Learning Corruption: What Are the Implications of Classroom Corruption for Democracy?
Recently in Romania, corrupt politicians and public officials have been held accountable, anti-corruption institutions have gained ground, and mass protests have indicated a strong anti-corruption sentiment. Does this address the root of the problem, or just mitigate the symptoms? Scholars have suggested educational corruption as one of the causes of corruption throughout society. My research suggests it is more complicated than that.
As a researcher interested in the politics of education, I became fascinated with the phenomenon of classroom corruption in Romania and its connection to the corruption in other sectors of society. Classroom corruption is a kind of small-scale classroom corruption which occurs with the direct involvement of students and thus often has an impact on their socialization in education. Specific acts involve teachers selling private lessons to their students, monetary and material bribes offered to teachers and other staff by students, and the collection of illegal payments from students. As part of my Master thesis research at the University of Amsterdam, I investigated the impact of classroom corruption on the social capital of young Romanians. I wanted to find out what this type of small-scale corruption might entail for Romanian democracy.
Scholars, philosophers, and citizens have tried to ascertain what makes democracy work since its conception. In my opinion, one of the most interesting suggestions has come from American political scientist Robert Putnam, who claims that social capital is the true engine of democracy. Putnam’s theory of social capital refers to the trust citizens have in each other and their institutions, the social norms and rules they abide by, and the social networks they create and engage in. To the dismay of many leaders looking to strengthen their democracy, social capital is difficult to cultivate out of nothing. However, time and time again, one factor has been highlighted for its role in producing promoting social capital among the population: education. The argument is that individuals who access education are more trusting in general, they adopt universalist and democratic norms, and they establish friendships and other social relations.
However, one factor which has attracted international attention for supposedly disrupting these causal chains between education, social capital, and democracy, is corruption. Among scholars of educational corruption, a clear consensus has emerged: if young people encounter systemic acts of corruption in their own education, future generations will be corrupt. If corruption in all areas and at all levels is to be addressed and eliminated, corruption in education must also be a target for intervention.
However, during my research I interviewed high school students from all over Romania, and what I found provided a more complex and nuanced picture of these interlinked causal relationships. The analysis indicated that young Romanians are much more resilient in withstanding the pressures that classroom corruption places on their social capital. Instead of simply succumbing to the norms of corruption and adopting corrupt norms themselves, many found that their experiences with classroom corruption incentivized them to hold norms of equality, equity, and democracy in even higher regard. One interviewee described the effect of having experienced teachers offering preferential treatment due to receiving bribes:
“It is a must that people have equality of opportunity. It is very important…So in a sense I became even more fixated on this idea of equality. Every person is special in their own way, is important, but the moment you favour others, and you put the rest in the shadow, it is very hurtful for a child.”
In this respect, the perceptions of young Romanians did not fit the proposed effects of many other researchers. What I did find correlated well with the theoretical assumptions was related to trust. The young Romanians I interviewed did not trust their institutions of education and teachers they perceived as engaging in corrupt behavior, for example, accepting or demanding bribes and using grades to incentivize students to pay them for private lessons. One interviewee said described classroom corruption as unfair and continued:
“I can say very honestly that I no longer trust anyone. Like, this society has ended up in such a way that everyone is just pursuing their own interests and is not thinking that perhaps their interests…the way they reach their interests, affects the people around them.”
More interestingly, they also made a clear connection between the corruption they experienced in school with the corruption which occurs in the political sphere. As such, many expressed a complete lack of trust in politicians and the political establishment. This absence of trust is very concerning, and very much in line with other empirical data which has shown the level of social trust in Romania to be very low.
However, by far the most striking pattern that I found was present in the way young Romanians perceived classroom corruption to affect their social networks. A majority of the young Romanians I spoke with credited their experiences with classroom corruption as an important reason for their anti-corruption activism and participation in student politics. This was astonishing, because nowhere in the literature on classroom corruption was there an indication that young people could and would mobilize to take action against this educational corruption. Yet, that is exactly what many Romanian high school students have been doing. They have been creating associations, organizing protests and meetings, writing petitions and lobbying stakeholders, and most importantly, establishing valuable connections and networks of activists. According to one of the interviewees:
“That's why [we] founded the student association, because there is corruption. We need to solve it. It is a shame that still the kids need to solve the biggest men's problems. But if I can be honest, I would prefer that the association would not exist, but not to avoid the work. But I just want it to not exists because I want for things to be fine. I'd rather be a normal [student] in education and a regular student, than be the [part] of the association that tries to solve education.”
Therefore, my research suggests that young Romanians perceive classroom corruption to both undermine and strengthen their social capital. Many students seem to have more agency in how they respond to encounters with classroom corruption than the literature has indicated. This is good news, not only for them as individuals, but for the future of the Romanian democracy.
However, with these findings, new concerns arise. Although classroom corruption might inspire some young Romanians to organize and mobilize in the name of transparency and democracy, classroom corruption should by no means be allowed to continue. Classroom corruption shifts responsibility of developing the social capital of students from the education system, to students themselves. It is undoubtedly an immense burden for students. It should not be the duty of the students to extract positive lessons from their encounters with classroom corruption, about what is right and wrong. The education system should promote students’ social capital, so they can become citizens and future leaders promoting Romanian democracy.
 Quotes are taken from the 25 in-depth interviews I conducted in the field. Participants consented to being included in the research and publications of the research. Some quotes have been adapted to maintain anonymity.
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