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Incorporating Critical Thinking in Higher Education: A Bangladesh Perspective

Shariful Islam

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Let me start with a story. In August 2014, I was hired by the Political Science Department at the City University, Mogadishu, Somalia. In their honours curricula, a course titled UNI102: Critical Thinking drew my attention which is taught to their 1st semester students.  I was wondering that if Critical Thinking course is taught in many Universities in the Global South including Somalia, then why not in Bangladesh? Is it less important?

In this regard, Martin Davies and Ronald Barnett in their edited book titled The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education shows “the nature of critical thinking within, its application and relevance to higher education” (2015:2) across disciplines of philosophy, sociology, psychology, education, pedagogy, management studies etc. While the whole world is embracing critical thinking, it is still absent at tertiary level education in Bangladesh which makes critical thinking an important area of study. Against this backdrop, this write-up investigates: What is critical thinking? And why Bangladesh needs to incorporate critical thinking at tertiary level education?

What is Critical Thinking?

Though the word ‘critical’ sounds negative to many, it is not. Critical thinking is basically an “art of reasoning”. It means discerning judgment based on standards. In this regard, Lewis Vaughn defines critical thinking as “the systematic evaluation or formulation of beliefs, or statements, by rational standards” (Vaughn 2008:36). In fact, it is an important skill-set that plays a crucial role in everyday life reasoning. It influences one’s thinking and decision-making. More specifically, it means “a set of conceptual tools with associated intellectual skills and strategies useful for making reasonable decisions about what to do or believe” (Rudinow and Barry 2008:11).

Why Incorporating Critical Thinking at Tertiary Level?

It is undeniable fact that in this age of knowledge-based economy, there is no alternative to incorporate critical thinking course in our honours curricula at tertiary level. Last year, I was a scholar in the Study of the U.S. Institute for Scholars programme and had the opportunity to visit many American Universities. Consequently, I had the privilege to talk with the students and professors and found that critical thinking is a necessary component in the course curricula of American Universities. In this regard, it is pertinent to  mention that in her 2017 comment address Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust contends: “For centuries, universities have been the environments in which knowledge have been discovered, collected,  studied, debated, expanded, changed, and advanced through the power of rational argument, and exchange”. Here comes the rationale of critical thinking. In fact, it plays crucial role in the higher education context since it helps students to develop critical analysis of contemporary social problems. It is also argued that “critical thinking is a necessary part of the formation of critical citizens” (Davies and Barnett 2015: 1). Sadly, in this time of ‘marketization of higher education’, education is regarded as ‘commodity’ and thus ‘big businesses. But we need to keep in mind that humans are not machines and our minds need to be nurtured where comes the rationale of critical thinking. On the question of why we need to incorporate critical thinking, one can consider the following reasons:

First, we need to incorporate critical thinking at out tertiary level because, in this 21st century, critical thinking skill is regarded as the most demanded skill in the workplace by the employees even surpassing “innovation” and “application of information technology.” According to World Economic Forum, in 2020, critical thinking and creativity will dominate among the top skills. It is therefore, Davies and Barnett (2015:3) points out that “All educators across all the disciplines are interested-or should be interested-in critical thinking”.

Second, to empower people, critical thinking becomes important. In this regard, Joel Rudinow and Vincent E. Barry contend that “Critical Thinking is empowering and can improve a person’s chances of success… throughout the variety of social roles each of us may be destined to play. As important as Critical Thinking is to individual well-being, it is equally important to us collectively as a society” (Rudinow and Barry 2008:6-7). Sadly, there is no presence of critical thinking whether at our personal or societal or political level. This is not also taught or studied in higher secondary or tertiary level education in Bangladesh which merits serious attention.

Third, if one looks at the teaching and learning method of Socrates, one need to acknowledge about the role of critical thinking. Because Socrates basically inspired his followers to raise questions first. But today we hardly inspire our students to raise questions, to come out from their comfort zones and thinking from “outside of the box”. Instead, we follow conventional teaching method which motivates our students to memorize some information and facts to get good grades and nothing else. Therefore, it is high time to rethink about our traditional teaching method chalk-and-talk method which is in operation throughout decades. In fact, how we teach, and what we teach needs to be problematized. It’s high time to come out from “memorization based teaching and examination system” while incorporating critical thinking component in our teaching method. In that case, we need to engage our students using the approach called “learning by doing”. Presentations, debates, problem-solving by the students on the assigned topics can be an important way.

Fourth, it is worthy to note that approximately 52 percent of our population is below the age 25 which brings lots of potentials for Bangladesh. One can also claim that our students are being involved in different unproductive activities including extremist activities since they are devoid of reason. Thus, it is pertinent to make our students reasonable and analytical through critical thinking skills.

Fifth, does writing matter in critical thinking? Yes, it does. It helps us to explore our critical thinking, broadens our outlook, our depth of knowledge. There is no alternative to inspire our students to think better and write better. In traditional teaching and learning method, students are used to write only on the exam script. Astonishingly, the habit of not writing is also observed among many teachers though there are exceptions. During my graduation, I found that my friends and others hardly care about writings. Our current education system is also responsible for such students’ apathy towards writings. So, we need to problematize the current memorizing system and needs to incorporate creative writing and thinking skills. In each and every University in abroad, there is “Centre for Academic Writing” or something like that but in Bangladesh, such centres are hardly found though they are crying need for the country. Needless to mention, arguments, reasons, analyses among students become pertinent to become active citizens in our society. In that case, writing plays key role.

