A Thanksgiving conversation about school

This year we did not have the traditional Thanksgiving dinner that makes for a heartwarming blog post, but it was pleasant in its own way.  Since it was a school day for Sarie, Bob was visiting with family in the US, and my polenta-based cornbread dressing was too dubious (to put it charitably) to feed to Italian guests, I just made a pared-down version of the usual meal and we invited some of Sarie’s school friends over for a squash (a.k.a. pumpkin) pie aperitivo.

I was impressed with these girls, who were mature and seemed grateful for their IB education after years of traditional Italian high school.  Two of them travel to Torino from opposite sides of the country and board in a convent during the week, just to attend this program.  They said that in liceo, they’d had to cram in far too many subjects through sheer rote learning for any of them to stick.

“So by learning less, you actually learn more?”  I suggested.

One girl did a double take, perhaps thinking she’d missed something in English, and then she smiled as she made the connection.  “Yes!”

Sarie, on the other hand, is in full swing now with both school and conservatory, which is making it very hard to do either well.  She will be playing in La Traviata this weekend, possibly a Handel’s Messiah production in France the next, and with her Baroque group after that.  But my guess is that something will have to give.  There’s a lot of pressure involved in trying to do both, but European regulations require she get a diploma.  And that means school.

I had a meeting with the IB school’s administrator this week.  She’s an Italian who grew up in the US, which makes her a valuable link between the two cultures. Among other things we discussed, I mentioned that Sarie had observed a lot of cheating in the school. I knew I had to be the one to say it, not Sarie. And I knew I had to say it lightly, so as not to come across as a self-righteous American. But it was rampant. The administrator agreed with me. She said it grew out of the arbitrary liceo system and was hard to control, but that hopefully the strictly-proctored IB exams would make it self-evident that cheating didn’t pay.

Meanwhile, a friend sent me an article about an Italian study that seems very relevant to the whole situation:

WHAT is the connection between executive pay, petty crime, and plagiarism by students? Economics can help us with the solution. It all links back to the concept of externalities.

…The idea is that the impact of a social choice can be magnified. Behaviour, whether good or bad, may be copied and generates social externalities.

In this vein, two Italian economists, Claudio Lucifora and Marco Tonello, have just published a study on cheating in exams. They found that the more people do it, the more likely it is that yet more will follow the example. A snowball can turn into an avalanche.

The authors trace the origins of a wave of plagiarism back to the classroom, to things which by themselves seem innocuous, like teachers tolerating minor homework copying. It’s the same thing as the “broken window” effect on petty crime…

Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put back in. As such, the instinct of government to do more and to regulate more is wrong. We don’t need more government. We need smarter government, using the waves of information on the web and modern tools of analysis to identify potentially harmful trends at an early stage. Fixing the broken window does not need armies of bureaucrats. It just needs to be done early enough.

Never mind the term “externalities,” which apparently just means “ramifications.” What it means is that students who learn to cheat because of an arbitrary educational system later learn to cheat on taxes because of an arbitrary accounting/tax system. People use whatever privileges they can gather to give themselves more perks, at the expense of the whole. This leads to more regulations that people get around by cheating. Eventually the culture becomes so geared to regulations and workarounds that everyone is invested in it and there’s no incentive to reform. In Italy, there’s even a word for this sort of person, a furbo. I’m not convinced it’s an insult.

At the risk of being totally obnoxious, I sent the article on to the school administrator, who seemed happy to receive it.  But in all honesty, these problems go deep, and I don’t know how to fix them, especially in a culture I don’t understand.  We can only start with ourselves, and I’m just thankful that our homeschooling years taught Sarie to enjoy learning before gaming the system became an uncontrollable temptation.


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