Egyptian students of Ain Shams University, Cairo.
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Egyptian students of Ain Shams University, Cairo.
Last updated: September 27, 2014
Schooling corruption: The making of a corrupt citizen

"Ironically, they employ corruption to fight corruption"

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In the summer of 2008, the former Egyptian minister of education, Yousry El Gamal, held a meeting with the top students in the Egyptian General Secondary Certificate as part of the annual tradition of honoring the highest academic achievers in the “most terrifying” stage of the Egyptian educational system. After the minister gave his short speech, he was kind enough, unlike many other officials, to listen to some opinions and questions from the students. I took this as an opportunity to express one of my deepest frustrations with the educational system.

"He was kind enough, unlike many other officials, to listen to some opinions and questions from the students"

I RAISED MY HAND, and luckily I was selected to speak. As would typically happen in any of these pointless discussions with unaware officials, my expression of frustration with the level of cheating in the local and national exams and the unlimited corruption in the school system was met by the governmental guarantee that the necessary measures are being taken. In less than two years, El Gamal was forced to resign after a series of incidents of group cheating and leakages in national exams stormed his ministry.

It has been almost six years, and yet nothing has changed. In fact, with all the chaos that took place in the last three years and the trembling hands of the successive governments, the situation got worse. However, the question is not whether students cheat or not in school exams. A simple interview with a school principle or even an elementary school student would be enough to answer that question. The real question is why they do so. What makes a 10 year-old student in third grade roll his eyes around trying to catch a sight of the surrounding examination papers to copy the answers for his test? Why will an outstanding student donate his knowledge to his co-examinees whom s/he barely knows? And why do test proctors tolerate and even encourage cheating, risking their job?

THE SIMPLEST ANSWER to these puzzles is that people are bad! Students, teachers, supervisors, and everyone within that system are morally corrupt. Whenever those actors have an incentive to deviate from the righteous actions, they do. Yet, the problem with that answer is that it overlooks the moral complexity of people’s actions. For instance, the outstanding student is participating in the cheating process, which is assumed to be morally bad, but s/he is not actually benefiting from it. It’s not only that s/he is providing this free service, but also engaging in an action that might affect her/his chances of getting a high rank in class by pushing rivals up the ladder. This student is undertaking a risk and a cost in order to help her/his friends or even unknown fellow examinees with nothing significant in return.

The story of the test proctor is no different. The proctor is stuck in the classroom for the exam period whether students manage to pass the test or not. There is no significant cost in preventing cheating for the proctor, but in fact there are risks for not doing so. Still, many proctors tend to tolerate and encourage cheating, especially in national exams. This comes from their sympathy with the students rather than their weak work ethic. So, it seems from that perspective that actors do not consider cheating as morally bad behavior. On the contrary, it’s considered morally good to help your colleagues in the test and desirable in most of the time. Most parents, teachers, and students are willing to support and encourage cheating with big smiles on their faces. In other words, everyone is cooperating to make cheating a successful process!

BUT AGAIN, why is this the case? It’s either that these different stakeholders are extremely benevolent that they love to help each other regardless of the costs, or that they are collaborating against a common entity. Given the impersonal component of the relationship between the different collaborators, the second justification is more likely to be true than the - utopian - first one.

"It seems that actors do not consider cheating as morally bad behavior"

In a sense, they are revolting against an unjust and inefficient system. It’s the moral inferiority and the ethical depravity of that system that make an action like cheating morally justified in their point of view. They are all cooperating to rescue themselves, their sons, their friends, and the future youth from the tsunami of unemployment, poverty, and the deep-rooted corruption. Ironically, they employ corruption to fight corruption. Then, corruption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This prevalent view could be simply realized in the Egyptian saying “hia baiza baiza” which means it’s already corrupt. In other words, in the midst of all this corruption, there is no hope for change, but adaptation.

THE SAD FACT is that corruption is the most applied lesson that the student learns at school. The elementary school student whose frustrated parents encouraged him to cheat, whose teacher tolerated his cheating, and whose friends loved the cooperative spirit, is the future citizen. He is the future garbage man, policeman, doctor, engineer, minister, and president. He starts his first lessons of corruption at school to be the protector of the institution of social and state corruption in the future. This is one thing that no revolution, political leader, or religious preacher could easily change in a few years.

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