“Apnar ki kono savings acche?” I asked a slum dwelling beneficiary of a poverty alleviation project, to gather information for case studies that showcased the success of the intervention. One of the field officers who was accompanying me quietly whispered to me that the Bangla word for savings was shonchoy and then turned to his colleague to explain, “Apa toh English medium”. “Ah” he said, and everyone around me in the tin-shed home nodded in unison—my accent, clothes, my entire being making sudden sense to them. Embarrassingly, I had never come across the word shonchoy before. I had attended an English-medium school and had the opportunity to go abroad to study. My education had made it easier for me to keep up with the indie film watching, Derrida quoting, vegan burger eating hipsters at my liberal arts college, but when I had returned in 2011 and started working at an NGO, I was suddenly rendered unintelligent and unintelligible because I couldn’t hold intellectual conversations in Bangla with my colleagues. I hadn’t read the same books, watched the same films, or listened to the same music. During school, Bangla lessons had been confined to hourly classes, three days a week. We might have shared space in the same city, but we certainly didn’t share the same experience of Bangladesh.
This division in our social fabric is made more palpable to me through my work at a leadership institute that brings together students from all three mediums of Bangladesh’s education system. Students from Bangla and English medium schools, and madrasas share a classroom, and have to work together in small groups on different activities. I notice the hesitation with which they approach each other: I’ve spotted sniggers and nudges at the affected accents and mispronunciations, I’ve watched them roll their eyes at each other when they exhibit their assumed stereotypical behaviour. English-medium students think those from Bangla-medium schools are “khaet”, traditional and close-minded. Bangla-medium students assume English-medium kids to be westernized “farmer murgi” who know little about Bangladesh and its culture. Madrasa students, possibly the most marginalized of the three, are perceived to be disconnected and overtly religious, with no knowledge about anything outside Islam. Once when I was telling an acquaintance about my work and colleagues from madrasas, she looked at me with shock and exclaimed, “They can do math?!” These reactions are natural when they have gone through most of their lives in separate silos, living parallel lives that rarely intersect. With little to no exposure to each other, they grow up with an assumed image of the “other”, constructed from stereotypes, suspicion, and resentment.
Tomorrow, August 12, is International Youth Day, this year’s theme being Youth Building Peace. There are going to be exciting campaigns, discursive articles, creative social media content, and talk shows about how the country is experiencing a demographic dividend and how the youth are the key to the future. But recent examples of campus violence and involvement in militancy have demonstrated that growing inequality and intolerance has led to an erosion of social cohesion in the country. It’s easy to blame it on moral decay instigated by social media and grumble about “ajkalkar chhele meyera”, but we also have to take a look at the kind of examples being set for the youth. Intrinsic to building peace are upholding values of empathy and compassion. But do we, as a nation, exemplify such values? Do we teach tolerance? Do we encourage empathy? Do we champion kindness? The duty of instilling morality is often relegated to parents and families. And while they do have a responsibility, education institutions also have a significant role to play in exemplifying such values in a structural manner. We have seen that education alone does not ensure open-mindedness or respect for diversity; therefore, we need to take active measures to strengthen social cohesion.
One possible way to do so is to restructure our current divisive education system to create a more inclusive one, where students from different backgrounds can learn in the same language, and access the same quality of education. Criticism of our education system usually focuses on the lack of facilities and poor quality of education, but little attention is paid to the damage perpetuated by the partitioning of people from a young age. This division may not be the only source of inequality and conflict, but it’s definitely an important factor. And it is one that can be resolved over time, with methodical planning, training, and adaptation. If we want to build a pluralist, tolerant, and peaceful society, we will never achieve it by preserving a system that divides children according to their socioeconomic backgrounds.
There is mounting evidence that inclusive institutions have positive impact on a country’s growth and progress when marginalized groups gain better access to education, higher learning opportunities, and gainful employment. I have seen first-hand from the interactions in our leadership classes, how exposure to people from diverse backgrounds can yield positive results. Though skeptical at first, students eventually shed their inhibitions and take the opportunity to learn about and from each other. They become more open to different opinions and comfortable with having difficult conversations. For instance, a madrasa student teamed up with students of other mediums that he met at the program, and worked to develop Think Twice Act Wise, which is an online platform and app that promotes tolerance and empathy, and combats online extremism. They recently won the Peer-to-Peer Global Digital Challenge at Facebook.
If such inclusive classrooms are conceptualized and constructed on an institutional level, students will be able to communicate with each other better, compete on the same level, and have equal opportunities when entering the job market. Most importantly, they will stop seeing each other as adversaries. This is not to say that simply putting them all together in the same room will solve all our problems. Inclusive mechanisms also have to be coupled with structural changes in curriculum that promote critical thinking and ethical leadership.
This idea might seem completely unrealistic and could be rejected as the machinations of a naive and idealistic mind. But idealism is always a good place to start. I have personally seen the obstacles created by division, and the benefits borne by inclusion. It’s time we took a systematic approach at overhauling the structures we have created that harm us and start the process of building new ones that can ensure peace, justice, and prosperity.
This article was originally published in The Daily Star on August 11, 2017.