On Reading of Daffodils

When I first got to England in 1951, I looked out and there were Wordsworth’s daffodils. Of course, what else would you expect to find? That’s what I knew about. That is what trees and flowers meant. I didn’t know the names of the flowers I had left behind in Jamaica.

– Stuart Hall

On July 22, 2014, the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education (DSHE) submitted a draft-proposal to the Bangladeshi High Court titled “Private English Medium School and College Student Admission Policy 2013.” The policy proposes dividing up private English-medium schools and colleges in the country into three categories, and fixing admission and tuition fees accordingly. This move has been a long-time coming (the initial act was drafted in 2007) and will effectively codify a class-system among the private-schools, which my own experiences have taught me is predisposed to hierarchy and snobbery.

I studied at Scholastica for most of my youth, an English-medium school which used to validate itself as the most expensive – and therefore the best – private-school in the country before the ISDs and AISDs came to Dhaka. I admit my English-medium education has something to do with me pursuing a PhD in English. I also admit that I genuine love what I study and am grateful for the things I have learned over the course of my higher studies. But at the risk of spouting sour-grapes I am certain the education students received at Scholastica is an obscenity. It only made us believe we are entitled to the best our society and our money offers, and that we are free to live outside of our traditions – good or bad they may be. It taught that we owe the world nothing; we only owe ourselves our own success. Many of my schoolmates now live and work in the West, in countries where English is the tongue-of-life and liberal capitalism its soul (waxing nostalgic about things Bangladeshi in their idle moments). Facts that speaks more than I could put into words.

To understand the effects our English-medium schools have on its students is important to consider how much the medium of English and, more importantly, the GSCE curriculum had to do with the deracination most in my class experienced. The American philosopher John Dewey surmised almost a century ago that effective schooling – and education as such – had to be primarily-based on the local society in which such institutions were situated. Within such an argument, the English-medium schools’ GCSE-based curriculum is problematic because it is endemically non-local; its functionality as a global curriculum and its required observation of British educational standards make it impossible to adapt for Bangladesh’s particular needs.

Rabindranath Tagore, in a sagacious lecture delivered at the Rajshahi Association in 1893, expressed similar ideas and certain points he made about the colonial education appartus are tellingly still pertinent to schooling oriented towards the GCSE. He pointed out those educated through the schools and colleges run by the British administration generally avoided admitting their lack of language capacities in Bangla. Rather they mealy-mouthed that Bangla was not suitable for the well-educated because it was incapable of expressing sophisticated ideas. “It’s natural to ignore a desire for grapes if we can’t afford them,” said old Robi-thakur poetically. “We console ourselves over this bereftment by thinking the fruit bitter, even if we might mostly do this subconsciously.”

I personally uttered exactly such lazy excuses when I did not know better. “Bangla is not what I speak inside,” I told my parents when I was in Class 1 or 2. “It is not a good language. I think in English if I want to think well and then I translate it in Bangla when I speak.” While these sentiments ought to be excused as the thinking of an immature mind, what is of concern is that this is the basic assumption for English-medium schools. “What are you going to do?” My mother replies when asked why we were sent to Scholastica. “There has to be a way to maintaining social hierarchies. I thought it was best that you mixed with others from your own class. It is also true that it is impossible to do without English and those in the upper-classes need to know it because it is the language of the world. There is no other way to be a part of the world.”

Possibly it is presumptuous to say my mother, a retired doctor, former Chair of the Department of Medicine at Dhaka Medical College and former professor of Medicine at Bangladesh Sheikh Mujib Medical University, is wrong, but she indeed is wrong. So are also the parents sending their children to schools like Scholastica on the assumption that one needs a particular type of English (with Western-pronunciation) and a Western-curriculum to grow-up as cosmopolitan citizens. Bangladeshi society has changed dramatically in the last few decades and it is now genuinely possible to teach English appropriately, and inculcate a generation knowledgeable and skillful in managing global and local cultures in ways exigent to our time and for successful careers in technical and intellectual professions.

The first development to note is the fairly recent reforms towards standardizing the country’s education system. One of the initiatives under this is the idea of the English-medium under the national curriculum. This is not a radically new notion and has been actually been practiced by some of the private Bangla-medium schools for several years now. A few of my friends attended such schools and they have always struck me as better capable in negotiating both languages than me. “We used to study as one batch till Class 11,” Shefa, an alum of St. Joseph, says. “After that students would move into different sections – either English or Bangla. Those in the English sections would study English versions of the same books we studied in the Bangla sections. It wasn’t very different. I had friends in the English sections. We might have had different classes, but played in the same fields during tiffin. A lot of them do really well because they are both good at English and have a strong background in sciences.”

