Saturday, October 24, 2009


Well, exams were this week, and as I predicted, they were pretty much a giant cheat-fest. The sad thing is, the average grade appears to be failing. I haven't actually graded everything, but a glance through the papers tells me the average will be well below 50% in all of the classes I am teaching. Cheating isn't good, and failing isn't good, but at least it would be nice if it were one or the other. Cheating and STILL failing is just depressing.

However, proctoring exams all week, I did realize several things that I think will help me. You know all that stuff I said about ethics before? I think that I was approaching things in the wrong way. I think that, in part, the communal approach that is prevalent in every aspect of the society here is what is motivating the cheating. Talking during an exam, looking off of each other's tests – they just don't see these as “cheating.” It's more that the students want to work together and help each other out on everything, including exams.

From the perspective of a lonely individualistic American, the whole “communal culture” thing is kind of a puzzle. On the one hand, people are generally very generous, open, and welcoming. As I mentioned before, the second I give one of the kids something, no matter how small, they turn around and share it with their friends and siblings. And no matter how poor, people always have a little bit of money to give to the church offering on Sundays (which raises a whole different issue, which I'll write about “later” -- my favorite time to write – namely, how I perceive the good and the ill that the spread of Christianity in Africa has wrought). So in that sense, it is very positive.

On the other hand, it seems to me that this mentality translates to a failure to take personal responsibility in many cases. It's great that people are so supportive of each other, but on the other hand, if everyone is relying on someone else to help them do math, nobody is going to end up learning math. I've talked about another downside of this mentality before in the context of the business community: businesses are difficult to run because family members expect to profit even if they are not involved in the actual running of the business.

Speaking of that issue, the whole “cheating” thing brings me back to something I brought up then – the extent to which certain processes that are key in development are universal or must be modified in the context of a culture. Does the educational process as we know it in the US really work in all situations, or might there be some way to adjust it to take advantage of the communal learning mentality? From my perspective, there's no way to get around the fact that individual responsibility is necessary in learning – what YOU put in is what YOU get out, in the end. But, while this may be true, maybe there would still be a way to organize classes differently here than in the US, so that they better fit a communal culture mentality.

I'm being very vague, and the reason for that is of course that I have no idea whether or not these thoughts actually have any merit. And even if I knew they did, I wouldn't have the slightest idea of how to go about “organizing classes to fit a communal culture mentality.”

I've been reading two books simultaneously for the past couple of days – The End of Poverty, by Jeffery Sachs, and The White Man's Burden, by William Easterly (don't worry, I'll be sure to bore you all with a thorough review once I've finished reading them). To vastly oversimplify and summarize: Sachs argues that the Western world is not fulfilling its responsibilities to developing countries, and that if we would just all get together and donate a big chunk of cash, the countries would have enough of an economic stimulus to get out of the “poverty trap” they are in and “gain a foothold on the development ladder.” Easterly believes that “development” is such a complicated process, with so many unknowable variables, that there is no way that Westerners will ever successfully be able to “promote development” in other countries in a big way. The two are not arguing completely mutually exclusive points (which I'll be sure to get back to when I write my oh-so-fascinating review), but I have to say that Easterly's viewpoint resonates more with me. I can't help but feel, being here, that I and my fellow outsiders will never fully understand what's going on around us well enough to brainstorm workable solutions to some of the problems that we observe. The cheating issue is just one specific example of this.

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