Readers might be wondering why I chose this line from the famous song immortalised by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as the heading of this article. I was animated by a rather dismissive rhetoric of Buet VC. “Where is my failure”, he had counterposed in an interview to this paper recently in the aftermath of the brutal cold-blooded murder of Abrar, and the sordid stories that are still emerging about BCL activities in the halls of Buet.
One hopes the title would be a suitable and terse response to the vice-chancellor’s query. And for that he should also seek answers to two central questions—what is the obligation of a teacher, and whether he, as one, had met his obligation towards his students, not only as a teacher but also as their guardian, he being the vice-chancellor of an institute that has come to be acknowledged as an institution by itself. And I make bold in this regard to posit the same question, given the state of affairs in most of the public universities in the country—many of them under investigation by the UGC for alleged breach of administrative and financial rules, where teachers are split into multiple groups according to their political leanings identified by more shades of colour than in the rainbow, where rules are bent to appoint teachers with low grade in exams just to beef up the rank of pro-government teachers—whether our teachers’ community has met its obligation to the nation and to the students, and whether they are really grooming their charges to be the future leaders of our country.
It is not the intention of this piece to point out the many lapses in Buet, and the utter disregard for students’ welfare, wilful or otherwise. It is not only the VC but also those teachers entrusted with overseeing the affairs of the students in the campus and halls who are liable for negligence and the eventual tragedy. Thus, one is compelled to address an equally important and vital question, which is, responsibility of the teachers.
I had the good fortune to have been shepherded by many very good persons from my kindergarten days till the day I emerged from the portals of a public school after my secondary education into the hard world and, for a brief period, into the university. And I do remember most of them and recall most of their names. To them I owe a deep debt of gratitude for what I am today, a debt, along with the debt to my parents, I cannot ever repay, for they have prepared me for the sunrise-period of my life as much as the sunset days. As I ponder on the point at issue, I ask myself why is it that my recollections of some of the teachers are more vivid in my mind than of some others. Was it their friendliness, their firmness but kindness, their being strict without being punitive, their knowledge and the ability to convey, their patience, capacity to recognise the weaknesses of their wards, treating each of us equally, and above all, shielding us without being overbearing?
In this context, I am reminded of what a renowned American psychiatrist had said about teachers. “What a teacher is, is more important than what he teaches”, he had said. Coming from a psychiatrist, the wise words capture the innate meaning of “teacher.” Reading this acutely insightful comment of Karl Menninger, I find how true it is. If some of my teachers have had a more lasting impression in my mind, it is because of not only what they taught me but also by what they were. To me they were educators, not just teachers. At the risk of sounding facetious, let me ask whether the current crop of students in our highest seats of learning would feel the same way about all their teachers 50 years down the line?
The majority of students are for a peaceful productive time in the university. No parents expect to have their child sent home in a coffin. Unfortunately, the atmosphere in the public universities have been vitiated by a weak administration, which, in most cases, has been back-seat-driven by the student cadres of the ruling party. Some of the VCs use these cadres to go after the general students to stifle a peaceful demand. They have turned a blind eye to their illegal activities on the campus. If Buet VC had acted to stop the torment that the BCL cadres were subjecting the students to in the name of ragging in the “torture cell”, such a painful outcome could have been averted. To be unwilling to do anything about a patently bad practice because “it has been a tradition” cannot wash with the public. Ragging was something unheard of in the universities during our time.
Regrettably, political affiliation rather administrative capability has predominated other factors in appointing the vice-chancellors. As the Buet episode shows, it is more than educational accomplishments and university degrees that make for a good and effective institution head who can act in a non-partisan manner and treat all students equally. While no one is apolitical, the teachers cannot allow their political predilections to come in the way they treat the students. And if teachers indulge in politics, which most of them do, barring an exceptional few, can the students be faulted for following their example?
Unlike people who see plenty of ambiguity in Dylan’s affirmation, I find no opacity in what the singer wanted to convey. The answer is right in one’s face, but of course only those who can read the wind, or are willing to, can understand what it conveys. The VC will find the answer to his own question in himself too, if he cares to ask himself.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.