If a social order fails to grasp the importance of education and scholarly contributions, a university will no longer function as a lighthouse
The film titled A Beautiful Mind (2001) is based on the life of John Nash, the famous American mathematician who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics. The film begins with a scene showing the speech of a professor of the prestigious Princeton University during an orientation program for new students of the Mathematics Department.
The professor concludes his eloquent and inspiring speech by saying: "Now, who among you will be the next Morse? The next Einstein? Who among you will be the vanguard of democracy, freedom, and discovery? Today, we bequeath America's future into your able hands. Welcome to Princeton, gentlemen."
The professor's words sum up succinctly the prime concern of a university ― to keep students engaged in the pursuit of profundity and knowledge. A university education enables students to think discerningly and to have ingenuity and intellectual complexity.
When Dhaka University is on the verge of celebrating its centenary, it is necessary to examine the question whether the most prestigious academic institution of the country strives with total sincerity these days in fulfilling its fundamental functions.
Once Dhaka University was much revered for its excellent academic standards. Is Dhaka University's success satisfactory at the moment in instilling a sense of responsibility among students for cultivation of knowledge?
When new students begin their academic journey at this university do they come across inspiring questions such as who among them would be the next Satyendra Nath Bose, Muhammad Shahidullah, Qazi Motahar Husain, Govinda Chandra Dev, or Munier Chowdhury?
Or is interest in scholars so uncommon nowadays that many students depart Dhaka University upon completion of their studies without ever knowing the names of the eminent educationists who taught in this university in the past?
In recent years, Dhaka University came under criticism for multiple reasons such as its failure to earn a respectable ranking among the Asian universities, teachers' lack of initiative to carry out extensive research, intimidation and coercion of general students in the dormitories by the ruling party student wing, close association of the university teachers with the political leaders etc.
Dhaka University's failure to be recognized as one of the leading universities in Asia indicates that its academic standards and research projects fall far short of the required level of excellence at the moment. However, we should bear in mind that a university is not an island and the existing standard of the society is reflected in the performance and activities of the university too.
Professor Abdur Razzaq rightly said the expectation that the university would continue to maintain a standard of probity and integrity without being affected by the values prevailing in the rest of the society is not realistic. The university will merely show in more marked form the same kind of values which exist in the society.
When we witness a fall in the academic standards of Dhaka University we need to raise a question about whether current social trends influence young people to read books and acquire knowledge. The habit of reading books went into decline in our society since the advent of cable television and social networking sites.
Before commencing their university studies if young people are not encouraged by their family members, teachers, and also by the mass media to prioritize the task of attaining knowledge rather than indulging in mindless entertainment, it is not easy within a few academic years at the university to ensure their spontaneous engagement with the activities that help broaden their horizons.
Nowadays, in our country, specific cadres in the civil service provide greater security, social status, power, and financial benefit than many other jobs. A lot of students are now eager to get one of such government positions.
Such a desire makes many of them devote more time and energy in their university life to taking preparation for civil service examination, instead of putting in much effort to develop a critical understanding of their discipline.
The institution at the highest level of education is supposed to make enormous demands on students to ensure that they gain intellectual complexity through their deeper engagement with meticulous study and research. But a rigorous approach to maintain high academic standards is only adopted when a university turns into an intellectual powerhouse by placing emphasis on academic excellence. Meritorious teachers, with astonishing academic achievements, will be frustrated if they see that superior academic credentials do not seem to be the principal determinant in occupying key positions and for obtaining promotions at the university.
From the reminiscence of Professor Razzaq we know that in the past Dhaka University teachers were very strict about giving marks in examinations. It was necessary for a student to demonstrate outstanding academic insight to obtain a first class. If a student needed just one mark to get a first class, the teachers were not willing to give that mark thinking that the student did not belong to the level of first class.
Therefore, in the past, the quality of a graduate holding a first class from Dhaka University was beyond any question. But at present, due to a tendency to mark generously, many students get first class in Dhaka University. Despite their good grades, questions can be raised on whether their depth of knowledge and language skill are commendable.
If obtaining a first class becomes very easy, even average sort of individuals will become teachers of the most renowned university of the country by dint of their good results. If mediocre people with no predilection for teaching and research are recruited as teachers, the students will not come across thought-provoking and informative lectures, and gradually they will lose interest in delving deeper into their academic topics.
Inadequate allocation of money for education in the national budget every year has something to do with the decline of standards in the academic institutions of the country. Dhaka University has been criticized for the dearth of research. But the fact needs to be taken into account that Dhaka University does not receive sufficient funds from the government which is required to undertake extensive research.
Academic resources and facilities of the libraries of Dhaka University are still not anywhere near the services available in top-ranking universities of the world. Dhaka University also does not have enough student halls to accommodate its increasing numbers of students. The dormitory rooms often become crammed with lots of residents and such a living condition hardly seems suitable for private study and even for sleeping well. The food provided in the dormitories is not up to the mark often. How can we expect that facing such adverse circumstances students and teachers would be able to contribute effectively to the development of the academic standards of the university?
It also needs to be mentioned that from 1921 to 2020 the number of students of Dhaka University rose to more than 30,000 from 877, whereas the size of Dhaka University was reduced from 600 acres to 223 acres. This shows that Dhaka University gradually loses the advantages that it used to enjoy in its early years.
If the social order cannot perceive the importance of education and scholarly contributions, a university will no longer function as a lighthouse. In case of continuing neglect of quality education in the country, people will fail to realize the value of important attributes such as intellectual depth, cultivated aesthetic taste, and a critical consciousness.
If we want to see Dhaka University play a crucial role in making people aware of the distinction between right and wrong, radiance and darkness, the academics of this institution must remain conscious about the dignity and responsibility of teachers and the necessity of rejecting obsequiousness and lack of quality. Only through steadfast adherence to academic integrity and social responsibility can Dhaka University restore and retain its missing glory.
Dr Naadir Junaid is Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.