Is it a ‘donkey’?by Farooque Chowdhury
MR AFSAN Chowdhury deserves thanks for his article ‘Public universities in Bangladesh: Asking a donkey to give cow’s milk’ on May 6 through which he raises an important issue of public interest. Mr Chowdhury has not relinquished his professional responsibility. It is praiseworthy.
Referring to an incident in Jahangirnagar University Mr Chowdhury said: It reflects a deeper reality. I agree: reflection of a reality. What’s that reality?
I failed to refrain myself from raising a number of questions after going through the article. To make it easy I have put my question/comment after quoting Mr Chowdhury.
Mr Chowdhury said in the article (henceforth only within quotation marks): ‘The Jahangirnagar University situation is a good reminder of how amazing the situation has become in the public universities.’
My question is: Does the one represent the whole? Should not a scientific approach be followed? Will it be logical to infer on all the public universities on the basis of one university and on the basis of one incident in that university? The approach is illogical. It is not based on science. With this approach — draw a conclusion on the basis of a single example — a lot of wrong conclusions will arrive. The approach makes a good sound but logically it is not sound.
‘Anyone asked about the great achievement of Dhaka University always mentions its role in the 1952 Language Movement, the 1969 anti-Ayub agitation, the 1971 war, the anti-Ershad movement of the 1990s, the anti-ML agitation of 2008, etc.’
Is not imbibing learners with patriotism and sense of democracy a great achievement of any educational institution? How many educational institutions are there in the world of which so many learners have made supreme sacrifice for their country, for their people for so many times? It’s not only the learners; there are teachers also, many in number. I wonder: how so many students from Dhaka University make supreme sacrifice, face persecution for the cause of the country, for the cause of the people?
I was searching the reason behind suddenly singling out Dhaka University in this article while the reference point was Jahangirnagar University. I failed to understand the sudden jump. From Jahangirnagar to Dhaka while the claimed focus is on the public universities in Bangladesh. The article comments on the public universities in Bangladesh although it refers to none other than the Dhaka University. Isn’t it a strange approach to an ‘amazing … situation’?
‘These are great political moments of our life but none are intellectual milestones.’
Is not participation in democratic movement, in the war of liberation reflection of a higher level of intellectual capacity? Have not any of the teachers of our public universities succeeded in making intellectual milestone anywhere in this world? Can we brush aside the intellectual contributions teachers of and learners from the public universities have made/are making in different areas till today? I refrain from naming names of those respected teachers from the public universities and of the students these universities have produced, who have contributed/are contributing in different areas of knowledge, in social and natural sciences, and in public life in our country and in other countries. Should we ignore them? Please, try to recollect the names of a number of teachers of Bangla and English literature, of history, of mathematics, physics, fine arts, statistics, economics, nuclear agriculture, medical science, agronomy, civil engineering, drama, electrical engineering, political science, nanotechnology, education science, crop seed, journalism, and many similar areas in different public universities in Bangladesh. Yes, many of them are unsung, the unsung heroes under the spell of silence. They don’t have that time to sell their names. They are also ignorant of that art. They are incapable of making tricky jumps and illogical sounds.
‘The intellectual tradition and the public education system do not co-exist.’
You have made a major shift, Mr Chowdhury. You have shifted from public universities to the area of public education system, a much bigger area owned by public. The PES comprises of public universities and more. I am not going into detail as you know this. I’m skipping this question as the focus — public university — will be lost in this article.
‘The public university system has not produced any great thinker in the last half century and as trends go will not do so in the next either.’
Is it factual? Should we brush aside all the brilliant teachers of the public universities: DU, JU, BAU, CU, RU, BUET, SUET, BSMMU and others? There is a public university being run by teachers from the defence forces. There is no vandalism, no sort of VC-problem. I’m not ignoring the rest, just trying to shorten the list. I know you understand that ‘public universities in Bangladesh’ is a wide area. You have again raised the issue of ‘system’ instead of ‘universities’. University system is broader than university/ies. I’m not entering into the ‘system’ now.
Great thinkers are not produced in machine; so, they are not produced in each century or within each half a century. It’s historical period, it’s society, certain conditions in society, and to be specific, certain contradictions in society that produce great thinkers. In the case of great thinkers, the time span is irregular, not regular. Sometimes, within a span of a few years many great minds come and sometimes, century or centuries go dry. Great thinkers are not produced by public universities only.
