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Cath Collins... 'People who cheat do not cheat the teacher but only themselves'.

I hold a free-talk class for one hour, each day, at a small English language school in Beijing. My students are a mixed bunch, but mostly adult and from professional fields. Their English level is high and our discussions open new avenues of expression for them as well as new insights and understandings for me. The learning is reciprocal.

Last Thursday, in free-talk, we discussed the truth. When does one tell it and when is it better to lie? In what instances does the lying become necessary? One student, Sam, talked about cheating his way through his university exams, copying the answers from others and passing every single test "through fraud." The woman next to him agreed and pointed out an allegiance between students that I, having always viewed China as a nation filled with swats, found startling. "Students help one another out," she assured me. "It is us against the examiner."

Certainly, the majority of adults in this class admitted to some form of cheating, the most popular of which involved smuggling answer books into their exams. "The desks all had sliding drawers," Mark explained. "We could hide our books inside these and sneak peaks when the examiner wasn’t looking." Guilt ridden laughter swept through the room at this admission, to be interrupted by the strong, clear voice of my favourite student, Susan. Susan is an attractive woman in her late twenties. She is a radio technician and is highly respected in her workplace. In the time that she has attended this free-talk class I have noticed that she speaks only when she feels she has something of significance to contribute. Small talk is not for her.

"That style of cheating has gone out of fashion." Her voice rang with such conviction that we were immediately transfixed. She was silent for a moment, waiting for all eyes to rest upon her, before she continued, "These days it is more common to use a small square of paper tucked neatly into your hand. It should be folded in such a way so as to store a large amount of information." I nodded and commented that such a practice was also common in Australia. I was about to steer the conversation in another direction when she said assuredly, "Of course, another common practice is to polish a nail."
"Polish a nail?"
"Cheat notes are no good if you are caught." When pressed to explain Susan sighed, as though explaining the obvious to an imbecile, before she said, "We flatten a nail and polish it until shiny. This way, when the teacher walks near to your desk, you will catch his reflection in your mirror."
I gaped and the other students tittered at my surprise. And, it is true, I was surprised. I was shocked. I never realised that cheating could be taken to such sophisticated heights. Furthermore, I never thought it possible for a student, a Chinese student who cherishes face and honour, to admit to such cheating in front of her fellow peers.

And, of course, not all of them were impressed. "People who cheat do not cheat the teacher but only themselves," chortled one corner sitter. Another more militant woman suggested that all students be subjected to lie detector tests immediately following their exams. An air of sincerity accompanied her suggestion and the notion that such a concept would work only at the expense of personal space and freedom was lost on her. But this is not surprising. In the time I have had to observe student life in China I have seen that university students are granted very little personal freedom.

For a period of four months I lived in a dormitory building filled to overflow with Chinese tertiary students. I enjoyed the privacy of my own room but the Chinese students lived eight to a dorm with washing facilities shared amongst the whole floor. At precisely 7:15am each morning a white-coated woman (I saw her only once but heard her daily) made the rounds of the corridors, a short metal whistle screaming from between her lips. This ear-piercing sound would continue for no less than fifteen minutes by which time even the most diligent bed-head could not fail to awake. In the evenings the front door to the dormitory would be locked, with a bicycle chain, at exactly eleven o’clock. The idea that these students, young adults and high achievers (18% of Beijing’s high school students go on to university) were capable of using alarm clocks, or responsible enough to carry a key, was not contemplated.

Of course, it is not only in their daily lives that Chinese students experience the curbing of independent action. More obviously, to the outside world, it is in the classroom that limitations to expression and independent thought are made manifest. While, in our own country, both imagination and initiative in thought are rewarded, this is not the case in China. As an English teacher I see, first hand, the negative effects of the repressive aspects of Chinese education. The majority of my students are highly competent individuals who have few grammatical problems, an excellent understanding of written English and who are capable of reading and comprehending large amounts of technical material at a time. I have not taught a single student who is incapable of memorization. However, should I re-phrase a question or ask a student to use her initiative in composing a sentence, she will usually find herself completely lost.

At university in China all students, from those that study accounting to those that study fashion design, must study Political Science and Philosophical thought. At my university, in Australia, these departments were a hotbed for argument, debate and intellectual stimulation. The majority of Chinese students, however, regard these subjects as a bore. In order to do well on their exams, the students must engage in regurgitation, spewing forth those ‘facts’ cherished by ancient textbooks and teachers alike. Any attempt to articulate a different perspective is rewarded only with failure. It is from this realm of experience that my student, Susan, justifies her cheating tools.

To Susan, such repression in education is unacceptable. She cares not for the politics of the State and knows that, should she offer an alternate opinion, she will not receive the marks that she needs to survive in an increasingly competitive society. Susan knows that her opinion counts for little and the truth for naught. She cannot justify wasting her valuable study time in a lie. Instead, she lies to pass, and cheats the system, so as to succeed in those areas that really matter. ‘When the truth is not valued," concluded Susan, "the lie becomes necessary."

© Cath Collins 2001 -


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