|Volume 6 Issue 02| February 2012|
Going Diasporic in
RIFAT MUNIM continues his argument by looking at how differing treatments of history in different school curricula reveals its social positionalities and political connections in an economically divisive society.
In the first part of this write-up, we saw that a Bengali diasporic student in the US, as articulated in Jhumpa Lahiri's story 'When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine,' cannot access her own history; she instead is led into the glorious chapters of American independence. This denial of pedagogic access to one's history forms the essence of diasporic identity. Quite ironically, we also found that Bangladeshi students being rooted in their own motherland faces a similar situation like that of Lilia. Bangladeshi students of the English medium background, much like Lilia, are to a great extent disallowed pedagogic access to their own history. It is only recently that many English schools have been found to have incorporated a subject styled Bangladesh Studies both at O' level and in the preceding classes, which has many epochs of Bangladeshi history included. Inferring from this, we said that thousands of Bangladeshi students are going diasporic being situated in their own land. We also said that this apparently trivial fact shatters the promise made at independence in 1971, the promise of an indivisible society, identity and education policy.
In this part, however, we will look at the content and statuses of history in the curriculum of English medium schools and compare it with the content of Bengali medium schools. This attempt will remain incomplete without taking the Madrasa curriculum into consideration but that seems to go far beyond the scope of the present article for lack of space. Be that as it may, the content analysis will help us understand how differing treatment of history in a particular medium reveals its social positionalities and political connections in an economically divisive society. It will explain why successive governments have done virtually nothing to bring all the three mediums under the same roof and announce an identical curriculum for all. It will also put into perspective the implications of this division in the broader social context especially when we are celebrating the 40th year of our independence and the 60th year of our Language Movement.
While working on the content of history in English medium schools, I personally talked with a whole lot of pre-, post- and current O' and A' level students. They have come from some of the most reputed English medium schools. Most of the post- and A' level students never heard of a course styled Bangladesh Studies while some were aware of it. The picture at the O' level and in the preceding classes was a little better. But those aware of it, in fact each of them, had a different story to tell. The following is what they shared.
Some have it as a core course from Class 6 to Class 8 while some for the O' level. Some have it only at O' level as an optional course which is why most students do not go for it. Some have had it till Class 5 but cannot retrieve the content now. Some have Social Studies instead, which is the English version of the Bengali medium NCTB textbook Samaj Bigyan, as a core course from Class 3 to O' level. Although I could not manage to cover all the reputed schools in this way, the partial result I had from my talks is proof enough that there is no uniformity in this recent introduction. There are numerous English medium schools in Dhaka but instead of all of them having a common curriculum with regard to Bangladesh Studies, they are seen to seek many different approaches. This proves how the absence of any government or non-government body exerting authority over this system has rendered it utterly non-uniform. Although the registered schools fall within the government's ambit, the latter has no control over the kind of curriculum the former should adopt.
Nevertheless, several textbooks under the title Bangladesh Studies (BS) are now available for both Cambridge and Edexcel syllabuses. The preface to one such book, meant for students from Class VI to VIII, begins more on a practical note than a patriotic one. It says, "Holistic education aims to develop the young students as well-rounded global citizens, deeply rooted in their local history, culture and environment. Therefore, a balanced curriculum emphasizes exploring both national and international perspectives. The best way to ensure this balance in the knowledge and understanding of the wider world is to build a sound and solid foundation in our own national geography, history, heritage and culture." The book has three chapters: Geography, History, and Heritage and Culture. The chapter titled History begins from the India-Pakistan war in 1965 and is extended to post-independence political events including the dictatorial rulers. In between it incorporates Bangabandhu's six-point programme, the mass uprising in 1969, the general election in 1970 and the Pakistan army crackdown on March 25 leading to the war of independence. Apart from the short as well as inadequate treatment of each of the aforementioned epochs, this book utterly falls short of capturing the expanded range of our history which roughly traces as far back as the 4th century BC.
Another Cambridge BS book meant for the O' level offers a better picture in this connection. History comes first among four of its segments including culture and environment. Beginning with a topic titled Pre-Mughal Bengal which goes back to the 4th century BC; it touches upon the Mughal period, British period, Pakistan period and Bangladesh's independence. Although this book casts its net much wider, treatment of each epoch is again compressed given its accommodation with three other segments in a not-so-fat book. The Edexcel book sharing the same title for O' level casts all but the same focus as the previous book.
