Every day, long before dawn, before insanity grips Dhaka and all manner of chaos start swirling around us, certain parts of the capital fall into a familiar routine: alarms go off and shoes go on. A group of students are on their way to the university library. There, in front of the gate, a queue forms and quickly swells with many more joining it as the morning progresses. Some patiently wait in the queue, while others find a stand-in in the form of a bag, a book or two, or a newspaper as they go about doing whatever people do in the morning.
Ordinarily, this would have been a comforting spectacle for anyone: students hard at work, and so early in the morning, sacrificing the pleasure of sleep in the pursuit of knowledge. The nation's future is in good hands. But as luck would have it, most of these students are not here to dive into their studies as soon as the library gate opens and broaden their horizon with the many books, journals and research papers waiting to be discovered on the shelves. They are here for a very different purpose: to prepare for their Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) exams.
BCS, in our part of the world, has become the academic version of LSD that keeps our students intoxicated. It's the glue that ties them to their reading tables, the cure-all for all their troubles and hardships. It's the Bangladeshi equivalent of the American Dream in which the seekers—graduates and soon-to-be graduates—have a real chance to become rich and powerful. It's their golden ticket to a life of prosperity.
And in this self-serving pursuit, the loss of early-morning sleep, just as the loss of real knowledge, is an acceptable one.
Although no formal research or survey has been carried out in this regard, an investigative report by The Daily Star's Asifur Rahman helps us understand the severity of this "addiction" in our country. The report was based on the attendance numbers and information on patterns of library use collected during a visit to nine libraries, both public and private, in Dhaka. The findings are startling: a whopping 97 percent of the library-goers bring their own study materials including guides and notebooks to these libraries. In other words, students preparing for BCS and other lucrative government jobs far outnumber those genuinely interested in reading for academic purposes. Out of the 1,395 readers present in those libraries, The Daily Star found that 1,355 were studying job-related books. Nineteen were reading newspapers or magazines, or browsing the internet. Only 21 were reading library books.
The report provides further insights into the issue by breaking down the figures collated from individual libraries. For example, in Dhaka University, where the above picture is seen every day, there are two libraries: Central and Science. The situation is similar in both of them. In the last 10 years, the number of books issued by the two libraries has declined by 61 percent. Data shows that the two libraries had issued 915,425 books to DU teachers and students in the 2008-09 academic session, averaging around 2,500 books a day. Ten years later, in the 2017-18 academic session, the number of books issued stood at 352,310, an average of only 965 books a day. This shows the steady decline of interests in shelved titles as well as the simultaneous surge of interests in guidebooks for jobs, at the largest and most prestigious public university in Bangladesh.
What are libraries for, really? From the above patterns of reading, it's obvious that our libraries are being used more as a space to read rather than as a source of books. More specifically, to read guidebooks brought from outside. In Dhaka University, this means a direct contravention of Article 27 (1) of the DU Library Use Policy, which states that a student cannot bring books from outside the library. However, this rule has been relaxed since 2009, following protests by the students. The shelved titles, meanwhile, remain covered in dust, many lying in tatters, an indication of the routine apathy that has been subjected to them as well as lack of maintenance by the staff.
It's unfortunate that the whole student community is moving around the axis of BCS and such government jobs, reducing the value of education to quantifiable material benefits. This begs the question: Are universities turning into BCS factories?
Don't get me wrong. BCS and other competitive exams for government jobs are of course an important way to make sure a country is run by capable individuals. But the singular pursuit of such jobs, as evidenced by the aforementioned statistics, and the resultant narrowing of focus cancel out all other possibilities of higher education, which is detrimental to the growth of an economy. It also paints a bleak picture of the direction in which the society is turning. As education becomes more commoditised, entrepreneurship is discouraged through various obstacles, and job growth stagnates to the point of preventing students from looking for alternative means, the Project BCS—that great Project of Unlearning—threatens to colonise the minds of the future leaders of this country.
Such pursuits and the diminishing appeal of knowledge as a vessel for higher pursuits like intellectual attainment are a far cry from the role that the libraries, and the universities, are supposed to play as socio-academic institutions. Today, across the educational spectrum, it appears there is a scheme afoot to prevent our students from developing their creative faculties and embracing the vast opportunities that the world offers today. Students getting involved in drug abuse, criminal activities, self-serving politics or other such developments that limit their potential are fast becoming the staple of news covering the universities. This is not to say that there are no exceptions, but those are few and far between.
We need to get our students back on a track to all-round development. We need to counter the destabilising effects of Project BCS in our higher educational institutions, and indeed in our libraries, so that these can be transformed into centres of excellence that can produce students capable of leading Bangladesh through the challenges of the future. Failure to do so can undo all our achievements.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org