Wednesday, April 20, 2005 | No one was more surprised than Mikhail Gorbachev himself to be asked to speak at the National School Boards Association’s 2005 annual conference in San Diego, which just ended this week.

At a press conference Saturday in San Diego, he said he asked himself the same question everyone else was wondering: “Why did they invite me?”

The NSBA described the connection between the former president of the Soviet Union and the concerns of school board members as follows: “Does your school district require strong yet flexible leadership? Must you restructure priorities in changing times? Do you have to keep the peace among groups with different agendas? Mikhail Gorbachev overcame similar challenges as he led the Soviet Union into a new era.”

A tenuous connection, to be sure. Many at the conference were asking what relevance Gorbachev could have for a school board member. He is considered a man of great stature who controlled one of the world’s two superpowers in the 1980s, signed two disarmament agreements with the United States that effectively stopped the nuclear arms race, ended the Cold War, embraced democracy for Eastern Europe, precipitated the break-up of the Soviet Union, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, and earned a reputation as one of the most prominent and influential figures of the 20th century – but he is not regarded as someone involved in education policy.

Yet his words had a bearing on the crowd of 11,000 NSBA attendees who packed the cavernous San Diego Convention Center hall and gave the statesman a long, welcoming standing ovation. During his 50-minute speech, the audience heard pearls of education-related wisdom, although they were sandwiched between lengthy remarks about the political failures of today’s world leaders to address such international crises as war and poverty.

The skilled orator was also able to frame the story of his life – his upbringing, his rise to the head of the Communist Party in 1985, and his eventual disillusionment with the very political system he was elected to represent – so that this became relevant for school board members who cope regularly with changing political climates and demanding outside forces. Mired in political upheaval and machinations that would make Machiavelli shudder, Gorbachev’s life could be viewed as a lesson in survival for any elected official who has ever had to combat negative campaigning or form alliances with quarrelsome factions who switch allegiances at a moment’s notice.

Those who stayed to the end of his speech – which started late, ran long, was spoken in Russian and delivered in English by a translator – were rewarded with insights into the thoughts of a man shaped by a political process that allowed him to be well-schooled, poised for success and ultimately open-minded enough to recognize the failure of a totalitarian system of government to provide for the basic needs of the Soviet people.

Free, universal access to education

He first joined the Communist Party in 1952, was elected to the Supreme Senate in 1970, and served as General Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee from 1985 until he resigned his post after a coup attempt in 1991.

“I am by nature ambitious,” Gorbachev said. “I gave 50 years of my life to politics.” Nonetheless, without his education, “I would have had a very different destiny.”

Gorbachev repeatedly called upon world leaders to ensure free and universal access to education, a remark that was greeted with enthusiastic applause. “Every family should be able to educate their children so the children can step confidently into the world,” he said.

Gorbachev said today’s education system faces multiple questions: what should a model education system be like, what are the requirements that teachers should meet, what should they teach and how should they teach it? He said there exists in Russia today a debate about the changes the country’s education system needs, including “how we train and give incentives to teachers.”

The difficulties in the world, including the educational needs of society, can be traced to a problem with political leadership, he said. “We need leaders with vision who can go beyond the old framework.”

Education, Gorbachev said, should be given more priority and is the key to overcoming poverty in the world. He cited United Nations’ statistics that two-thirds of a country’s success depends upon its education system and intellectual resources.

“People say there isn’t enough money [for education], but there is a paradox,” Gorbachev said at a press conference before his speech. “Whenever there is a need to finance a military action, operation, or a war, money is found immediately. But as soon as people start to raise the needs of education, the answer is we cannot improve education without raising taxes. And that is painful.

“Let’s look at the allocation of the tax money. Why is so much money spent on the military budget?”

Gorbachev applauded his audience for their work in education and said, “What you are doing will be key in shaping the present and future of America.”

The NSBA is a national federation of school boards that represents more than 95,000 school board members who govern the nation’s public schools. The organization’s mission is to foster excellence and equity in public elementary and secondary education through local school board leadership.

Now head of the Gorbachev Foundation – a philanthropic, nonprofit, nonpartisan educational foundation that studies world problems and finances research on progress in former Soviet republics – Gorbachev, 74, continues to be actively involved in international politics by speaking to organizations around the world, including the United Nations where he is headed this week.

For a related story on Gorbachev and his comments on the world’s political situation since Perestroika, click here.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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