Thursday, 20 September 2007

Mortadella turns

The much assailed Italian PM Romano Prodi, often referred to - without affection - by his opponents as Mortadella, turned on his voters a couple of days ago from the only authoritative pulpit available: Porta a Porta, Bruno Vespa's chat show-cum-political forum for the masses and Berlusconi's favourite soapbox.

Probably in response to recent and entirely justified attacks on misuse of public money, lack of accountability, corruption within parliament, etc. Prodi pointed out that the kettle of the average Italian was in no position to call the pot of his/her elected government black. He didn't refer to anything specific, aiming his comments at sons following in their well-heeled father's professional footsteps, an Italian practice that goes back to the guilds of renaissance Florence and before. But he was clearly thinking of, among other things, the epidemic of bought exams in universities like Bari and Messina as the new academic year kicks in. This, like flu, happens every year but more people seem to have been caught with their cheating little fists in the honey pot this autumn and the university of Bari has just annulled its entry tests to medicine and dentistry, making a lot of doctors' and dentists' aspiring offspring very unhappy indeed.

Anybody who's taken a state exam in Italy will know that no ruse is too complicated or absurd (or expensive) not to be considered as an alternative to studying. Dictionaries in pockets are child's play in a country where mothers sew pouches inside their sons' trousers to hold microscopically reduced cribs. Cell phones, needless to say, haven't helped. But there isn't always need for subtlety. In some cases candidates come into the room with older, wiser heads who simply do the exam for them. In others, they wander outside to consult the books they need, protected by a doting grandmother in the corridor. Attempts to discourage copying are often defeated in court, which all too often prefer casuistry to common sense. A high court decision some years ago said that it wasn't enough to catch a student with photocopied material in his pocket; he had to be seen to be using it. In exam rooms in Italy, where people are crammed in like illegal immigrants on a fishing ketch, this is damned near impossible.

I remember during a language exam some years ago I was sure I'd spotted a small bilingual dictionary between the sturdy thighs of a female candidate. I told my female colleague, who went to ask her to hand it over. The student refused and we were treated to the unseemly sight of my colleague trying to wrestle her thighs apart, until someone pointed out that the girl would sue the university for assault if she didn't back off.

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