The present Syrian school system traces its origins to the French occupation period. Back in the 1940’s it was, no doubt, a great one, and those who had received their secondary school diploma then and later on into the early 1960’s were among the best high school graduates in the world. But since science and technology (and even literature) have not stood still but perpetually kept moving forward, any educational system must follow suit or risks becoming an obsolete and outdated burden on the minds of students and teachers alike. This is exactly where we are today in Syria with the Bakaloria National Exam, coming up on Sunday the 3rd of June.
This stringent, archaic and futile test is a make or break milestone in the lives of Syrian youth. At their final and 12th year of schooling they encounter the toughest obstacle of their entire lives. Here they are, at the tender age of 17 or 18, coming face to face with a dinosaur, which for all practical purposes should have become extinct by now. For the last year they have been reading and memorizing book after book totally lacking in imagination. They are not required to display any intelligence or creativity. As a matter of fact, the system discourages any personal inventiveness by heavily penalizing the student who strays out of the bounds of the one and only approved text. The punishment is exerted by the deduction of points, which in the end determine the future vocation and career of the applicant.
I will briefly describe the Syrian Bakaloria (Science Option) for the benefit of the lucky ones who have not gone through with this ordeal before. From June 3rd till the 25th, Syrian students will embark on a unified national exam. The questions are shrouded in secrecy and speculation runs rampant amongst students, teachers and parents as to their “nature”. Some teachers have made a good living out of guessing what the questions on any one particular subject will be for this year’s edition. The books have been revised very slowly over the years and the committees assigned to put forth the questions have to dig deep into their twisted minds and souls to come up with a new way of screwing up the kids. Bakaloria teachers in every single school of the country have lifted themselves up a pedestal, usually reserved for Nobel Prize Laureates. Over their entire careers, they have mastered a book or two to the point where they can probably read it backward. For this achievement, they have come to believe that they are the greatest gift to humanity. They will not waste their talents in the classroom of the free Syrian schools. Instead, they will give private lessons at their homes for exuberant fees. A well reputed mathematics Bakaloria teacher in Syria earns more than a competent physician, a profession deemed as the pinnacle of achievement by many students and parents alike.
The total exam score is 260 points and the grades are divided in the following manner:
Natural Science and Biology: 30
Religious Education: 20
National Socialist Education: 20
The grade for Religious Education is dropped from the total, but the students have to pass it anyway (if one fails in 2 subjects he or she has to repeat the entire year of agony and pain). Now, here comes the interesting part. A fortnight after the exam is over, the result is announced nationally. The grades achieved by a student determine what college he or she can attend and it goes something like this (exact numbers vary every year):
Medical School= 235/240
Civil Engineering= 220/240
and so on downward a scale created by psychotic minds but which nevertheless has gained the validity of a true religion year after year of almost sacred adherence. So, and for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that a particular student wanted to become a pharmacist when she grows up (she must be a little weird at 17) and studied hard and long for the entire year, took the Bakaloria exam and ended up with 229/240 instead of 230/240, then what you might ask. OK, very simple, repeat the damn year and hope that she gets one more stupid point on the National Socialist Education question, without losing any new point on something else, like Arabic poetry for instance. Am I serious, you bet I am, and you know I am. Well more recently, say in the last 4 or 5 years, a new option has become available in Syria, private universities. Are they a good option? Sure, they are great, if you have the money to pay your way. I would daresay that about 5% of the Syrian population can afford this option.
Here I am, at this junction in life when my eldest child, my sweetheart Diana, is less than 48 hours away from her Bakaloria exam. I’m sorry Diana for the Pharmacist joke but I couldn’t resist the temptation. To make matters a little bit more complicated, I’m leaving to Europe on business on the very first day she enters the examination room. I will hear from her on my way to the airport in Damascus how she fared on her Natural Science and Biology exam. By the time I return, she would have crossed the halfway point. Again, Diana, I’m sorry I wouldn’t be here beside you during this grueling period but you know that I have to go. I wish you, your friends and everybody out there taking the Bakaloria the best of luck. I also wish that someday, those in charge of the future of the younger generations come to their senses and turn the system upside down in Syria and wherever educational terrorism is still prevalent.
Only after going through 12 long years of bullshit will you ever appreciate Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.”
Until I'm back, or at the first opportunity I can blog again, I wish you all the best of times.