Saturday, 19 May 2012

Plagiarism and Romanian education


Victor Ponta’s first two nominees for Education Minister had to stand down after the much-maligned Romanian press exploded them. Corina Dumitrescu made several grammar and spelling mistakes in her CV and it came to light very quickly that though she claimed a diploma from Stanford University  she in fact merely attended a two week course there (she misspelt Stanford on her CV).  The second nominee, Ioan Mang, stood down after being accused of having plagiarised (and allegedly misunderstood) a doctoral thesis from the net. Children and students in every country learn from what they see adults do, not what adults say. Perhaps the two scandals will send the right message to the next generation, or perhaps not.

The position of Education Minister matters very much in Romania where, as in most developing countries, education is given supreme importance. If in America status is defined by money and in England by accent, vocabulary and clothes,  in Romania it is education which cuts it. And this is not something that can be hidden, because Romanian grammar is astonishingly complicated and everyone is judged on how grammatical he is. The grilling of the gypsy politician Marian Vanghelie in a chat show on how to decline the verb to be (he couldn't get very far) seemed to me to be almost cruel but made the educated classes here laugh uproariously and, considering how powerful (and allegedly rich) he is, perhaps justly. On anther television show, Tourism Minister Elena Udrea encouraged Romanian scepticism about attractive blondes with successful careers (and Romanians are usually very sceptical) by not being aware that Norway was neither a republic nor a member of the E.U. I knew a pretty girl who rejected the advances of the fabulously rich politician and tycoon George Copos, not because he was married or much older than she was or even because he was bald, but because he didn’t have a degree.  

Plagiarism, copying and cheating are rife in the educational system here where teachers often have to be bribed not to mark pupils down. Unfortunately cheating and bribing at school are a mirror of adult life.

Like Japan, Romania is an intensely hierarchical society and teachers, doctors and priests, who in the countryside form the elite, expect a great deal of deference and obedience. Yet for all the defects of the education system here and the problems with poorly paid teachers and the old-fashioned educational methods which reward rote learning (students have told me they were failed because they repeated their professor’s ideas but not in his own words)  nevertheless Romanians seem to be (much) more erudite and more informed than Englishmen are. I cannot believe how many English people, whom I asked recently, said they had not heard of Hengist and Horsa, the Jutish chieftains who landed in Kent and are the first Englishmen whom history records. Those who had not heard of them included a retired schoolmistress, a partner in KPMG and an Oxford history graduate of above average intelligence for Oxford (I am not being sarcastic - he was very intelligent). Another Englishman with a doctorate in history had not heard of Carlyle when I mentioned him, nor an Englishman with a Ph.D. in political science of Dr. Johnson. Incredible, but true.

In Romania everyone reasonably intelligent (everyone, in Evelyn Waugh's snobbish phrase, who comes to the front door and most people who do not) knows about Burebista and Decebal, Dacian kings in the pre-Roman period, and the Romanian mediaeval kings who fought against the Turk. They know their poets too and love them. I wonder how many Englishmen and women with degrees know in what order the Kings and Queens of England reigned or even know much about Crecy or Agincourt. Churchill when asked how to make children proud of their country replied, 'Tell them Wolfe took Quebec.' I am not sure how well known this is any more and if children, after being schooled in the orthodoxies of modern liberalism, do know about Wolfe they probably look on him very coolly, as an imperialist whose victory resulted in the oppression of the Quebecois.  No-one in England can be a true hero who does not measure up to early 21st century notions of morality and of being progressive.

Digressing from Romania to England, it is not brains England needs or training but culture - and education in the true sense of developing ones true self. Everyone should have to study Shakespeare and the poets at university for 5% of their course. They have often not read them much before, though they should have, via second-hand bookshops, which are the best universities, where you can absorb learning for sheer love of learning, without exams, modish ideas or brainwashing. And no writings are ever too unfashionable, elitist or conservative for second-hand bookshops.  As Dryden says of Chaucer, 'Here is God's plenty!' 

On the other hand, though they know a very great deal, Romanians are maddeningly not taught to think and to question authority. Perhaps the result is that Romanians, who are certainly clever and well-educated, are stuffed with facts like geese being fattened to be turned into fois gras and tend, to quote the unkind judgement of a character in Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, to be 'ingenious but not creative'. They are often not good people to have an enjoyable argument with, sometimes preferring just to say no, that doesn't work. When you press your point they tend to say something like, 'My cousin tried it - it doesn't work.'