I fail to understand the reason behind putting the burden of producing great thinkers on public universities, not on economy, not on society. And, I fail to understand the way you are defining great thinkers. Can a teacher working on arsenic or on earthquake or on flood or on issues of development, and on many similar issues, working in BINA, ISRT, IER, RTC, and similar institutes and departments of public universities be ignored as we are not aware of their work although their intellectual labour is being used in our country, and, what we understand easily, in foreign countries? We are not aware of their sweat, their pain, their hard labour that they are putting silently, the obstacles they are facing while pursuing their researches. I am making a comparison, which is a shame and stupidity for me, but I find no other way. Have we made any comparative study of the media coverage of tantalising models and research activities being carried out in laboratories in public universities? (I apologise to the teachers for putting forth such a crude, illogical comparison. I hope they will consider my ignorance.) How many media reports on state of public university laboratories do we find?
I don’t know the basis of your prediction on next 50 years. But, I must recognise that you are a great thinker as you can foresee. Are not you a production of a public university? How can I ignore your work with the most glorious part of our history, our war of liberation?
‘The universities are not expected to produce scholars because it serves no purpose to anyone including the teachers but political activists which serves everyone and that’s where most of the focus of the universities are.’
Pardon my inability to understand this statement that sounds ambiguous to me, Mr Chowdhury. Is it a satirical statement?
Political activists don’t serve everyone; they serve respective politics and interests with those politics, you can name it ‘someone’. What’s the problem? That’s their honest deliberation. One should scrutinise the interest they serve, evaluate the interests they uphold. And, most of the focus of the universities is not those activities. Please, have a comparison: the number of classes, exams, tutorials, term papers, MPhil and PhD theses, seminars, and the number of learners participating in/producing these, the number of students using public university libraries daily and the number of student activism and activists, if all student activism is, for the sake of debate, considered bad and out of academic life. The same is regarding teacher activism and universities having problem. Environment of public universities would have been different if most of the focus were activism, if the numbers of all sorts overwhelmed academic activities. A democratic activism with overwhelming participation of teachers and students would have swayed away a lot of problems, of teachers, of learners, and an anarchic one, a stalemate. But none of the two is there.
‘But when were public universities any different? The greatest tradition the universities have are political in nature, not academic ones. Nobody ever says that the great achievements of Dhaka University are related to education or intellectual greatness. In fact, this University has had its glory days largely before 1947 and maybe one or two winks before 1971 but not many later.’
I’m skipping this as I have already attended to a similar statement. I’ll just mention that there are many universities in many countries, I’ll not identify those as whether public or private, that have not produced a single instance of scholarship over a long span of time than the time you are referring to regarding Dhaka University. Virtual owners of those institutions have not brushed away those. I’ll again mention that you are referring to Dhaka University only while you raised the issue of public universities in Bangladesh. And, I like to bring to your notice that great achievements in education and intellectual greatness don’t follow a mechanical time span.
‘It is not fair to ask a donkey to give cow’s milk.’
I understand the intensity of your frustration, which has led you to use such a symbol — donkey. And, the frustration comes out of deep love and high expectation. The symbol — donkey — you used to express the state of public universities in Bangladesh is reflection of your love for this institution. I respect your feeling. But, is the symbol proper? Fair? Befitting? Dignified? Should beasts be used as symbol for educational institutions? Even, if one likes to use beast as symbol, which should not be entertained, why not use a lion, a sleeping lion? A tiger, which is brave and symbolises strength? A bird, which sings sweet songs? Would not it have been befitting if the symbol of a garden that requires more attention or a stream that flows and flows, that enriches lands and helps life around, but that may sometimes needs much care was used? After all, you know it better than me that use of symbol reflects state of mind and taste. The same is with the symbol of cow. Long ago, an economist defined cow as factory — it produces fertiliser. Cow is for milk and for plough. University is not a factory; it’s a world of knowledge, a temple for learning, a galaxy of creativity. None, not even you, expects milk from it. University flowers with knowledge. And, to have flowers, its fragrance, to have beauty of knowledge it should be loved, nourished, taken care of; an environment of creativity should be created.
How much do we provide to this institution? Have we checked the amount of money allocated for research in these universities? The amount money for scholarship? Ittefaq, the old Dhaka Bangla daily carried out a report on the current amount of money for a lot of scholarships for students of Dhaka University. The amount of money available is not only amazing, but painful also.
