In 2002 I went to work at the second best language institute in Beijing, known as Erwai, or the Number 2 Foreign Language Institute. I was the Director of Studies of an English university preparation programme. Students aged 17-21 attended a nine-month intensive. The hope was that they would then be able to gain admission into a foreign university in a western country.
It was something of a shock for me to find myself leading a programme which had little or no academic merit, and which served no purpose but to give the students a piece of paper. It was credentialism at its worst. The students paid a lot of money to attend the school, and they expected to pass. Not to be disrespectful to them, but many – probably around half, were lazy and unmotivated.
It was my first exposure to education for the credit, a pervasive problem right across China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where I have taught. It is a problem in many nations across the world.
In such a system, learning is no longer a process of personal growth, but of inflation of ego and social status. It is not surprising that plagiarism is rife in the Chinese system. One recent survey found that 40 percent of Chinese PhD students had plagiarised at least part of their doctoral thesis. Amongst academics, plagiarism is similarly common, and accepted. Many foreign teachers I know of in China have commented that academics simply copy large parts of their papers from other previously published papers. They do it because nobody cares. Many universities have become diploma mills.
One day at Erwai, I received a book report from a student. It was of Treasure Island, a perfectly good book for any non-native English student to have a crack at. The report went something like this (remember, this kid could barely string two sentences together).
Join our intrepid travelers of the seven seas, as they venture into unknown lands. Marvel at the fearless courage of little Jim Hawkins, as he battles that dastardly villain of the high seas, Long John Silver! Agh, me hearties, there’s gold on that thar island!
Needless to say, I wasn’t fooled by the student’s cunning back cover copying. In class, I handed the paper back with a fail grade, and a note saying he had to do it again. I didn’t single him out, as that would have been a big loss of face. Still, he wasn’t happy! He became extremely angry, and demanded to know what was wrong with the paper. I simply told him that it was copied, so he had to do it again. He stood up, pushed his desk aside and stormed out of the room. To make it worse, his uncle came to the campus the next day (with the students standing right behind him), walked up to me, and started screaming at me in Chinese, wagging his finger in front of my nose. He said his nephew was so upset he was threatening to kill himself.
I admit I was rather taken aback by all this. All I was trying to do was set some basic standards, and to get students to be responsible for what they were doing in the programme. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective) the little drama queen didn’t top himself.
But worse has happened. Foreign teachers in China have reported being bullied and harassed by university officials when they have attempted to fail students for blatant plagiarism.
One English teacher from a western country, related a horror incident on a foreign teachers website in China. He was so incensed at receiving end of term papers that were almost identical, and so obviously plagiarised, that he refused to pass many of them. When he informed the administration, he was told to give the students a bare pass. He refused point blank, as a matter of principle. He refused to hand over the papers, nor to give the students grades. He then received threats from the school, and was so scared that he fled the campus at night. In something akin to a Hollywood movie, as his bus was pulling away from the city centre, it was cut off by several cars, and several hefty guys boarded the vehicle, apparently to rough him up. They demanded the papers from him. Fortunately they eventually left, and he was able to leave the city.
China’s education system is, quite frankly, in a mess. Outside of the top two or three universities, there are many, many universities which seem to serve little purpose other than to keep the kids off the streets for a few years. I have seen reports in the western media listing how many graduates China is producing each year. The fear is that the west will be swamped with countless millions of mathematical geniuses from China, and local students won’t stand a chance. I can assure you that such fears are wildly overstated. The Chinese system produces vast quantities of graduates, and the best are great. However, there are vastly more of very poor quality.
Yet the Chinese system is far from being alone in this respect. An article by Brent Staples in the New York Times recently addressed (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/opinion/13tue4.html?_r=1&ref=brent_staples) the increasing problem of plagiarism in education in the USA. Some students do not even see it as unethical to cheat. Entire websites have sprung up offering students homework, some requiring payment. Education is becoming mere training, mere passing of the test
Credentialism destroys the spirit of education and learning. Education is not filling a pail, but lighting a fire, as WB Yeats famously stated. Or rather, that’s what it could be, and should be. The eighteenth and nineteenth century Romantics saw learning as a transformative experience. The leaner was lifted, and his or her being expanded in the intimate relationship that developed between the knower and the known. Learning in this sense is a spiritual experience. It becomes a passion.
I have written about following your Bliss in life, moving where the spirit calls you. Education, in its ideal form, can be similar. We need to instill in the young this awareness. The gadget culture is shortening attention spans. As the young flick from page to page on their laptops and palm tops, knowledge is being devalued. It is becoming mere information, dry data on the page. The relationship between the knower and the known has almost vanished.
Deep knowing is always about relationship, about intimacy.
In this social and educational climate, is it any wonder that many students see little issue with cutting and pasting their way to a credential?