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With a gradual decay in the education system of the country as a whole, and a flailing state of liberal arts and sciences education, leading academic Dr Belal E Baaquie, once the ‘toast of the town’ in Dhaka’s theoretical physics fraternity, and now with the National University of Singapore, talks to Mahfuz Sadique about the multifarious issues facing the practice, image and breadth of ‘the process of learning’ and the general perception of knowledge both in the country, and globally

Mahfuz Sadique (MS): As an academic involved in curriculum formulation, what is your take on the global trends in liberal arts/ sciences education at the higher education level?

Dr Belal E Baaquie (BEB):
It is widely accepted worldwide that intellectual broadening for students in majoring in all subjects is necessary to keep up with the rapid changes in global knowledge and in the job market. All students should take at least 20-30 per cent of their courses outside their field of specialisation. Almost all universities in the US have adopted this approach, and European countries are also moving in the same direction. Countries in East Asia are also adopting this approach. A pillar of higher education, in addition to intellectual broadening, is to impart critical thinking to all students. This is a bit more difficult and most elite institutions of higher learning worldwide have undertaken specific steps to inculcate critical thinking in their students.

MS: With specialisation as the driving mantra of academia today, what are the advantages of an elaborate liberal arts/ science education?

BEB: All specialisations are based on the application of the fundamental knowledge of the Arts and Sciences. For example, MBA and business specialisations in general are all offshoots of the study of economics, sociology, political science and so on. All of engineering and medical sciences are applications of the fundamental physical and life sciences. Without a sound foundation in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, a society can never master the specialised and applied forms of knowledge.

<>MS: Does the incorporation of a holistic approach to education need attention at a more rudimentary level i.e. primary and secondary?

BEB: Imparting breadth of knowledge should start at the primary and secondary schools. Reading, writing and numerical skills should be developed from the earliest age. Given the large amount of knowledge that has been generated and accumulated, specially in the 20th century, more and more educational material is being pushed down to the primary and secondary levels. A curriculum that integrates elementary schooling with higher education is becoming more and more important for successfully educating the new generation.

<><>MS: What are the basic changes required to have a globally competitive, and locally practical, education system?

<><>BEB: To be globally competitive Bangladesh first needs to emphasise on English as the medium of education for all university and higher degrees. The courses need to be designed keeping the best global practices in mind. Courses based on memorisation and book knowledge are useless as these can be replaced by having access to a good library or to the internet. Education must emphasise critical thinking and intellectual breadth.
For having education to serve local practical needs students need to have problem solving skills since local problems need unique and specific solutions. Copying solutions from other countries will not work. Solving problems creatively and with originality needs independent thinking and education should focus on imparting these intellectual skills.

<><>MS: Aptitude for the sciences and mathematics is at an all time low in Bangladesh. In fact, science education is seeing an alarming depreciation across the globe. What do you attribute this to? Is there a larger socio-economic factor contributing to this in Bangladesh?

<><>BEB: Science and mathematics are the lynchpin, the key link, in the contemporary explosion of both theoretical and applied knowledge. All of the sciences are undergoing a process of deepening quantification and mathematisation, with the current focus being on arriving at a quantitative and mathematical understanding of biology.
In this circumstance, any society that ignores science and mathematics will certainly end up by falling behind others. The global depreciation in science and mathematics is an illusion. There is enormous effort being put into the three leading and cutting edge technologies, namely information science, nanoscience and life science; all these three technologies are based on an advancing foundation of science and mathematics.
In Bangladesh the subjects that students choose to study is largely determined by the job market, which at present does not require a high level of science and mathematics. In this circumstance the leaders of the country should ensure that a sufficient number of students study science to keep up with the rapid development of world science and to train science teachers for the schools and colleges. Universities have to keep upgrading their level of science and mathematics or else face the prospect of becoming irrelevant.

<><>MS: What steps do you feel are needed to turn the tide, to induce a resurgence in a purer, knowledge-based education system?

<><><>BEB: Education moves through cycles. A few decades back engineering was quite the rage, which was replaced by computer and information sciences and with the current rage being the life sciences. There has also been a rush for students going for degrees in BBA and MBA.
A knowledge-based education needs an economy driven by research and that depends on innovations, inventions and patents for developing new technologies. It is only a matter of time that all the simple avenues for advancing the economy will be exhausted forcing society to draw upon the fundamentals of science to make further progress.
Knowledge is also an important component of the social consciousness of a society; once a society goes beyond merely bread and butter issues science becomes a major component of the culture of a society, of how the society views the universe.