Medieval history (and in a sense the middle ages lasted here until the end of the 18th century) was very important for inculcating patriotism under National Communism in the Ceausescu years but is not really particularly useful for a modern economy, which needs to turn out white collar employees for the private and public sectors in a world of constant change.  Problem solving and team playing may be more valuable to society than people who can recite Eminescu and have read Schopenhauer. Probably Western educational methods are better but it is a great joy to live in a country, like America but very unlike England, where people are proud of their country’s history, her traditions and religion. 

Even students for doctorates have to attend classes (including a Russian lady I know who does not understand Romanian but is still required to attend lectures in Romanian, even though her doctoral thesis will be in English). In Russia she says as in England students argue with  teachers but in Romania students are expected to learn what they are taught and repeat it verbatim in examinations. This, my Russian says, shows how passive Romanians are compared to Russians, who she says with pride are a race of fighters.

Doctoral students are treated in exams with great suspicion, she tells me, have to sit apart from each other and are required to empty their pockets to show that they do not have calculators or mobile telephones to enable them to crib the answers. Yet cheating even at doctoral level is very widespread. Treating students like cheats encourages cheating perhaps.

I read of an Albanian taxi driver in London who paid to send his child to Albania to receive a better education than he would get in a London comprehensive and I can imagine a Romanian parent in London sending his children here (though I meet numbers of Romanian parents who are saving to send their children to school in England). 

In many ways I suspect it makes sense to send your child to a state school here rather than a private school. There are problems with either choice and the teachers in the state system are corrupt but I hear dreadful stories of the bullying and bad behaviour of the children of the Romanian rich, who apparently are spoilt, ill bred and who cannot be expelled because the school needs their parents’ money.

If you want to supplement the school curriculum with tutors (in English, German, Greek and Latin, for example, which would be my choice were I a parent), tutors are very cheap.


  1. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, Van Ghelie, the 'comoara nationala'.... it was indeed cruel. To his credit he took it on the chin. Then again, what else could he do?

    The private schools in Ro have an appalling name (the top ranking crap one is the Spiru Haret uni). If you have the money to send your kid there, you have the money to 'spaga' the teachers...

    On the other hand, the teachers in state schools are on such a miserable salary (like the nurses) that they supplement their income with bribes. I know someone who had to pay anoutrageous amount to get her homework marked and graded. My best friend gives spectacular gifts to her daughter's teachers to butter them up.

    The fish rots from the head down, as we well know. In Romania, it's no different, but it rots all the quicker... I see no end to it, sadly, and as a teacher myself, it makes my heart bleed and my soul weep.


  2. Thank you for this interesting, insightful, and perhaps useful article.


  3. Excellent analysis. It gives an interesting insight into a subject (Minister of Ed) that seemed really boring. He's dead right about the Brits being badly educated: take me as an example; I never learned English grammer, or maths for that matter, and have no idea of those first Brits in English history he mentioned, and I was educated in Scotland but didn't do even one lesson on Scots history. And then I got a degree in history from Liverpool University.

    But since living in Romania I have learned about Bullybista, Vlad Tepes, Stefan Cel Mare and all the other great characters that get discussed. I probably know more Romanian history than I do British.

  4. All I remember of Scotch history is King Alexander dying by falling over a cliff, Robert the Bruce and the spider, thanks to Ladybird Adventures from History, and Macduff and Macbeth thanks to Shakespeare. And of course Mary Queen of Scots and Knox and the monstrous regiment of women. Knox was a very different kind of Calvinist from Gordon Brown, though I admire neither. And the Pretenders and - thanks to 1066 and All That - Flora MacNightingale (the fair maid of Perth).

  5. I think you make a fair point. I agree with much of it. Ionela Taylor

  6. "If in America status is defined by money and in England by accent, vocabulary and clothes, in Romania it is education which cuts it."
    If one has a higher -ed. degree from abroad... one is concidered an aritocrat (well, almost!) On one of my visits home, to my mother's childhood village, her neighbours were surprised I still spoke Romanian with the regional accent(transylvanian) and that I had not changed much since I had left(3 years earlier).

    And the part about marriage refusal based on lack of University education is very true as well. I remember on one occasion (a neighbour's wedding) mom was telling me that the bride's mother was not particularly pleased with her daughter's choice. She was saying "he's a good fellow though he's got no higher education". My mom added "imagine how thrilled his parents must be, cuz he's marring such a catch!" :))

    Brilliantly-written article!

    Ioana Azamfirei