Țara lui Andrei at Bran Castle

This weekend, Ligia and I participated at an event called “Tabăra lui Andrei”, put together by the team at Țara lui Andrei. They organize these wonderful camps for underprivileged children every summer in the village of Bran, in order to provide training, employment opportunities and personal development courses for these children. Each camp lasts about a week, with teams of about 60 children brought in to learn how to grow into productive, well-balanced people who like what they do in life. They do miracles! Normally, you’d say you can’t do much with someone in a week, but you’d be surprised at the results they get!

This week’s camp was for chefs and waiters. At the end of the week, after a lot of on-the-job intensive training and motivational seminars, they organized, cooked and served a three-course meal to a group of Romanian celebrities, notables and government officials invited to attend the dinner party.

We, the dinner guests, were treated to a wonderful event and were blown away by the professionalism of these children of high-school age. The evening started with appetizers, continued with a private tour of Bran Castle and culminated with this special dinner, served in the newly opened Castle Tea House.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the good people at Țara lui Andrei for the amazing, life-changing work they’re doing and for the impact they have on the lives of these children who get to see life through a different lens, even if only for a little while, and then get employment opportunities and a chance at a better life. I’m so proud that this kind of work is going on in Romania!

I also made a video where I talked a little more about this, and there’s a photo gallery here as well.

A lot of teachers in Romania shouldn’t be teaching

It’s been a couple of weeks or so since high school students in Romania had to take their graduation exams — the Bac, as it’s known over here. The whole thing was a huge controversy this year, because for the first time ever, there were strict rules in place to ensure no cheating occurred on the exams.

Not sure if you knew this, but there’s a lot of cheating in Romanian schools. It occurs on a massive scale. 

It got this way in the past twenty years, as the school system got worse. Teachers were paid less, working hours got longer, the classrooms got bigger, and a lot of teachers stopped caring. That’s not to say they were paragons of teaching before that. I met my fair share of horrible persons in the teaching ranks before I left the country to live in the States. Now that I’m back, it seems they’ve multiplied.

Abroad, Romanian students are known as hard-working and studious — downright nerdy, brilliant at the sciences, etc. That (small) group is still around, but it’s gotten smaller. Many of the students with great grades get them because they cheat these days. They have it down to a science. Forget the little pieces of paper we might use to scribble down a few formulas when we were in school. These kids have cellphones with apps that store textbooks. Or they take photos of hard-to-remember pages with their cellphones, and zoom into those photos during tests. Or they text their buddies, naturally. In some classrooms where the teachers have stopped caring altogether, the students simply open their textbooks, lay them on the desks and copy away. In the vocational high schools, they don’t even bother with cheating anymore. They simply write the answers on the blackboard, to make sure they pass everyone.

Is it any wonder that the younger generations in Romania are so easy to manipulate, when they remain uneducated as they go through schools? A dumb population is what every despot wants, because they’re easiest to control. You just have to give them a cheap bread with one hand and point them to a scapegoat with the other, and they’ll obey. Is it any wonder then, that we have such a corrupt political class in charge of the country?

So for this round of graduation exams, the minister of education set a goal: no more cheating. They had proctors in every classroom, and they had video cameras. Anyone caught cheating would be disqualified and would be kicked out.

I think you can guess what the results were: deplorable. A LOT of kids didn’t pass, because they couldn’t cheat. A LOT were caught cheating, and were disqualified. The pass rate in Bucharest (the capital) was under 50% (somewhere around 43-44%). In some school districts, the pass rate was under 30%, and in some really problematic districts, no one passed. Now can you begin to realize the scale of the cheating that took place in previous years?

Naturally, there’s blame to be thrown on someone, and right now, parents and students and teachers and politicians are busy trying to see who’s to blame. I think the teachers are to blame.

Before I tell you why, let me just point out that I interview students from Romania for admission to Middlebury College (my alma mater back in the States). I’ve been an interviewer for years. When I lived in the States, I interviewed American kids. Now that I live in Romania, I’ve offered to interview Romanian kids. How do you think this cheating scandal has affected the reputation of Romanian kids abroad?

How can the folks back at Midd or Yale or Stanford know which Romanian kids applying to their schools cheated to get those grades, and which ones didn’t? I’m not clairvoyant, so I have no way of knowing myself. I’d love to be able to look at the face of a kid I’m interviewing, like Cal Lightman in Lie to Me, and know that they’re lying about not cheating, but I don’t have those abilities (yet?). So this is why I’m very glad to see a general crackdown on cheating in Romania, and I hope this crackdown translates into long-term changes in the education system to ensure no more cheating. That’s because when I look at a kid’s grades, I want to know they’re honest grades, not inflated through deception and through the theft of other kids’ hard work.

The teachers set the tone in their classrooms. They knew when cheating took place. No one can tell me teachers don’t know when you’re cheating. If they’re good teachers and they care about their students, they know. They can see it on your face right away.