Have we checked the condition of laboratories in the public universities? Have we compared facilities in the public university libraries with some other libraries in our capital city?
Have we ever tried to know the condition of the teachers? I’ll request you to have a close look. I find no other sober way of expression other than making this request as comparing a teacher with some other insignificant employee of multinational companies will be a sheer stupidity from my end.
We, you and me, as dwellers in this city, have not missed the transport system the public university students are provided with. We can have a look in their dorms and the food they can have in the dining halls of these dorms. Have level of nutrition the students can collect from this food been ever calculated?
‘But excuse me, which VC has behaved differently in any public university?’
All the Vice-Chancellors? None? Shall it be a fair judgement? Will it be logical to make a blanket case? There are/were many VCs you will find having excellent academic and research performance and a good record of management. Often in a hurry we miss some points.
‘Obviously the VCs reflect prevailing political cultures and that is hardly in any way different from the ones the VCs practice.’
Don’t all of us broadly reflect the same? As a member of society how can a VC escape prevailing political culture? As part of an institution, almost at the top, how the person can? In that case, we should look at the economy, the society that produces this political culture.
‘They [VCs] are there because they are political activists and that’s how the activists behave.’
Who’s not a political activist? All of us turn political activists at different levels, at different occasions, to different extent. Isn’t it? We should define a political activist. In any society, institutions are political and persons involved with these are political activists/leaders.
‘Nobody has ever asked that the VCs think clearly and if they did they may not have wanted to become the VC in the first place.’
None of the VCs ‘think clearly’? Do all of them think in clumsy way? ‘Dumb’? Then, how did they carry out their academic activities before they assumed the post of VCs? Then, how did the chancellor appoint them? Is the system so mindless?
‘The point is the universities are a place for politics and how are politicians in Bangladesh expected to behave?’
Which institution is not a place for politics? Educational institutions are also, since their inception in society. Even the books we read are not free from politics, if not of a particular political party, but of a class, but politics is there.
‘It is enough that they don’t fight amongst each other for the job like the way two factions of students’ activists of the same party slug it out in attempts to gain control of the campus.’
Yes, you are correct. They don’t fight, and they do fight. They fight on ideological, philosophical issues. At times political also. Sometimes, I should not miss, it’s over some narrow or immediate cause/interest. Don’t we? Who not? The problem is with the extent and form of fight. That has to be defined. But, defining that is a difficult task. It can’t be done be ordains. This, in short, depends upon condition and factors, and even, extent of other fights.
‘We are often disappointed with our universities because we expect them to deliver education but if we look upon their actual purpose we won’t feel so bad.’
I failed to understand this statement.
‘Since 1947, the universities have been used to gain political advantage.’
I hope, you will allow me to make a minor correction: it’s not since 1947; it’s since universities, educational institutions have been organised in society, and it’s not only in our country, it’s in all countries. I like to cite just one crude example that you know: The motive of the sahibs, our colonial masters, behind setting up the Dhaka University. It was, you are aware of the number of years, long before 1947. Gaining political advantage from universities is a fundamental issue that none can escape and none should expect something else.
‘Once it became clear that controlling politics meant controlling the campuses, every political party has gone after it.’
Doesn’t that actually happen with other institutions in society, in other countries? Shouldn’t political parties guide? What’s the problem with that guidance if the politics is nice? Doesn’t political parties guide in economic and social life? What’s the problem with every political party? Should that be done by a single political party? No, Mr Chowdhury, that will be tyranny.
‘Thus in the pre-1971 days, as students agitated against the Pakistani leadership of General Ayub Khan, the pro-Ayub Muslim League party floated the NSF (National Students Federation) which produced the kind of thuggery that we are familiar with and is the source of the great tradition.’
Another minor correction: It was even before the ‘famous’ NSF. You are well aware of it as you worked with contemporary Bangladesh history. Tajuddin Ahmad, the first prime minister of Bangladesh, has described in his diary an incident of vandalism in student activism. There are names and number of a vehicle also. There were similar incidents in colonial days also. Leafing through the pages of history will bring those to our notice.
‘Consequently, neither an intellectual environment nor any number of significant independent intellectuals has emerged out of the university system.’