<><><>MS: How big a role do you feel market dynamics plays on the education system, subject choices, curriculum formulation in today’s skill-driven corporate and professional world? Is the trend positive? What long-term implications would this trend have on the intellectual health of the nation? Or, for the world as a whole, for that matter?

<><><>BEB: The corporate world needs not only trained manpower for mid- and higher- management. There is a pressing need in the corporate world for experts having technical knowledge as well. The educational system can benefit by responding to the needs of the market. For example, given the growing importance of textiles there should be a concerted effort to develop textile technology and the sciences that contribute to this. Another great growth area for education is information science and software in general.
As long as the educational system produces graduates with real skills and knowledge, education will thrive; however if the graduates only have paper certificates with no real knowledge everyone will suffer.
The greatest danger for the world is a growing divide between those who have, and those who do not have knowledge. The exponential growth of knowledge means that all those who want to possess knowledge have to integrate an enormous amount of ‘vertical’ knowledge before they can even reach the frontiers of knowledge. This enormous integration of knowledge can be carried out successfully only if students are properly trained from early childhood uptil adult hood. If a society does not take this task seriously their members will be permanently trapped in ignorance and the concomitant social and economic backwardness.

<><><>MS: In a previous interview, you had talked about ‘intellectual corruption’ in our intelligentsia? Would you care to elaborate.

<><><><>BEB: The intelligentsia of Bangladesh has a glorious history with the University of Dhaka having been the home of many outstanding academics and alumni. A drastic decline occurred after the [War of] Liberation when both students and academics were admitted to the public Universities based on their political allegiance rather than on their merit; quality education took a serious beating. Matters have come to such a state that at present one can be a full professor in the University of Dhaka without even having a PhD degree. Something quite unheard of in any university of good standing the world over.
The reputation of academics is determined by quality of their intellectual products, be they original research or other scholarly texts. Once this criterion is given up academics, who should form the backbone of the intelligentsia, are in a state of free fall. Intellectual corruption is a term that refers to ‘intellectuals’ who hold forth on all matters without themselves having any creative and original intellecual output in their own field of specialisation. These ‘intellectuals’ should rather spend their time more fruitfully developing their own expertise.
Only those intellectuals who have studied a subject deeply should offer their views to the public; the last thing we need is so called intellectuals passing judgements on matters based on guesswork and hearsay, or worse, based on their political leanings.

<><><><><>MS: Research is almost non-existent at our higher learning platforms. Some argue that with such a dilapidated state of the education system, and also the flailing socio-economic condition of the country, research funding is ‘unwanted’ and only a novelty. What is your take on this? What areas of the sciences would you recommend to get for research funding, if at all?

<><><><><><>BEB: Research is the lifeline of higher learning. Without research higher learning will soon be out of step with the rest of the world and Bangladesh would be permanently relegated to the backwaters of the world. Research depends crucially on the leadership of the Universities and of other centres of higher learning. For example in India even the most obscure University, with funding and infrastructure much worse than say the University of Dhaka, has a few dedicated souls writing papers in international journals. A culture of research has to be fostered that recognizes and rewards research. It is up to the Universities how they organize this.
As I mentioned the three areas of science and technology that have been identified as being at the leading edge of science are nanoscience, information science and bioscience. Research funding for these three sectors, or even one of these sectors, should be organized on a national scale.

<><><><><><><>MS: The private higher education setup has expanded over the years. There has been repeated criticism of these institutions for their lack of academic diversity, stopgap ‘patchwork’ knowledge dispensing and an excessive market-driven mindset. What is your analysis of this? Are private institutions going to be the mainstay of future higher education?

