Vol. 5 Num 878 Thu. November 16, 2006  

The case for Bangladesh Studies

Bangladesh has become a subject of much pedagogic interest since the early 1990s, when private universities started operating in this country. A number of causes may be attributed to such interest: patriotic feeling, government encouragement, need for balancing the syllabi by accommodating subjects of humanities and social sciences, guardians' expectations etc.

But, probably it is time now that we also recognize that Bangladesh Studies exists because Bangladesh itself is worth studying. The historical developments since ancient times, in what is Bangladesh territory, culminated in its birth as a modern nation-state in 1971.

In spite of the relative failures at different levels in the public sphere, there has been perceptible, and often sharp, upward movement in different sectors in the social, economic and cultural arenas. But, going beyond the debates about whether Bangladesh has performed well, or badly, as a nation, we should be satisfied that it is one of the few nations in the developing world which is remarkably exposed to domestic, as well as global, intellectual and development discourses. This is precisely why Bangladesh Studies deserves far greater attention in the higher education sectors than it is currently receiving. There are, however, a number of issues that need to be addressed in this connection.

A major problem is that most universities allocate only three credit-hours for a course relating to Bangladesh Studies. The problem for the teachers is, therefore, what to teach within this limited period, which does not amount to more than 40 hours, at best. Since there is no teacher who is comprehensively trained in Bangladesh Studies, one has to have a particular academic background, such as History, Public Administration, Sociology etc.

This means that a teacher with a particular academic background would tend to focus on his/her own field of specialization. This may often create the problem of allocation of proportionate time to all proposed themes in the syllabus, since the idea of the course is to teach almost all conceivable subjects, ranging from geographical features to constitution, economy to culture and so on. Most teachers are perhaps trying to do equal justice to some selected topics, but their is no doubt that students end the course with either a lopsided view of Bangladesh, or a partial, or insufficient, knowledge of topics covered.

Second, English is perhaps more important for Bangladesh Studies than other subjects such as Computer Science or BBA, precisely because it falls mainly within the disciplines of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts. Students often fail to understand lectures unless Bangla is also used simultaneously; but this is not what the private universities would encourage.

Third, there are not many suitable textbooks on this emerging subject. Some years ago, an important publication in this field, Bangladesh. On the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century, edited by AM Chowdhury & Fakrul Alam, was published and some universities recommend this book. This is the first attempt to address the problem of the lack of textbooks in this field. However, given the inefficiency in English of a majority of the students, and the inadequate level of understanding of issues relating to broader areas of humanities and social sciences, this book appears to be a bit difficult for undergraduate students.

Another publication that followed is Bangladesh: National Cultures and Heritage: An Introductory Reader, edited by AF Salahuddin Ahmed & Bazlul Mobin Chowdhury. The same comments apply to this book, excepting that while the former focuses on contemporary issues, the latter focuses mostly on history and tradition. In a way, these two books are complementary to each other, but at the same time it is problematic for the students to consult both books together for a reasonable synthesis, since each of the books is too thick to be digested in the limited time frame of 40 hours or so.

Another source of information is a reference book, Banglapedia. This is a huge, commendable work by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, and is edited by Sirajul Islam. But again, problems relating to the above two books also apply to this encyclopedia. Previous experience with our students suggests that, considering the time constraints and the level of linguistic efficiency of our students, we need more workable, manageable and digestible textbooks, fairly tuned to the need and ability of the students.

Fourth, students sometimes find Bangladesh Studies out of sync with their core subjects which relate to business, science and technology or pharmacy, for instance. They do not see tangible linkages between their core subjects and Bangladesh Studies. By the same token, students still do not see career prospects linked with the subject.

What can we do about the problems that exist in teaching Bangladesh Studies? As far as the question of inadequate level of learning of the students is concerned, one remedy is that the private universities, which are offering 3-credit course in Bangladesh Studies, may perhaps allow three more credits. That way the teachers and the students would perhaps get breathing space, and would go little deeper into a particular topic. It may also be possible to widen the range of teaching Bangladesh Studies by having the subject as a Minor.

Another option is much larger, and requires more serious attention. Some private universities may offer a BA or BSc degree in Bangladesh Studies. It would perhaps be helpful in the sense that in three or four years a student will become well-versed in various aspects of Bangladesh, including economy, society, art and culture, history and tradition, politics and administration, international economics and diplomatic relations. Yet another option can be to offer a short one to two year diploma course solely on Bangladesh.

Secondly, an Institute of Bangladesh Studies may be established. This institution should train teachers and compile, edit or update relevant textbooks. It should also conduct research on various pedagogic aspects of Bangladesh. It should have a library and should subscribe to all journals that relate to Bangladesh and regional studies. It should also liaise among different private universities with a view to maintaining a standard in the teaching and study of Bangladesh. Before such an institution is established, one or a number of universities, in cooperation with the University Grants Commission, may arrange a national workshop to chart the future course of action with respect to Bangladesh Studies.

Thirdly, universities should try to make sure that students do not have the feeling that Bangladesh Studies is a peripheral subject which takes up only three hours per week, and costs a few thousand taka. There are many ways by which the university governing bodies and academic councils can take Bangladesh Studies to a new height within academia. It is heartening that many universities have made the subject compulsory for students of other departments. But this is not enough, and it does not address the problem of Bangladesh Studies remaining an "underdog" in the higher studies sector. Universities should seriously think of offering degrees at both, undergraduate and graduate levels.

Fourthly, the government of Bangladesh, the corporate world and the NGOs can play an important role in promoting Bangladesh Studies. The promotion of Bangladesh Studies would serve both, the students who graduate in this subject and the different organizations that employ them. Both cadre and non-cadre public service sectors can substantially benefit from employing students with a degree in Bangladesh Studies.

If a BUET graduate in Chemical Engineering can end up being a career diplomat, or a Soil Science graduate of Dhaka University can become a member of the Board of Revenue, then we should not have any problem in accommodating a graduate of Bangladesh Studies in our Civil Services.

Similarly, the corporate world will, hopefully, have no problem in accepting students of Bangladesh Studies. In the corporate management of Unilever in the UK, for instance, there are numerous top level staff who graduated in History, Political Sciences, International Relations, Cultural Management, and so on. At the same time, there are reasons to believe that the NGOs in Bangladesh would warmly accept graduates in Bangladesh Studies, who will be better placed to contribute towards the ongoing development process of the country.

Before concluding, it must that asserted that efforts to develop and promote Bangladesh Studies should be integral to an overall effort to cohesively accommodate different subjects of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences in the realm of private sector higher education. Unlike in other countries, private universities in Bangladesh denote a different category.

One of the many determinants of this difference of private universities from "mainstream" universities is that the former, with few exceptions, do not offer degrees in the subjects within Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. But some private universities have reached such a height, in terms of financial stability and reputation, that they can easily afford to open full-fledged departments and offer dDegrees in diverse subjects within the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. It is time that the "private university" now transforms itself into simply a "university."

Dr Iftekhar Iqbal is a faculty member at the Department of Social Sciences, East West University.