Then, where from scores of intellectuals in the universities have come? Or, are not they intellectuals? How the teachers are working in all the universities, in the system, where an intellectual system has not emerged?
‘No scholar is rewarded for academic excellence and whether it’s the university or the media, the focus is for political alliance not original thinking.’
Non-reward reality is the problem of society, not of the public universities. Absence of ‘original thinking’, if factual, is the problem of the society. ‘Original thinking’ doesn’t crop up all the time. It’s not the problem of public universities. Should we overlook the fact of brain drain? Our public universities are losing a lot of original minds, brilliant teachers to seats of learning in other countries. I know you are well aware of this fact. After the fact, will it be fair to count or fathom ‘original thinking’ in the public universities?
‘So why should teachers think when you get much without doing so?’
How much do the teachers get? Do all the teachers get? Then, why not society closes down the path to ‘get much’ and why not broaden the path of ‘thinking’?
‘Since 1971, this position has been strengthened till it’s taken for granted that university based party politics is the key to everything else.’
I failed to understand ‘university-based party politics’. Probably, you are indicating party politics-based activities among a section in universities. Political parties in our country try to base their politics among the masses or within sections of broader society. What about trading-based and other section-based party politics?
‘The public university education system doesn’t work because there is no effort to make it work.’
Can a single incident in JU lead to this conclusion? Then, shall not this question haunt other institutions?
‘That happens because the principal cause which is gaining political advantage is achieved and the teachers are there to ensure that continuation.’
All the teachers?
‘So they produce political factions — the White, Pink and Yellow groups — that fight a political partisan proxy war in the campuses.’
Are not there factions in other institutions? It may happen that colour is visibly absent in those institutions. There are political factions, etc. in all types of universities in all countries. A keen look will take us to that fact. Teachers involved with exercise of knowledge have strong opinion on a lot of issues in respective fields and factions thus emerge.
‘Teachers are ensured of privileges if they belong to the right group at the right time and the identity of the teacher as a political activist is guaranteed and consequently no pressure to deliver either as a teacher or a scholar.’
Doesn’t that happen to others? Then, what’s the reason behind singling out teachers and singling out all the teachers of the public universities?
‘The students spend time doing many things which have nothing to do with education like trying to remove the university VCs who look exactly like the one before. And the next one will look the same too. If Khaleda and Hasina look so much like each other, how can the political children look different?’
From public university teachers to national leaders? Should they be blamed for all these?
‘Of course as an institution meant to produce scholarship and learning it is non-existent but as a political activist producing factory it is enormously successful and that too at a low cost.’
Then, shall you propose tomorrow to send the public universities to a place named non-existence or private capital? I don’t know reaction of a section of student activists’ with the future plan.
‘For the moment let’s live with the fact that it is doing what it is supposed to do and rather well at that. So let’s celebrate what they have done.’
Then, I don’t know the reason behind formulating this article.
‘As history shows the public university system as the prime delivery agent of higher learning ceased to exist many many years before.’
What’s the length of the history? Why the all encompassing approach to the entire public university system? You began dealing with a single university, then focused on another, and now you are pointing your finger to the entire system. Is there something in the bag for privatization of higher education? Is this a prologue to that one? But, have we considered the option open to the young learners from middle and low income families? What will happen to those unfortunate but brilliant students? Can we forget constitutional obligation: education?
‘And so let’s not ask what can’t be delivered and focus on what it can do. Ask the donkey what it can do not what you think it should do.’
Is the ‘donkey’ the public universities? I don’t know the way the public universities will react to the symbol, if that is. My humble proposition: please, change the symbol or the figure.
I do conclude here as my piece has turned a long one. I would like to state: We should consider all the aspects before putting burden of blame or fault of failure on any public institution. Public institutions are public property, property of all the people. Every brick, all the grains of sands of all the public institutions are contributions of our people, our toiling masses. Its image, its honour are our honour. Teachers in the public universities are honest, dignified personalities. Yes, like all places on the earth, there are exceptions, errant behaviours. But that’s not the general pattern. Please, check with a number of our legislators and ministers and former ministers. A good number of them are from the public universities. They have substantial suggestions.
No institution can escape socioeconomic reality. The public universities are no exception. We should cast our eyes deep into problems, the fundamental causes.
I appreciate your pain. Thanks.
bdnews24.com, May 14. Farooque Chowdhury contributes on socioeconomic issues.
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