A Case of Academic Failure

Everyday when I get up from bed and head for the university I ask myself: “What is the most important pillar of academia? ”. The answer maybe a simple one but a hard one to implement as a teacher i.e. creating a conducive enough environment where students will think freely. The previous statement may sound like a cliché but today I see its importance greater than ever as an ex-student and as a teacher of a university that still even today centers my life. Blogger Rajib was murdered and I condemn it. The search for his murderers became the call of the crowd in Shahbag. Eventually, the police arrested five students of North South University (NSU); the very same institution where I was a student and currently serving as a teacher and been associated for almost a decade at various capacities. Out of the five accused, three of them were my students when they were in their freshman year and was shocked to see them apprehended. However, I believe that they are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and entitled to all the rights of a fair trial. Therefore, until then we have no right to pass any judgments in that regard. I will not state their names because I have no intention of character assassination or defaming them. The only intention I have is to put forth the realities of the academic culture that we are grooming as a society. When these three young men entered in their first year they were the regular liberal, enthusiastic and hungry to learn. As a teacher you could see each of them with glowing faces with innocence written all over it. However, I must mention this, each of the three happened to be in separate classes i.e. they were not “batch mates”. In a sad twist of fate they converged for something that probably nobody would’ve expected. Gradually as time passed, each of three was moving away from the liberal environment of NSU to the more extreme religious right. Make no mistake there is nothing wrong in being religious but that wasn’t where the problem lied. Many students in NSU just like the three students move from the liberal space to the extreme religious right but there is one common denominator that is disturbing i.e. the lack of flexibility in putting forward their arguments and using religion as the fundamental premise of every argument when engaging with various people which is counter to the idea of the academia where ideas should be free flowing and not limited to certain corridors. Being an ex-student of the same university where I teach, I do have the luxury of engaging frankly with many students, and when talking to those who transitioned to the extreme religious right, it’s quite evident that they are frustrated and some of it comes from the fact that we failed to recognize it as academics and it doesn’t do justice to their intelligence. Hence, as an academic it shames me to say this but I will put forward the thesis that we as the academic community have failed and continued failure will lead to diminution of the liberal space and lead to its eventual death similar to what Chris Hedges’ articulated in his best selling book “The Death of the Liberal Class”. Academia is shaped by the people who comprise of it. Consistent debates among teacher and student leads to bigger, greater, and newer ideas that brings innovation. The Age of Enlightenment where the roots of classical liberalism sprung out taught us that educational institutes were the place where people would battle each other on basis of ideas. Constructive criticism from both the pupil and teacher were to set precedents for higher standards of education and eventual advancement of society as a whole. Unfortunately, I have to say as a teacher such does not exist within the corridors of Bangladesh’s educational institutes. On the contrary, I have to say academia has become a factory where we “manufacture students” into corporate zombies. The teachers have become cult leaders or demagogues, where the only objective is to “dictate” some set-piece or pre-defined curricula. The classrooms have become stage shows of mockery in which the lectures are superficial and unstimulating. Whenever a student tries to ask a question she/he is immediately dismissed as disrespectful or the answer is so poorly articulated that it demotivates the student and constructive criticism of each other is a distant dream. To summarize the previous, the great Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire had an infamous theory called the “Banking Model of Education” saying that a student is viewed as empty bank account ready to be filled up by the teacher. At the end of the day the teacher grades the student based on how much he/she has in their “account”. The whole culture of exchanging ideas is absent; rather students compete with each other based on the notion of who can best recollect the “dictations”. This in turn creates a toxic ambience among the students, who believe sharing ideas may increase the other’s “bank account” resulting in mutual distrust. To put all this in context, Bangladesh’s academic environment can be divided into two parts: class and campus. The environment in class whether it is public or a private university is basically the manifestation of Freire’s “Banking Model of Education”. On the other hand there is a slight difference in the general campus atmosphere among the public and private universities. Public universities allow mainstream political parties to recruit students and permit political activity within the campus. However, on the other hand private universities have banned mainstream politics on-campus but have allowed student clubs as an alternative. Ironically, they have stark similarities; both the private university clubs and public university politics are undemocratic and recruitment drives in both cases are generally done to serve the leadership in both cases. This is another nail in the coffin for the students’ freedom of expression in addition to the stifling of debate in the classroom. As a result it would not be unusual for a student to be frustrated because in both the club and the classroom, student solidarity is feeble. Because the classroom has become a competition among students with the “highest deposited account” and in the clubs or political parties, it’s about pleasing their superiors so that one can move up the club or party hierarchy. The frustration then leads to look for an institution where there is greater solidarity and that’s when they turn to extreme religious right where the hierarchy is visibly absent and the relative degree of free speech is slightly wider. However, one has to remember that the extreme religious right does not allow arguments beyond the boundaries of religion which effectively murders intellectualism and becomes an exponent of irrationality. Therefore, as a teacher I would like to urge the academic community that instead of taking reactionary measures it is high time for an introspection.

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