But the teachers stopped caring, so the cheating got endemic. More students saw that it was easier to cheat than learn, and that high grades were within easy reach, so they started doing it too. And it’s the teachers’ fault. Instead of doing their jobs properly, and instilling a love of learning in their students, instead of encouraging them to learn and showing them how interesting the subject matter can be, they resorted to cheap tactics (tactics which should be made illegal) of forcing students to memorize paragraphs and pages from the textbooks and repeating them outloud (or writing them) during exams. What kind of a lazy, pompous bum do you have to be in order to force kids to do that instead of explaining the concepts to them?

As a child, I was beaten (slapped hard, my hands beaten with a ruler) by our grade school math teacher, who was having an affair with one of the other teachers. When rebuffed by his lover, would come to class piss-drunk and would beat the kids. He’d beat me, along with other kids, because we couldn’t remember math formulas when he screamed at us, or that we couldn’t do calculations fast enough.

Or what about the many vindictive teachers I’ve had, who if they had it in for you, for whatever reason, would use every opportunity to belittle me or the other students, and give us all low grades? I met just such a teacher recently and I was blown away by how much anger she had for people who didn’t share her view of things, and how far she’d go to blackball them. Can you imagine these people teaching children? What kind of an example are they for our kids? What do you think those kids will learn from them? Hate, anger, vindictiveness and methods of punishment? Or what about unquestioning submission to the classroom despot? Are those the things we want them to learn?

Have you heard of the teachers (and professors) that will give you low grades if you don’t quote their books when you write your papers? They’re such egotists that if you don’t pay homage to their books, you won’t pass their course. Never mind that many of them copy their books outright from foreign textbooks, stealing the intellectual property of others so they can embellish their own curriculum vitae and hang on to their posts or get promoted.

What about the filthy perverts who ask for sex in order to let you pass their courses? Yes, that happens as well. They caught one such pervert recently in a girl’s dorm room, partially undressed and ready to seal the deal — thankfully, the girl managed to get away, but how many girls to do you think submit to this sort of thing just so they can get their diploma?

All I have to do to get more horror stories like this is to go out and ask any grade school, high school or college student to share their own experience. I for one am amazed that we still have so many qualified students graduating from Romania’s schools — these are cogent, thoughtful people, who’ve managed to rise above all the crap that goes on in those places and decide to do something good with their lives. Kudos to them for sticking it out, because it was a tough journey!

My suggestion to the Romanian government is to get to work right now on reforming education in Romania and to eliminate all the bad teachers right away. The more they leave the inadequate specimens in the classrooms, the more they’ll infect the young generations’ minds.

The real role of education

As debates about the direction of educational systems take place in the US and other countries, it’s worthwhile to take into consideration the possibility that we’re teaching the children too much theory and too many arcane concepts rather than practical things which will prepare them for real life.

There’s nothing wrong with knowing physics or calculus or biology, but if you have a child, wouldn’t you rather they leave compulsory education knowing the following practical things?

  • How to speak and write properly
  • How to balance a checkbook
  • How to budget their money
  • How not to fall prey to scams or predatory financial practices
  • How to maintain proper bodily hygiene
  • How to protect themselves from STDs and how to respect each other’s bodies
  • How to respect others and their beliefs
  • How not to fall prey to peer pressure
  • The importance of individuality and of having a backbone
  • How to put fashion second and budgets first
  • How to keep their homes clean and organized
  • How to avoid a consumerist mindset
  • How to respect the environment
  • How to recycle
  • How to purchase sustainable, highly recyclable, durable products
  • How to cook and wash dishes
  • How to garden
  • How to build things
  • How to paint
  • How to fix things
  • How to change a flat tire
  • How cars work
  • How to buy quality furniture
  • How to eat healthy
  • How to stay in shape
  • How to have fun without a TV or a movie
  • How to play sports
  • How to camp
  • How to explore the wilderness
  • How computers work and how to service basic hardware like memory, cards or hard drives
  • How to avoid viruses, spyware and other crap you find online
  • How to find true love and how to keep that love
  • How to take care of babies
  • How to find a job and how to do a good job
  • The importance of honesty and being forthright
  • How to accept responsibility
  • How to finish something they’ve started
  • How to investigate politicians and vote according to sound moral and ethical principles
  • How to drink responsibly
  • How to take care of pets
  • How to travel light
  • How to respect other cultures
  • How to draw
  • Basic art history
  • Basic anatomy and first aid
  • Basic preventive health

I believe this list of practical things is much more worthwhile for a child to know when he or she leaves school than other, more esoteric things, like what books a 19th century writer published, or the strength of the magnetic field generated by some electric motor. They’ll be much better equipped for life this way. Let’s leave the more advanced, the more scientific topics for those children who are interested in them, and for optional education, like college and graduate programs.

When a child finishes high school, they ought to know how to live as an adult, and that means knowing how to face the real world. I’m afraid we’re not equipping them to do that. That’s why we have so many people who fall prey to predatory scams, or who don’t know how to organize their homes, or who end up in abusive relationships or abuse others, because they don’t know better.

