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OP-ED: Global knowledge index and Bangladesh: Sad but not shocking

  • Published at 07:05 pm February 26th, 2021
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Bangladesh is sorely lacking in two essentials: Freedom of inquiry, and independent self-regulation of an academic enterprise

The recent placement of Bangladesh in the rock bottom in the region in the Global Knowledge Index is painful to me as an educator. Nonetheless, it is not surprising to me as a stone cold realist. 

Even as Bangladesh has spawned organizations dubiously called “universities” and “research organizations” at a rate only this side of the speed of light, the shallow substance of these organizations -- barring an extreme few like North South University and Brac University’s Grant School of Public Health -- is well known to many, and whispered in closed quarters lest powerful official forces with unchecked powers over life and death be offended. 

Between a reliance on myths, self-congratulatory zeal about exceptions, absence of meaningful space for critical analysis of state-mandated narratives, and utter corruption of scholarly enterprise, the real shock should be that Bangladesh ranks anywhere in any global index of intellectual prowess.

The mythical exhortation about Dhaka University (DU) being some “Oxford of the East” is a dubious laurel around which too many lectures, editorials, and essays have been crafted with supreme intellectual dishonesty since the moniker merely referred to, almost a century ago, the similarity of the two institutions being both residential. 

Nor was Dhaka’s the only university to share that “distinction.” Even in South Asia, several universities, including the ones in Pune and Allahabad, pride themselves as “Oxfords of the East.” Please, let that false sense of ego go, along with the fallacy that English can be replaced as the language of learning at anything beyond the undergraduate level.

It is often said that acknowledgment of a problem is the first step to its eventual resolution. 

Unfortunately, by constantly highlighting the odd Buet alumnus who got a paper published in some international journal or the singular Jahangirnagar alumna who got accepted at a graduate program at a prestigious American university, what is deliberately avoided is the fact that for an overwhelming majority of graduates of the vast majority of universities in Bangladesh, academic rigour takes a decidedly secondary priority compared to finding some job in the public sector where merit is a litmus test only in a theoretical sense. 

Put bluntly, outside of a few institutions like DU’s IBA, which zealously guards its standards, most general universities simply do the mere minimum to get their alums the sheepskin to get them to be eligible to sit for this or that public service examination.

The ordinary student or the average professor should not be blamed for this state of affairs. These individuals are simply trying their best to survive in an environment where the foundation of scholarship -- critical inquiry -- is under siege. This is especially true in the humanities and the social sciences, where positing the uncomfortable question, making the unpopular conjecture, and pursuing the unpalatable line of hypothesis is the lifeblood of adding to the body of knowledge in each of the respective discipline areas. 

Thanks to draconian laws with sweet sounding names and to unwritten prohibitions by shadowy state actors, large parts of the realm of knowledge in history, political science, and linguistics have been effectively shut off for scholarly practice by academics and, thus, for the development of critical thinking skills by their pupils. 

When you cannot question settled orthodoxy or mandated narratives, the development of knowledge atrophies until the skills of practitioners become humorous shadows of what might have been.

Except that such humour comes at the cost of the reputation of institutions and the long-term prospect of the students and younger scholars affiliated with those institutions. With few academic integrity safeguards independent of the ruling party and its student wing, it is hardly a shock to notice that every year another handful of “professors” are caught in their plagiarism by international monitors who do not care whether some newly -- and phonily -- minted “PhD” was a darling of those in power. 

The fallout of these scandals disproportionately affect those who, though innocent, are now painted with the stigma of being affiliated with universities or think-tanks where theft of intellectual property is passed off with a wink and a nod.

The growth of knowledge and its sustenance requires as a sine qua non two non-negotiable musts: Freedom of inquiry, and independent self-regulation of the academic enterprise. 

Both of these conditions are sorely lacking in Bangladesh for more than a decade. 

Without addressing these two proverbial elephants in the room, I am afraid Bangladesh is destined to be wallowing in the minor leagues when it comes to knowledge output. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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