It is one of those rare moments in which you thought visiting Facebook was not a total waste of time. Someone had posted an award-winning short-film in which a young woman was seen alighting from a boat and taking photographs. A boy suddenly snatched her bag and the woman went after him. The chase ended in the courtyard of a school where the visitor found herself surrounded by a group of children, elderly men and women—all holding slates and pencil-chalks. The supposed thief returned the bag, and an old woman greeted the visitor with tea and an imploring glance. The silence was spread against the blank blackboard. The photographer approvingly received the teacup, and everyone erupted in joy. The last shot showed the visitor writing on the board to teach the villagers.
The South Indian film speaks volumes and resonates with our local plights. There is a genuine interest in learning; there is great earning for good teachers. Everyone now knows what value education can add. A hardworking rickshaw-puller would paddle double-shifts to send his children to schools. Education, much to the pride of the nation, is spreading. But does it have the foundational strength as well as the logistics to reach out to every periphery to ensure an equitable spread? Why does a total stranger need to pick up the chalk?
Thanks to the government and its NGO allies, the dream of education has been implanted. Or should I say “an inception” has been performed, after Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception where dreams are shown as the most resilient parasites that reside in the subconscious mind. The movie depicts a dream-heist where “extractors” literally enter people’s minds to steal away their dreams. The recent incident at BUET can be deemed as an extraction where an educational dream has become a dystopian nightmare. The dream ends not so happily for those who forgot the very purpose of education. And looking at the victims of false dream, we wake up to a reality: education has become both a site that nurtures and a parasite that ends dream.
As a young country, our national dreams are just beginning to materialise. Our nuclear submarines are diving into the Bay of Bengal; our satellite is sending signals from space; our national grid is soon to be boosted by nuclear energy; our mega-bridge is linking up the shores of the mighty Padma, our metro-rails are all set to eat up traffic-jam, and our development indexes are ticking all the right boxes. Given the demographic dividend on our side, a condition where more than 65 percent of our population is of working age, between 15 and 64, we can dream of becoming a middle income country. But without educating the mass, such dreams will prove barren. There are many “extractors” and “distractors” to end our dream. The individuals who can harvest our dreams and help them grow are our educators. But they need to be given the right respect, incentives and training to become development partners.
The sooner the government realises it, the better it is for the nation. Unfortunately, we are donning our educators with coloured jerseys, turning them into party goons. The coloured dreams are presented in monochrome as the political bioscope unfurls. We find educators sharing booties with student-leaders; supplying cheat sheets or taking physical or psychological advantages of their students; or pursuing greed by moonlighting, coaching, or compromising duties.
I dare not call the situation “fishy” lest it locates the educators among the proverbial rotten head of things. Our teachers have lost their respected social position that they traditionally enjoyed. Now they are at the mercy of a number of political and bureaucratic agencies. Teachers exist at the bottom of the totem pole. They are paid less than garment workers as compliance in the education sector is not an issue. A newspaper ad recently offered Tk 8,000 for an assistant school teacher and Tk 9,000 for a security guard. Administrative and political bosses treat teachers as disposable accessories; hence they can ask them to sit up and down holding their ears in public. Educators with their depleted efficiency and compromised morality are not helping their causes either. Yet we expect these teachers to prepare our nation ready for the future.
Somehow we have failed to make teaching a dream job. Many of our rural English school teachers are “teaching students at higher levels than their own ability in the language,” a survey reports, adding, “not a single Grade 10 student in a cohort of 14 students interviewed was able to introduce themselves properly after 10 years of study of English” (Kirkpatrick, R. 2016). The flurry of GPAs and inflated grades will perhaps overlook such realities and keep on exciting pipedreams. The bloated numbers will hide the fact that our students are not taught well. Still the report cards will make parents think that their dreams can align with their children’s results. Those of us who teach at the universities or employ graduates know that our students come to the real world lacking the required skill-sets.
There are nearly four million students in higher education today, attending some 150 plus public and private universities, thousands of colleges and madrasas. It seems everybody wants a degree in business and the like, even though there are not enough jobs in the market to accommodate them. These students could have received voluntary education and become skilled workers or professionals. Instead, they all want a piece of paper that will supposedly help them with their dreams of becoming civil servants or MNC officials. The supply of students and institutions has created a demand for university teachers. The reality is, there are teachers who should not be teaching in the first place. They are doing more disservice to the system than service.
With loaned advice from World Bank, the golden deer of quality has appeared in the quantity forest of higher education. We need to revamp the entire system, but if you ask me, the change must begin with good teachers. Then we need the right curriculum that is on a par with the global standard. Otherwise, students will lose their motivations to learn. We need to ask why an electrical engineer who studied 24/7 to earn his degree becomes a customs official. There is a huge gap between what our graduates learn and what they want to earn. Then again, earning and employability should not be the only objectives of education. Education is all about opening the mind to become a life-long learner while respecting one’s surrounding. The hunger for power and money leads many to adopt short-cuts by plugging into the power-base. The weathercock of dreams changes direction as many students assume political avatars. They become monstrous, brutal, grotesque, cruel, and selfish, clashing with the dreams of their parents and societies. Then again, our leaders need these avatars to strengthen the power structure from which dream messages are rallied. Thus we enter a vicious double-loop where the sites of dream are taken over by the parasites.
The video I began with highlights our own responsibilities in bringing changes. Every day we employ our own lenses, filters, and editing tools to craft our versions of reality. It’s easy to derive voyeuristic pleasure from seeing other’s misfortunes or colouring our surrounding. Time has come to decide what we can do to bring a change. Should we just keep on clicking snapshots to get “Likes” on Facebook or bring our expertise to cause small changes? Education is too serious a matter to be left to the educators. The change will come by educating and becoming educators ourselves.
There is nothing new in my observations. I found them … blowin’ in the wind!
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice Chancellor, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.