A case for a common stream of education

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Education is the backbone of a nation. Investment in quality education can lift Bangladesh out of poverty and misery
Syed Mehdi Momin

The Bangladesh government’s National Plan of Action for education for All (EFA) subscribed to all the EFA goals of making compulsory, accessible and inclusive by 2015. Since Independence Bangladesh has made appreciable advances in championing the causes of education and making it a serious public purpose. Historically, education had been the exclusive preserve of the elite and, mostly the male. As time passed, female education was encouraged by allowing co- as well as by setting up some separate institutions for girls. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh acknowledges education as a basic right of the people and enjoined on the State to ensure the provision of universal and compulsory free primary education to all children, relating  to the needs of the society and removing illiteracy. The ground reality is that the government has difficulty in meeting its commitments for capacity or quality, including school infrastructure, number of teachers and access, mostly due to budget constraints. The government has increased its gross funding for education, yet  expenditure in Bangladesh is one of the lowest in South Asia and lowest among the developing countries.

The constitution of this republic also stipulates that the state would take effective measures to establish a common system of universal and people oriented education. However, contrary to the spirit of the constitution, different streams of education exist in Bangladesh. There is English medium, Bangla medium secular and religion centred Madrasa education.

There are wide differences in curricula, syllabi, teachers’ training, infrastructure, attitude and outlook of both school authorities and guardians among the different streams in primary education. Children start their education with different systems and develop differently which significantly influence their future life. Difference in system essentially creates and perpetuates a system of inequality not only in their attitudes and tastes but also in real economic life. Disparity and Inequality can be easily observed looking at the education system in Bangladesh. Only the rich can avail Private and English medium schools having their children graduated with quality education ready to be sold in the market at higher price. These are the children from the well-off families who eventually, at a certain stage, take command over politics and economy of the country.

Non-universal system of education creates and perpetuates inequality in all spheres of society.

Because it is considered empowering to learn English, people all over the country are ready to invest in it for their children’s future. Because of this demand, all over the cities one can see boards advertising institutions which claim to be English-medium schools or tuition ‘centres’ claiming to teach spoken English and English for passing all kinds of examinations and interviews. Most products of English medium schools regard themselves as elite—not only of money and power, which they are—but that of talent and knowledge. They hold the products of the government vernacular-medium schools in open contempt. Indeed, to “Bangla-medium student’’ is a term of derision among many of them. They are alienated from their society whose values they hold in contempt.

The English schools produce snobs with perhaps only one redeeming feature—some of these snobs, because of their liberal-humanist values, support human rights, democracy and freedom. Many of them, however, are liberal only in their behaviour (imbibing alcohol, Western fashion, etc) but not in values. Generally speaking he English-medium schools do not really contribute towards the creation of a democratic culture in Bangladesh despite the fact that its products are aware of democratic values in the abstract.

Research from UNESCO and internationally acclaimed linguists confirms that the mother tongue is the best medium of instruction for a child. It helps in concept-formation and it prevents children from looking down at their own people and ancestors and literature.

There are many who are advocating English medium education in the name of modernity. Actually they are promoting an extremely medieval and reactionary approach when it comes to the role and place of language in the collective life of the people. For an important and indispensable part of the story of the rise of the West is the linguistic assertion of the vernacular against the ecumenical hold of the Latin from the time of imperial Rome, through the feudalistic and church dominated Holy Roman empire to the dawn of modern age. The “age of the masses” that aptly sums up the coming of the modern age, is inseparable from nurturing, building and making central in the life of the people their most precious institution, their native language, thus providing them with the most potent tool for unleashing their creative energies, which in turn are harnessed by the nation state giving it a kind of competitive edge over other states, that failed to “liberate and modernize” thus. This lesson of western success was duly noted and incorporated by the East Asian nations when they chartered their development strategies to catch up with the west. Thanks to this intellectual clarity and national pride “Westernization” for them could never become synonymous with the apish imitation of the manners and speech of the West. It is hardly a co-incident that  that every nation that achieved remarkable development in the last century, especially the nations of east Asia, did so not by displacing their native languages with English, but making their languages central to their state institutions. They did not ignore English but accord it the place it deserves as the most important international language, while conducting all their affairs in their own languages.

Why is it that every economically developed nation in the world conducts its affairs in its own language? So much so that, China which has arguably one of most complex and difficult writing systems is not even prepared to change its traditional pictographic alphabets, let alone replace its language with the foreign tongue! The national pride provides part of the answer. But it is not pride alone, since if it had not worked in practice no degree of pride would have been able to sustain something that is an utter failure, especially when one’s rivals are forging ahead following a more pragmatic approach. The linguistic philosophy of “mother tongue first” is not only borne out by the “success stories” of the developed nations – after all, nothing succeeds like success – but also by the serious academic research into the psychology and sociology of the best ways of educating the child.

Madrasa education , especially the Quomi ones, is hampering the progressive and liberal values. The manner in which the madrasas promote medieval attitude among the students at the cost of secular education needs to be checked.  In fact, orthodoxy, religious conservatism and obsession to medieval identity remain the main focus of madrasa education . In absence of clarity of vision about present day economic and social needs of the students madrasas have failed, miserably, to play a positive role in the scheme of their education.

Madrasa organisers rarely thought of how far its curriculum would be relevant in the changing environment. Greater importance on theological aspect of Islam in curriculum largely ignored the natural and social sciences. The religion-based education in these institutions gave birth to bigotry and became a major source of tension in society. Madrasa teaching is not friendly to the job market in the contemporary world. In the absence of modern knowledge the graduates produced by madrasas are unable to improve their material prosperity. Their job opportunity is restricted to mosques and madrasas. Experts believe madrasas have negligible contributions in creating skilled human resources in the country, still they received on average 11.5 percent of the total education budget in the last few years. The madrasa authorities are insisting on making no changes in madrasa syllabi that produces in hundreds of poor young boys a mediaeval world outlook, plagued by a deep sense of intolerance for opposing ideologies — political or religious.

A common schooling, which brings all children together in the sense of mixing children of all kinds together in each school, facilitates the adoption of a common ends. Acquaintance and friendship increases, whereas fear and mutual suspicions reduce. Inter-generational tensions along with antisocial behaviour are often recycled. The curriculum should focus on knowledge base and skill development instead of memorization. The Madrasa reforms and curriculum changes are equally important. Indeed, a strong universal public education system is essential to the collective well-being of the citizenry

It goes without saying that education is the backbone of a nation. Investment in quality education can lift Bangladesh out of poverty and misery and the sooner the people, the civil society and the government understand it, the better.

The writer is Assistant Editor of The Independent and can be contacted at: syed.mehdi@theindependentbd.com

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