This line from Pink Floyd has always resonated in my mind every single time I did proctoring at the end of the academic term, but this time it was more like drums of war banging on my head with this classic whose creators would have never imagined how prophetic they were or how trans-continental their vision would turn out to be.
For ten plus years, proctoring has always meant much more to me than a duty assigned to members of staff and whose aim is to watch students during the exam and make sure they don’t cheat and/or misbehave. Instead, it has rather been an amazing way of gauging the students’ general take on the educational process and how much they like/hate—the second of course being the case most of the time—what they are doing. It saddens me to say that the conclusions I used to draw were always negative, for I could always see the anger, frustration, and sometimes vindictiveness on their faces and I could almost hear each and everyone of them say, “What the hell am I doing here?” Many times I imagined them wanting so much to yell at me, “Why don’t you bugger off and leave us alone?” I knew that it was not personal because these were not my students and it was usually the first time we see each others’ faces and, therefore, they had nothing against me in specific. By time I realized that any faculty members monitoring them during an exam would be looked upon as adding to their misery because they make an already obnoxious process all the more painful. In most cases, they hate what they are studying and the majority of those hate the concept of studying itself and for them the exam and all procedures related to it are the culmination of the torture to which they have been subjected throughout the semester. In the exam, they are not only required to provide the correct answers to questions that they consider as absurd as the courses they are examined in, but they are also threatened throughout exam time with that “witch”—feel free to replace the “w” with a “b”—that can at any moment throw them out, file a report against them, or at least reprimand them in front of their colleagues if they try to cheat.
Let me tell you that they have no scruples whatsoever about cheating in the exam. On the contrary, it is for them the only healthy outlet from an extremely unhealthy situation because it constitutes the best escape from the tyranny of the institution and those who represent it and the only way they can get back at this institution through breaking the rules it dictates on them. Anybody who tries to deprive them of this short-lived pleasure is their sworn enemy, and I could see how I become one only a few minutes after our eyes meet.
As I contemplate their facial expressions and listen to their occasional grumblings, I do admit I resent their attitude not only because for me they are irresponsible and reluctant to make minimum effort in what is supposed to be their only preoccupation—of course as a teacher I believe students’ one and only priority should be learning and studying—but also because they obstruct me from doing my job and hate me for being conscientious about it. However, I always try to resist the instantaneous blame-putting that usually accompanies situations that exasperate me. This does not mean that they are absolved of any blame, but rather means that their role in the fiasco that is Egyptian education is quite secondary when compared to the other factors that take the lead in the tragedy, society and state definitely being the main protagonists.
The Egyptian society is a very peculiar mix of indifference towards education and extreme veneration for anyone who gets one. In other words, it is the documented proof of education and not its essence that most Egyptians care about. For example, you can hardly find a middle class family that would accept to marry their daughter off to a man who only finished high school or who joined an institute that does not give a degree on the same level as B.A. and B.Sc. even though the educated men they are after can actually be no less ignorant that another who has not seen a classroom in his entire life. A university degree stays prestigious regardless of the real effect it has on its holder. A university degree is also the way to a white collar job and, therefore, to a better social status in a community that has little respect for the color “blue.” Fully aware of how society works, a sizable portion of parents force their children to go to college regardless of how interested they are in what they will study or of whether they want to study anything at all. It would be a disaster if the son comes out and refuses to get an education and insists, for example, on becoming a plumber instead, which by the way can be something he really enjoys doing.
The state—this includes the ministry of Education and Higher Education, the administration of each university as well as of course the regime itself—had done its best to make the students detest the process even more than they do the concept. They join university reluctantly, maybe hoping that something in there will change their minds only to find out from the first day of classes that this is the last place they would want to be and from that point onwards, they develop an unmitigated hatred for the system they have already had a terrible experience with when they were at school. The university becomes a continuation of that torture but on a higher level since students believe—and rightly so—that higher education is legally and technically not compulsory yet is still forced upon them. The government bodies in charge of the educational system had done nothing to make sure that those who join the university are qualified—and I mean psychologically—for this type of learning and the constant interference of the state in the affairs of universities had made it impossible for any efforts on the parts of professors in this direction to bear fruit. The adamant rejection by the university administration—which of course followed regime instructions—of several proposals by English Department professors to interview/ examine prospective students before enrolling them serves as the best example. The result is scores of students every year who neither appreciate literature nor know what it is in the first place and you are left with the duty of granting them a degree in literature and they are supposed to enter the job market as literature majors.
The extreme negligence with which vocational education has been treated since time immemorial is another of the state’s crimes, which had dealt two fatal blows to Egyptian youths. First, the state offered no alternative to academic education so that the son who wants to be a plumber can find a place to develop his skills and prepare him for a job he would like instead of having to study something as “useless” as history or law—things he couldn’t care less for because they won’t help in fixing the clogged drain in the bathroom sink. Second, by making no initiative to invest, whether through financial aid or marketing campaigns, in vocational schools and institutes, the state reinforces the existing social constructs as far as the inferiority of manual labor is concerned and, therefore, does nothing to change obsolete cultural perceptions and replace them with fresh ones to the effect that not all education come from books or that not all that is manual lacks ingenuity.
Over the years, I have seen a remarkable deterioration in the students’ morale and an increased hatred for the university and its teachers and anything that comes out of them and I kept blaming the corrupt regime for whom a good education had always been a formidable enemy. When the regime was toppled, I grew impatient to see education as liberated as the country from the ruthless grip of the ruling clique. However, before this materializes—and I know it won’t right now anyway—the revolution turned out to have effected another change. Yesterday when I was proctoring, I saw something totally different on the students’ faces. No, it’s not the light of freedom bestowing upon them an angelic serenity and all this post-revolution idyllic talk; I saw how they hated me much more than they used to show in previous years. They just felt that they are now more at liberty to express all the grudges they have been harboring against their torturers throughout the wretched times they spent on campus. Now that the country is finally rid of its tyrant, it is time they employ the newly-acquired freedom—their faulty perception of freedom aside—to get back at their own tyrants and show them they are no less hated than the despot that drove millions to take to the streets and shout at the top of their lungs, “Leave!”
Although I was initially taken aback by being slammed for an offense I have not practically taken part in and was quite shocked by the “I will kill right here and now” look one student gave me for throwing him out after almost a dozen cheating attempts, on a second thought I tried to look at the bright side—I hope there is any—and assume that this outburst of negative sentiments is for the benefit of everybody at the end of the day. At least we get to see the full picture now that the students feel less apprehensive about expressing how they feel even if this comes out in the nastiest forms. Learning the extent of their anger, I believe, makes us aware of all dimensions of the mess this system was and thus renders us more capable to handle the situation with all its unpleasant aspects. Let’s think of this revelation as one of the many blessings the revolution bestowed upon us and let’s make good use of it. Let’s try to quite our jobs as torturers and become only educators not by compromising any of the ethics of our profession—I will till the last day of my life penalize any student who cheats—but by making sure the university becomes the place for those who want t be there not those who think they are doing time in its lecture halls and by lobbying for an education that espouses all kinds of interests and nourishes all kinds of skills. Let both us and the students be liberated from the roles assigned to us despite of us so that one day I will enter a classroom in which an exam is held and maybe be met with a smile that carries a tacit dismissal of the prison warden stereotype.
Isn’t it time we remove this “another brick in the wall”?
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)