Reading Misadventures in HR's excellent new blog post on hiring a useless trainee reminded me of one reason why I think education, generally, is such a miserable failure in Oman, and the Middle East overall.
It's what I call 'the cargo cult' approach to education.
...Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when the residents of these regions observed the Japanese and American combatants bringing in large amounts of material. When the war ended, the military bases closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.
From time to time, the term "cargo cult" is invoked as an English language idiom to mean any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance. The error of logic made by the islanders consisted of mistaking a necessary condition for cargo to come flying in, i.e., building airstrips, control towers, etc., for a sufficient condition for cargo to come flying in, thereby reversing the causation. On a lower level, they repeated the same error by, for example, mistaking a necessary condition for building a control tower, i.e., build something that looks like a control tower, for the sufficient condition of building a genuine control tower.
The inception of cargo cults often is defined as being based on a flawed model of causation, being the confusion between the logical concepts of necessary condition and sufficient condition when aiming to obtain a certain result. Based on this definition, the term "cargo cult" also is used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony take place but go unrewarded due to flawed models of causation as described above.
People see that someone has a good job, and want one too. How did they get this wonderful job, with an office, a desk, a free phone, and money every month? Ahh, they have a degree/diploma/qualification. Ergo, a plan of action forms: get said decree/diploma, and hey presto! The magic piece of paper will secure a life of privilege, wealth, material goods, even a spouse.
Therefore they obtain said paper, in some cases by simply buying one, or by attending a 'college' of dubious quality. Various sources will corroborate and reinforce this theory: unscrupulous college administrators or academics who just want paying students; Government functionaries rewarded for 'number of students enrolled'; parents who want the best for their children. Why even the newspaper regularly describes 'Jobs vacant' every day, with the very pieces of paper required clearly stated.
As it's only getting hold of the fancy piece of paper that counts (and they can look beautifully impressive, with colourful and embossed insignia, latin phrases and even wax seals):
it's therefore totally OK to cheat on exams, pay someone to write your papers for you, and complain if anything such as 'standards' or exam results gets in the way. (eg See this post by Reality in Oman.)
Reality in Oman, August 2009:
Cheating is a common problem within the Omani educational system. It is common throughout the whole Gulf region. Students (mainly males) cheat their way through school and college – and they wonder why no one wants to hire them! - I mean, what a waste!
Students spend more time trying to find out ways to cheat than anything else. They cheat through phones, watches with tiny screens, tiny papers, writing on their knees..etc. I remember when I was in high school and attending my final exams. There were guys honking on their cars outside our classes… honk honk (question 2) *silence* honk honk honk (answer c)… honk honk honk (question 3) *silence* honk (answer a)…
And then, they either don't get a job, or do and loose it.
Or even worse, get a job and continue to screw things up while doing do sweet FCUK all all day. Often holding up a job that maybe someone could do, and the work gets done by expats or other Omani staff. If they are locals, sacking them for incompetence is usually impossible.
I've personally interviewed holders of Maths Masters degrees who can't use Excel; English Literature grads who can't speak English; and no-one, even competent young Omanis, knows how to write a half-decent CV. (or even how to spell Curriculum Vitae...)
So what can Oman do to combat this? One thing being done by the elite and Government Ministers is to have their kids educated overseas in a real University. But it really starts in the schools.
Oman's foreign high schools' exams are sent out of the country to be marked independently. There should be an independently invigilated set of standard exams for Omani scvhools perhaps, to try and purge the rampant plagiarism and cheating. Such exams (at least initially) will apparently need a level of security more commonly associated with printing and distributing currency.
But do the Government, or teachers, or parents, or students actually want to know the real status of their education? I doubt it.
The cult is just too strong...