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December 1998 - Issue No. #33 (p.9)

Perspectives on Education in Bangladesh

by William M. Balsamo

Kenmei Women's Jr. College, Himeji, Japan

With a literacy rate of 42%, Bangladesh is a developing nation which realizes the need for education to serve as a foundation for economic growth. During the summer of 1998, which brought devastating floods, I was able to travel to the country, visit some schools and meet students and educators eager to learn, share and lead their country into the next century.

In the city of Dhaka, I first visited St. Gregory's High School. Although Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim culture, many respected educational institutions are Christian mission schools dating back to the time of colonialism. Because of their excellence, they have been permitted to continue and today produce many of the leaders and intellects of the country. As in Japan, students at mission schools in Bangladesh come to get an education rather than religious conversion or spiritual instruction. Most students are Muslim or Hindu but enroll to take advantage of the benefits of a private education. They come mostly from middle and lower-middle class families and enter professions which service the public sector.

St. Gregory's is a small school with motivated students and a dedicated staff. Yet, unlike schools in the West, which are filled with technological equipment and teaching aids, St. Gregory's reflects the poverty of the country. The classrooms are small and crowded, with few resources for classroom teaching. Language classes lack tape recorders, cassette tapes and TVs. There are no language or chemistry labs. The classroom walls are undecorated and lack posters, maps and charts. The method of instruction is the traditional lecture by the instructor and note taking by students. The school's office doesn't have an adequate copy machine and the teachers lament that they have no access to computers or to e-mail.

However, there is a live and active spirit within the school itself. I was allowed to meet with one of the upper English classes and was impressed with their attention, discipline and the respect they demonstrated to their teachers. What impressed me most of all were the questions they asked me, which were intelligent, alert and informed. These were students about 17 years old who were taught by traditional language methods. They always raised their hands and stood by their desks when asked a question. They were not at all shy and were curious, especially about politics and culture. There was no need for the teacher to serve as a translator.

In the evening, I visited Notre Dame College, perhaps the most respected private college in Dhaka. Most students commute to school but at Mathis Hall, there's a dormitory for students who come from outside Dhaka. These students support themselves and supplement their tuition by working at the college and helping to maintain the premises. Although no scholarships are given, the students maintain the upkeep of the buildings and take care of the grounds in exchange for room and board. There is also a night school for students who work by day and a special program for students living in the slum quarters of the city who come to learn skills such as small scale farming and gardening.

At the time of the floods, the campus was converted into a refugee camp for those who had lost their homes in the crisis. There were over 200 families situated on the grounds of the college and the students of Mathis Hall helped administer to these people with food and medicine. This conversion of a college into a refugee camp served as a good example of how an educational institution could be converted into a haven for humanitarian causes. For the students, the lesson extended beyond the classroom; for education to lead to growth, it must be willing to embrace the needs of the larger community.

Several days later I visited St. Placid's High School and St. Scholastica's Convent in Chitta-gong, a city 200 kilometers east of Dhaka. St. Placid's, though a high school, runs a program for disadvantaged village children who learn how to sew, make simple clothes and train to be tailors. The children are young, but have a sense of pride and willingness to learn. St. Scholastica has a school, orphanage and nursery, all geared to serving the community.

Bangladesh television is far behind in providing quality educational programs for their people. There is nothing that even approaches the extent of educational television in the West. Occasionally there will be a program which deals with a health problem or social condition but these are quite limited. This is further complicated by the reality that not every family has access to a TV and TVs are not available in most schools.

One complaint by parents involves school teachers who withhold instruction from students in the classroom so that students will take private classes from them in their homes. This supplements their income and stems from the low salaries earned by public school teachers.

It's difficult to assess an entire school system based on observations of a half-dozen schools, but teachers and parents recognize the importance of a solid education based on math reading and sciences for their country's future.

Schools and teachers are in need of teaching aids in any form, especially maps, charts, used textbooks and other tools which we take for granted. The schools in this article may be contacted at the following addresses:

St. Gregory's High School, 82 Municipal Office Street, Luxmi Bazar, Dhaka, Bangladesh 1100
Notre Dame College, Box No. 5, Dhaka, Bangladesh 1000
St. Placid's High School, Pathegata, Box 152, Chittagong, Bangladesh 4000
St. Scholastica Convent, Pathegata, Chittagong, Bangladesh 4000


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