This is why I dislike tests

A couple of evenings ago, we were at our friends’ home, and I helped their daughter with her homework. She’s in kindergarten, and they’re teaching them how to read. One of the homework questions helped to re-awaken my dislike for tests. You can see the question below, I took a quick photo of it.

My beef with things like this is that there are usually multiple answers to a question, depending on how it’s interpreted. Unless you phrase it clearly and objectively from the start (which doesn’t happen very often), you’ll always have students that get it wrong, because not everyone thinks the same way. While in college and in graduate school, I’d often find myself at a crossroads when it came to answering many test questions; I’d come up with two or more different answers, all of which would be valid answers depending on how I interpreted the question. I’m fairly certain that some professors still remember my arguments with them on matters like these, and my insistence that my answer was also right, if only the question would be looked at another way.

If we look at this particular question, we see that it asks the child to “color the pictures that begin with the same sound as cat“. Okay, it sounds innocuous enough, until you start thinking about what that means. Do they mean the “c” sound of the word “cat”, or do they mean the “ca-” sound from the word “cat”? I don’t know. No further explanation is given.

Our friends’ daughter told me her teacher wanted her to choose the objects that began with the same “c” sound, and proceeded to do so. You can see what she did above. She told me that’s what her teacher wanted her to do, and those were the choices that her teacher wanted her to pick. But if you judge the objects by the teacher’s own definition, you see that the teacher is wrong. After all, the 5-cent coin starts with the same “c” sound as “cat”, unless you choose to call it a nickel, in which case it doesn’t belong on the list. So does the coin purse in the lower right corner, unless you choose to call it a purse or a bag, in which case it also has no place on this list.

No, I think the correct way to look at it is to interpret the instructions literally, and to pick the objects that begin with the same “sound” as “cat”, which is the “ca-” sound. If we do that, then we can only pick the candle, the cap and the can. The cane is a close call, but I’d say it’s not the same sound as cat. (If we were from Massachussetts, then we’d also be able to pick the car, since we’d pronounce it the same way due to our NE accent.)

Do you see the real problem here? It doesn’t matter what the right thing is or what the facts are. It only matters what the teacher thinks is right, which in this case, and quite possibly in many other cases, is wrong. As long as you learn what the teacher wants you to learn, facts, reality and objectivity be damned, you’ll get good grades and you’ll get ahead in life. As long as you go along with the generally accepted answer, you’re okay. This doesn’t encourage creative thinking, and it doesn’t encourage variety of thought; this is more or less brainwashing. This is why I dislike tests, and why I don’t like questions made up by others, particularly when they’ll only take one answer — theirs.

The Education of Little Tree (1997)

A little boy loses his parents during the depression, and his grandparents take him to live with them in their mountain cabin. The premise is simple, but the lessons are many. I liked this movie because it taught respect for native Indians.

Let’s face it, the “red skins”, as they used to be called, owned this land. It was theirs long before it was ours. The early American settlers drove them out of their homes and used every possible means to push them aside, to disown them of their inheritance.

That was shameful. And what added insult to injury was the way they tried to “integrate” them into society after they’d been pushed aside for so long. This film tells the story of one such boy. Half-Cherokee, he is forced into an “Indian” school, where he is treated like an animal. The idea is to erase all sense of individuality and family out of him, and to get him to become an “American”.

You might think the subject matter is outdated, but only recently, the Canadian government has had to issue an official apology to Canadian Indians for their treatment of their children.

Quoting from the article: “Between 1870 and 1996, an estimated 150,000 indigenous children were wrenched from their homes and sent to Christian boarding schools, where many were sexually and physically abused.”

The movie offers a solution that I only wish more Indian children had taken. The little child runs away from the school (aided by his grandfather) and spends his teen years hiding from government officials who want to put him back in what they call “schools”. He gets a real education from his uncle, an experienced Cherokee who acts as his surrogate father and prepares him for a solitary, sometimes troubled, but free life in the mountains.

I get raised hackles every time I hear the word “freedom” trumpeted about, yet find clear proof of forced behavior or oppression. For all its talk of freedom, the US has always managed to oppress certain of its population, throughout time. First it was the native Indians, then it was the slaves, then its Japanese and German citizens during WWII, then the presumed Commies during the vile McCarthy trials, then various other groups during the 20th century. Now, this oppression has culminated into the mass reduction of our liberties through the so-called Patriot Act, a filthy lie of a misnomer if I ever heard of one.

The real patriots always stand up for the rights of all, and they always question the system in order to keep it in check. Sometimes, the best statement a free person can make is to stay free, even if it means thumbing your nose at idiotic rules and policies and living in the mountains, outside of society. Because eventually, the government comes around to realize its idiocy, and issues an apology. By the way, the American government is long overdue on just one such apology.

If you want to find out more about the movie or buy/rent it, you can find it at Amazon, Netflix and IMDB.

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-08

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-07