It is undoubtedly a very positive initiative on the part of many of the English medium schools that they have urgently felt the necessity of introducing students to our culture and history. Yet, based on what we have just learnt from their content, we can decisively say that what they are offering is but a fragmented version of our history, that too being marked by a lack of uniformity in terms of dispensation. Putting history in a book with other subjects does not seem unwarranted altogether. Recently in Bengali medium too, history has been absorbed as a segment into a new subject called Social Studies which is composed of three or four such segments. Educationists and intellectuals have viewed this move as a step in the wrong direction and as the one that undermines the status of history. Nevertheless, in the Bengali medium there is uniformity in terms of curriculum and dispensation as well. All students in this medium have to go through the same content in the same class. On top of that, in most cases English schools do not offer history as a continuous process of learning and instead shoves it hastily into one book catering to only one class. On the other hand, besides some preliminary lessons in the primary level, history in Bengali medium is offered separately in each class ranging from Class VI to Class VIII, though, as part of Social Studies. This not only allows more space for elaborating on every epoch but also makes it a continuous process wherein a student has a chance to associate his past and present lessons. Seen from this angle, English schools adopting BS for three or four classes at a stretch are doing a good job.
As it turns out, despite this positive introduction, lack of uniformity compounded with poor content leaves the objective of building students' solid foundation in national history largely unfulfilled. Except for students of some selected schools who, too, obtain a fragmented knowledge of their own history; the majority of them complete O' and A' level with virtually no knowledge of it. Resultantly, an acute form of cultural alienation is only expected, alienation from the mainstream culture, its festivities and so on. With such orientation towards one's history in a Europeanised world, there is little chance that one will evince any sense of patriotism.
This is where they precisely share Lilia's experience and this is also where they sharply differ from her. One should not miss the paradox here: What Lilia is forced into is embraced by them. Lilia's alienation was necessitated by the process of acculturation; she was kind of forced to adapt to a new culture for her survival. In the case of our Bangladeshi students, on the other hand, this alienation does not make them as hapless; it rather puts a tag on them and shapes their identity by differentiating them from the masses and by placing them in the highest tier of society. Therefore, English medium is not only about education but also about cultural supremacy which in turn is inextricably linked to economic division. The colonising mission is thus striking back, not in the form of military aggression; it is now striking as a ghost which, feeding long on the colonial residues has come to possess the rich. An astute ghost, one is apt to point out.
With the deepening of economic division, in purely Marxist terms, more of the farmers and workers belonging to the lowest tier become homeless and unemployed while more of the middle or higher middle class jump up the ladder. Consequently, the latter chooses English medium whereas the former resort to Madrasas. Growth of these two mediums is in fact the cultural manifestation of the underlying economic divide. As the fruit of this divide benefits the rich who with their assets cast a spell over the state, the government has never tried to assume control over the English schools. The government recently brought all private Bengali schools to heel in matters of increasing admission fees under a new admission policy yet not a single word was said or raised about the relevance of a similar policy in English medium schools all of which are also non-government. Media, as if in collusion with the English schools, also maintained an uncanny silence about this.
What we ideally need is the absorption of the three mediums into an indivisible Bengali one wherein English and religious education should be integrated. But 40 years after independence, elimination of the peripheral mediums seems virtually impossible for reasons explained above. As long as economic disparities are there, the cultural divide in the form of opposing mediums of education will widen.
The education minister's vision of a unified schooling system promised a lot of hope. But the socio-political reasons must have stood in his way. In spite of the obstacles, what we immediately need is the mainstreaming of the peripheral mediums. A' level students either try to go abroad or opt for private universities. In spite of their different orientation, when they try to enter public universities which represent the mainstream; they truly find themselves in a hapless state because the whole process of university admission including the test questionnaire is designed mainly for the mainstream. The state approves of a peripheral medium and at the same time denies its students adequate space to get into public universities. This is a hypocritical stance on the state's part. Seen from their vantage point, English medium students are falling victim to the state's biased education policy. As lawful citizens of this country, they are entitled to equal treatment from all public institutions. Although there are thousands of them graduating from public universities, their percentage is far lower than those of the Bengali medium students.
A good point to start is to ensure a uniform curriculum for English schools that will make the study of our history, heritage and culture mandatory and give it as much focus as the Bengali schools. Discrepancy between syllabuses of different mediums should also be bridged as much as is possible. In addition to this, the government should work jointly with the British Council to arrange programmes wherein students of English schools will interact with the masses and also with their Bengali counterparts. There should be major cultural programmes and sports events to unite them. This will help them merge with the mainstream. Then formation of a new public university is a must to put students from differing mediums on a common platform so that they can work out all their differences.
This is a continuation of the article published in the January issue of Forum.
Rifat Munim works with the editorial department at The Daily Star.
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