Of SSC results, of the generational torch . . .
Syed Badrul Ahsan
A thrillingly large number of young men and women, as we observed last week, have crossed the school leaving bar this year. The number of those who have emerged successful from their Secondary School Certificate examinations, we have known, is staggering. No fewer than 70.41 per cent of those appearing at the examinations have qualified for further studies at the college level. A significantly high number among them have scored what we now know as GPA-5. By all means that is a remarkable achievement and we are all happy because the students and their guardians and their teachers are happy.
When the young do well in academic pursuits, when through all the darkness around us there happens to be some light at the end of our long tunnel, we tell ourselves that our future is likely safe, that we have little to worry about.
And yet there are quite a few reasons for worry. And those reasons, just so you have not noticed, lie embedded in the manner in which the young, be they in school or in college, choose to pursue their studies these days. The alacrity with which tutors outside the classroom have taken charge of the young, the briskness with which parents in the urban centres of the country cough up money to have their children come in touch with what they think are the best teachers in town are perfect reasons for us to question the mode of education we appear to have developed in this country.
Again, that mode we speak of can be broken down into quite a few sub-modes, one being the system that is at work in the rural interior of the country. It is hardly surprising, and for some of us it may come as something rather startling, that under the umbrella of what passes for a system of education in Bangladesh today, we are clearly into the business of giving shape to an elitism that may be ignoring the needs of the villages.
We of course refer to the gap, a rather widening one, that segregates those young who go looking for education in their villages from those who pursue it in the cities. And the gap is quite telling. Even in a year when ecstasy underscores our celebrations of this year's SSC results, there is the disturbing truth of how badly the young in our village schools have fallen behind.
Most of the 30 percent or so students who were unable to leap across the school leaving bar this year inhabit villages. And many of the schools that recorded not a single instance of student success are located in our villages.
That is the unvarnished truth. The initiative for the future, it is clear, is slipping into the hands of a localised, small and self-contained urban class. Or perhaps the slip has occurred already. You notice the intake into the professions -- government, business firms, non-government bodies, universities -- and you realise with something of discomfiture that the vast majority of those coming into professional life, those with promise of a fast track rise, are from an essentially urban background.
There used to be a time when academic brilliance was a general feature in the lives of the village young. Poverty and hard work and driving ambition (and there was absolutely no question of private tutors marring the arrangement) were light unto the future. And that is how men made it to the Indian civil service (in the days before the vivisection of India) and then into the Central Superior Service of Pakistan.
Much a similar instance, though not all of it, characterised the Bangladesh Civil Service after 1971 (though excellence has by now taken a horrific slide). You name any illustrious individual from your parents' generation. Chances are you will trace the story of that man's life from humble beginnings in a rustic clime and go up all the way to his becoming part of a global stage.
But that is not how things happen any more. The old teachers who took keen and relentless pride in the business of enlightening the young in the villages are an extinct species. The partition of 1947 led, quite naturally, to an exodus of teachers, all from the Hindu community, to the other side of the bitter frontier. It happened again, in 1950. The residue, of good Muslim teachers, in time was lost to us through the simple rules of mortality.
Today, conditions have come to a pass where only a miracle can help us locate a man or a woman able to teach good, flawless English or mathematics in our village schools. Does it not make you wonder that a staggering 80 percent of those who could not make it at the SSC this year stumbled over English or mathematics or both? And why or how did that happen? The answer is not that these young people had only no private coaching of the kind their peers in the urban regions have had, but is also in the fact that few qualified teachers, those in command of their subjects, have made their way into their classrooms in recent years.
A drastic fall has been there in the quality of teaching. Then again, there have been conditions where teaching in crucial subjects has been conspicuous by its absence because there simply are no teachers to be had.
It all boils down to the question of a decline, a moral as well as cultural one. On a bigger perspective, what you have here is a society that is clearly and unashamedly turning its back on its villages, indeed on the great traditions that once went into the shaping of its social and cultural heritage.
Schools in the rural environment are losing out in every way. There are precious few schools with libraries left; the information technology which is fast taking over increasingly wider swathes of academic territory in the cities is yet to make any inroad in the schools dotting the dusty paths of our villages; the much vaunted progress in rural literacy is not walking but limping.
Add to that the many wrong turnings taken down the road, all per courtesy of anti-politics: the establishment of schools on partisan considerations, the peopling of school committees by men known for intellectual opacity or worldly banality. And do not forget the low pay and lower self-esteem of the teaching community. They have come all the way to the nation's capital, to ask for a raise; and they have been ignored, beaten and compelled to go back home with little to show for triumph.
You cannot wish away the feeling that the future of this country, like its past, is indelibly linked to its villages and hamlets. You may glorify your towns and cities; you can carouse and revel in the knowledge that your schools in the cities have been making quantum leaps in achieving spectacular academic results. But do not forget that the young man beside his father in the field and the young woman rationing the light from her lamp in the hut for reasons of austerity are the bearers of the generational torch.
The rickshawpuller's son who has done well at the SSC, through all his parents' pains and through all his silent tears, also deserves to be celebrated, to be reassured that the future is his to claim as well.
Scrape away this growing elitism from education and take it back to this entirety of a country. That way, there is a good chance you will be promoting social justice for all.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.