuals and aids if one is to save time and energy and take the right path. One must have a popular political dictionary, a popular encyclopedia, a guide catalogue of the most important books one has to read with annotations and instructions on what one must know to read them, etc. It is also indispensable to have a collection of study plans to include a series of plans on various branches of knowledge drawn up for people of different educational levels. There should be handbooks for the most important branches of knowledge, manuals on self-education with instructions on how to work independently on this or that subject. All these aids, manuals and handbooks make independent study more fruitful.

[1] N. Krupskaya, “General Rules for Independent Study” (1934). [web] 

[2] N. Krupskaya, “On Self-Education” (1935). [web] 

[3] Krupskaya wrote a very interesting pamphlet on Taylor, “The Taylor System and the Organization of Work in Soviet Institutions” (1921). [web] — R. D. 

[4] Alexander S. Pushkin is widely considered the greatest Russian poet of all time. As with many other greats, he was said not to have done great in school. The usage of “naught” here is in the semantic sense of “naughty.” — R. D. 

[5] From Pushkin’s The Poet

[6] The Principles of Psychology by William James. 

[7] The Principles of Psychology by William James. 

[8] A. A. Pokrovsky, Library Work

[9] This is reminiscent of Chernyshevsky’s “The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality” (1855). [web] — R. D. 

[10] The Principles of Psychology by William James.