<><><><><><><><>BEB: The public universities have been politicised since 1972 and are beset with unending chaos, disruption and ‘session jam’. Serious scholarship and education have taken a back seat in the public universities. This situation may be reversed in the future but at present there seems no sign of any improvement. In this circumstance, private universities represent a historic breakthrough for higher education in Bangladesh and the pioneers who made this breakthrough have done a great service to the country. There are now at least a few centres of higher learning where classes are taught seriously and regularly, and with degrees being conferred on time. Another positive factor is that all private universities use English as the medium of instruction, thus providing a lifeline to the vast body of worldwide knowledge.
Since the private universities are entirely funded from student fees, there is little option for them but be market driven, since as I mentioned earlier most students choose a subject to gain appropriate employment. To demand the private universities be comprehensive and well rounded is quite premature and unrealistic, as they simply do not have the resources or the students for such a broad curriculum. As the private universities mature, they will themselves broaden their curriculum as they will realise that a sound education requires teaching a broad range of subjects and not just job-market related subjects.
To avoid the exploitation of students by unscrupulous people setting up private universities a first step could be to allow only non-profit organisations to set up private universities. Furthermore to ensure that the courses being taught are of acceptable standard there should be some sort of quality control of both curriculum and classroom teaching, preferably involving international academics to avoid the trap of being under the sole ‘supervision’ of local corrupt officials.
Given the high cost of private universities and the huge population of Bangladesh, private universities can never be the mainstay of future higher education. Public universities need to be urgently developed since they are the mainstay of higher education and need to provide the required higher education to the youth of Bangladesh. Private universities will however continue to play a crucial role in the higher educational system. Private universities will hopefully continue to provide high-end university education that is responsive to the market and hence directly serves the economic and technological needs of the country.
I hope that in the long run the private universities will evolve into universities providing the highest quality of education, something similar to the Ivy League and other private elite universities in the US, and will complement the public universities.

<><><><><><><><><>MS: It seems there is a lack of general appreciation for knowledge. It’s almost looked down upon. Why do you think this is happening?

<><><><><><><><><><>BEB: Of the many reasons why Bangladesh has lost its respect for knowledge, other than the obvious ones such as growing materialistic tendencies, or lack of opportunities for knowledge-based endeavours, it is the chronic corruption of our intelligentsia. It is a simple matter of professionalism. Just as doctors are supposed to cure, and politicians are supposed to serve, with due professionalism, the process of gaining, gathering and practising knowledge is no trivial matter. It needs professionalism.
Well, for one, our intellectual class is doing everything else other than their primary concern: exercising intellect! Skimming off the surface, and just surviving on the stopgap materialistic solutions of consultancies, is destroying our academic community and bringing down with it the sliver of respect for knowledge and the credibility of the academics.
Here is the danger: while the masses do not need to be knowledgeable — that is not possible — it is dangerous slippery slope, when they lose respect for the finer learning, or knowledge in general. Our intelligentsia should be wary of the trend that they are losing the respect once given to them. A society that finds no purpose in knowledge is not healthy.

<><><><><><><><><><><>MS: How is knowledge and its practice perceived globally now? Is there any depreciating trend?

<><><><><><><><><><><><>BEB: While the American idea of knowledge is segregated within the elite class, the European idea is quite different. The American mass is not in touch with such matters, though their intellectual class enjoys respect, as do the general academics; in Europe, and especially in my personal experiences from staying in Paris for six months, the knowledge earns the highest pedestal of respect. They feel honoured, and appreciate the company of a knowledgeable person. In fact, in general, the Oriental philosophy also holds great respect for it, still now. In Japan, no one is more respected than a scholar.
However, I gather that this has a lot do with socio-cultural evolution. Most of the societies that respect and cherish knowledge are also economically and socially at equilibrium state, countries; whereas, developing and least-developed countries are yet to find a balance between the pursuit of materialistic gains and the scope of knowledge in that. Probably, this will need time and a strong sense of purpose.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>MS: Appreciation and inculcation of knowledge is a primary role of higher education platforms. Where is this going wrong?

<><><><><><><><><><><><> BEB: Higher education is the platform to inculcate both practical and intellectual leadership. Yet, sadly, over the decades our universities have lost touch with any of the discourses expected of a podium of ‘higher learning’. While donor-prescribed policy had just spearheaded primary and secondary education, to mixed results, a complete indifference towards the bastions of intellectual rigour — our universities — has resulted, with even further catastrophic consequences, of new leadership, be it political, economic, or social, which is devoid of intellectual rigour. Or, for that matter, even respect for it.

Published: The New Age/ September, 2006

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