Space For Rent

Space For Rent
Tuesday, August 11, 2015, Shraban 27, 1422 BS, Shawal 25, 1436 Hijr

A school, a headmaster, and two teachable incidents
Tapan Chakrabarty
Published :Tuesday, 11 August, 2015,  Time : 12:00 AM  View Count : 339
As I grew older, I saw the world more, I experienced more, and I knew more. I realized there was a difference between 'what should have done' and 'what actually had been done'. Nowadays, every time I compare that incident with what I experienced in life myself, elsewhere, and heard happening to others, my respect level goes up for that outwardly simple, but inwardly sublime educator. That twilight in the school veranda, headmaster set an example for Idris, his hostel superintendent, and me, although he was not aware of my presence. The example was simple in action, but profound in its significance. Merit and performance were important to him. Nepotism, pettiness, or prejudices had no place in his school. That Idris, although recruited by him, must compete fair and square for his class position.
That was an MS teachable incident worth treasuring and sharing for the good of not only schools, colleges, and universities, but also of workplaces, anywhere, and of the society at large.
The school final results in the following three years proved the sagacious headmaster was right. Idris continued to slump in upper classes. Humayun Kabir, another recruit from another village, secured the second place. (Recruiting students, like Idris and Humayun, from other schools was headmaster's modus operandi to create competition in the classroom, very much like what US universities would do for athletics or sports, decades later.) I, raised by a widow mother with no income, and despite suffering from malnutrition-related sicknesses, continued to retain my top position, and placed very high in the class-ten (SSC) board exam. My Bengali marks in SSC were unprecedentedly high, again justifying headmaster's decision in the veranda, three years earlier.
It was also in the SSC that I had my first bitter dose of discrimination from a person in power. Headmaster, himself a beacon of fairness, had to break the bad news that my position had been lowered by an education board official one place below that of his son, who was no better than an above-average student in his school. My faith and being fatherless were cited by headmaster as being two reasons for the discriminatory action. Nepotism placed ahead of fairness in that education board that year and did again two years later in the class-12 (HSC) exam.
Headmaster was more disheartened than me by the SSC discrimination. He saw two victims: the school that was his life and his fatherless student, whose father's last words to him were: 'Please look after these two [my brother and me] after I'm gone.' With moist eyes, headmaster caressed my shoulder, like a helpless father comforting his crestfallen son, and said: 'Baba (affectionate calling of a son), you have tenacity of purpose. You'll do well.' Only 15 then, I barely understood what and how he meant. But I also knew, he should have known, since spotting positive traits in students was one of his strengths.
That trait and that encouragement helped me jump over hurdles after hurdles on the obstacle course of this cruel life, eventually becoming the first of Bangladeshi origin to complete marathons in all seven continents (Wonder of Bangladesh, 14 June, 2015, Prothom Alo). An accomplishment at age 64, with a weakening cardiovascular system, even the great Headmaster WP might not have envisioned --- at least not by a sickly student, whom he once attempted to cure with a drink of water, after blessing it with Arabic prayer lines, in that sacred veranda.
With WP at the helm, MS did better than other well-funded government schools and cadet colleges in his time, in several categories: doing more with less, and doing it consistently; creating excellence not out of oozing opulence, but of ordinariness; teaching valuable lessons, from which the alumni could draw strengths in times of difficulty and despair, later in life; and most important of all, teaching values of fairness and inclusiveness through examples, an area in which the pre-liberation cadet colleges might have come short, by having their doors closed to the largest minority group in the country.
Why schools like MS scored higher in the 'fairness metric' than universities in Bangladesh?
Goal setting for the institution was one main reason. The goal every year for MS was excelling in class-ten board exam. Excellent results in it meant better reputation, which translated to more funding from the board, more donations from businesses, and more talented student recruitment from other village schools. Once the goal had been set, all actions or activities, no matter how arduous, needed to achieve it were taken or completed. (It was akin to my setting the goal of running the first marathon in Vancouver in 2000, at age 50. After registering for the event, all the requisite trainings were completed, even through snow blizzards and through wintry days with mercury dipping below -25 ?C.) At MS, top-of-the-class students from neighbouring schools were recruited (Dr. AMP was such a recruit.). Good teachers were hired from and around Matlab. Migration to India, after the bloody 1947 partition of India, was halted, with security assurance by headmaster to his Hindu teachers, including my father. Even senior students were sent to teachers' homes to plead with them not to leave the school and the country. The drive for donations from businessmen in cities continued. All students and teachers were treated fairly and equitably. Every decision by headmaster was based on answering one simple question: 'Is it good for the school's goal?'
In essence, MS Headmaster followed a simple formula for success: setting a goal, and making every decision to achieve the goal. Discrimination had no place in that formula, knowing it would be detrimental to success. It is a formula that was way ahead of his time and one Harvard Business School or the like would teach decades later.
A department head in a university in Bangladesh, unlike the headmaster at MS, does not need to worry about good results in an external, competitive exam to get funding. Funding flows to a university from the government through the University Grants Commission (UGC). All exams are set internally by each department. There is no financial driver to set a goal for the academic excellence of the department. Lacking the financial incentive of good academic results, a set goal for excellence, or the oversight of a fairness watchdog, a few department heads or teachers in universities, occasionally, allow pettiness or personal prejudices or vindictiveness to creep in and cloud their judgments, while nominating students for external scholarships; marking written or oral exams; hiring new teachers; nominating new teachers for post-graduate scholarships; or allotting courses to young teachers to teach, as in the KU cases.
Training university teachers to be fair to students is a start, but not good enough. As great those teachable incidents at MS are, reading them alone is no guarantee for preventing university discrimination, the same way driving lessons alone are no guarantee for preventing highway speeding and accidents. For preventing highway speeding and accidents, there are enforceable deterrents: speed limits, police patrols, and disciplinary actions, like issuance of tickets and incarcerations for violations. Likewise, for preventing university discrimination, there must be explicit deterrents: a well-crafted policy, its implementation and overseeing, and disciplinary actions for its non-compliances.
A university in Bangladesh, on its own, lacks wherewithal or will to formulate, implement, and administer such a policy.r (The next instalment of this article will appear next week.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and an innovator, writes from Calgary, Canada

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