Bangladeshis studying in the hard sciences or Engineering at my university tell similar stories. Almost all studied in English-medium under the national curriculum and say that their experiences learning English enabled them to communicate more easily at the university level. Most never have trouble with the professional component of their education. “The level of math and chemistry we had to do here is so easy,” explains Arif, a doctoral student in Petroleum Engineering at Penn State University. “English was a major concern for me. But once I came here and got engaged with the work I realized that we learned a lot about English at St. Joseph. It really hasn’t been an issue for me.”

The second development is a professionalizing of the teaching career apparent in our educational system. If I might point out the most serious flaw in schools such as Scholastica it is that, as well meaning as they were, our teachers lacked sufficient pedagogical training. Most were upper-class wives who worked because they needed something to do while their babus were at school and their husbands occupied with work. The damage such dilettantes enacted on our plastic minds was immeasurable. Their unstructured (especially those without years of practical experience) instructions neither inculcated the habits of inquisitiveness nor the value of problem solving. What they taught was class-based pieties: listen to your elders, mix with your own kinds, maintain the appearances of faith, those who are good students are naturally so and those who aren’t aren’t also because of natural capabilites, etc. None of these are things one ought to learn at school. We grew up aspiring to be elites without the force of mind and an ethic of mindful work that I suspect has to be the distinction between the meritorious and the rest.

The Nordic countries, bastions of humane-liberalism and the welfare-state, and the richest Asian countries recruit teachers from those with the best academic credentials. Their requirements for and treatment of teachers are comparable to the types of results and training generally needed by medical doctors. Their education policies yield measurable results (their students continuously top the PISA rankings) and are unabashedly envied even by the US – a country which spends a lot more per child on education. For the first time in Bangladesh’s history we also have a similar opportunity to recruit properly trained and capable teachers for our schools. The recent ground-swell of university-educated teaching aspirants have meant that private schools can recruit staff who have excellent academic results, are certified to teach and have basic practicum training. While staffing our schools with such a body of educators is nott a panacea for the problems of private-school I hope if properly guided and supported by those more experienced, they will be make the situation a little better.

And thirdly is of course the internet. I am supposedly of the generation of digital-natives and therefore it is not especially surprising that I would see the internet as natural as running water. But I certainly do not buy into a lot of the marketing around the world wide web – that free information is all we need to solve all the social ills of the world. What I do believe though is that education as such can benefit a lot from the use of digital media and all that it affords. Students of the private English-medium schools easy access to computers and in fact most of the things about the global they interact with actively (as apposed to TV, which is passive) is through the internet. Therefore English is something they interact with everyday not just in terms of communication, but in terms of literacy. They deal with the written word and the practices of the web, and therefore are able to access information in ways inconceivable even ten years ago.

For the first time it is possible to inculcate students in Bangladesh in English discourse centered on Bangladeshi society and South Asia in general with a volume of quality texts available through the internet. In addition to the classics of literature, English-medium schools can now start exposing its students to English writings on national issues that do not have to rely on one or two newspapers. Not only are blogs such as Aludulal, Sanchayaatan, etc. pertinent to issues related to this country, they are generally also written well-enough so that teachers trained in grammar translation can utilize them to go that route of language instruction if they chose. It is also a plus that blogs also eschews the lazy politics that often malign our papers (making up for it with opinions), and most of this generation of students might find the easy and ubiquitous access to those text more palatable than lugging around big texts books.

The epigraph I start this essay is taken by a remark made by the late-Stuart Hall. In it he explained that he memorized Wordsworth’s canonical poem and knew English trees and flowers long before he ever learned the name of any of the flora in his native Jamaica. Rather than Hibiscus shrubs it was the yellow sun of the daffodil that signified to Hall “what flowers and trees meant.” My own lexicon of flora and fauna is similarly jaundiced by my Western education. I would be hard pressed to name even five native flowers of Bangladesh, and it is only now that I am a lot older that I realize that somehow the green of this country is – even if forests in the US can be just as lush – somehow deeper and darker. I don’t know what exactly is the meaning of this depth, but I think it would have been nicer to know some of the works of Jibananda Das or Jasimuddin growing up to help understand it.

A version of this piece can be found here http://newagebd.net/48498/on-reading-of-daffodils-part-i/#sthash.LZZ3Mdl6.k8VeJBOk.dpbs.

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