Finally, to make our students lifelong learners, critical thinking becomes important. In this regard, Deepa Idani notes that “It [CT] has a core ethical value, which has to be nurtured and harnessed among students of higher education to reach the potential to transform into lifelong learners”(Idani 2017:404-405). Critical thinking can be used as a means to make our students lifelong learners through exploring their “inner potentials”. It is expected that critical thinking skill will also facilitate human resource development in the country through exploring and harnessing the untapped potentials.

Conclusion

In the Hollywood movie, titled “Dead Poet Society”, one of the teachers called Mr. Keating contends to his students that, “we must constantly look at things differently. So, don’t just consider what the authors say. Try to consider what you think. Try to raise your own voice, no matter if it is wrong”. This raises question that how many teachers in today’s Bangladesh, are engaged in such teaching? How many of those are able to explore the hidden as well as “surface potentials” of the students? In fact, each and every student in Bangladesh is talented, but due to absence of proper training and mentoring, their potentials remain underexplored.

Finally, it can be claimed that knowledge transfers from generation to generation through teaching in the classroom. Therefore, how we teach and what we teach, that matters as “[w]hat we teach our children-and how we teach them-will impact almost every aspect of society, from the quality of healthcare to industrial output; from technological advances to financial services” (Agarwal 2014). And hence, it is high time to problematize our conventional teaching and learning method incorporating critical thinking. We also need to focus on critical teaching, reading, writing as well as listening in our classroom because at the end of the day, it is critical thinking which affects everything. Therefore, to explore and harness the untapped potentials of our students, we, the academics need to incorporate critical thinking in our teaching irrespective of discipline or place. And if implemented, it is expected that this will be imperative to build a better world in general and a better Bangladesh in particular.

Md. Shariful Islam is an assistant professor in International Relations at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Currently, he is on study leave and pursuing Ph.D. in International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi. Email: shariful_ruir[at]ru.ac.bd

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South Asia

Can India Balance Between Beijing and Washington?

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On October 10, 2018, a Senior Chinese Diplomat in India underscored the need for New Delhi and Beijing to work jointly, in order to counter the policy of trade protectionism, being promoted by US President, Donald Trump.

It would be pertinent to point out, that US  had imposed tariffs estimated at 200 Billion USD in September 2018, Beijing imposed tariffs on 60 Billion USD of US imports as a retaliatory measure, and US threatened to impose further tariffs. Interestingly, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached 34.1 Billion USD for the month of September (in August 2018, it was 31 Billion USD). Critics of Trump point to this increasing trade deficit vis-à-vis China as a reiteration of the fact, that Trump’s economic policies are not working.

Ji Rong, Spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India said that tariffs will be detrimental for both India and China and given the fact that both are engines of economic growth it is important for both to work together.

The Chinese diplomat’s statement came at an interesting time. US President, Donald Trump on October 2, also referred to India as ‘tariff king’. Even though the India-US strategic relationship has witnessed a significant upswing, yet the US President has repeatedly referred to India imposing high tariffs on US exports to India (specifically Harley Davidson motorcyles).

It also came days after, after India signed a deal with Russia (October 5, 2018) for the purchase of 5 S-400 Air Defence system, during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Chinese envoy’s statement also came days before India attended the China dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Significantly, India and China also began a joint training programme for Afghan Diplomats on October 15, 2018 (which would last till October 26, 2018).

Trilateral cooperation between India, China and Afghanistan was one of the main thrust areas of the Wuhan Summit, between Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and Indian PM, Narendra Modi, and this is one of the key initiatives in this direction.

There are a number of factors, which have resulted in New Delhi and Beijing seeking to reset their relationship. The first is difference between New Delhi and Washington on economic ties between the former and Iran and Russia. Washington has given mixed signals with regard to granting India exemptions from Countering America Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

US ambiguity on providing waivers to India

While sections of the US establishment, especially Jim Mattis, Defence Secretary and Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo have been fervently backing a waiver to India, there are those who oppose any sort of waiver even to India. NSA John Bolton has been warning US allies like India, that there will be no exemption or waiver from US sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sector. On October 4th, Bolton while briefing the press said:

“This is not the Obama administration … is my message to them (the importers),

Trump himself has not been clear on providing India a waiver, when asked about this issue, he said India would  know soon about the US decision (Trump has the authority to provide a Presidential waiver to India from the deal with Russia). A State Department Spokesperson also stated, that the US was carefully watching S-400 agreement with Russia, as well as India’s decision to import oil from Iran, and such steps were ‘not helpful’. With the US President being excessively transactionalist, it is tough to predict his final decision, and with growing differences between him and Mattis, one of the ardent advocates of waivers for India, it remains to be seen as to which camp will prevail.

US protectionism and New Delhi’s discomfort

Differences between Washington and New Delhi don’t end on the latter’s economic ties with Tehran and Moscow. India has on numerous occasions stated, that while strengthening strategic ties with the US, it was concerned about the Trump administration’s economic policies. This was clearly evident from the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s speech at the SCO Meet (October 12, 2018) held at Dushanbe, Tajikistan where she pitched for an open global trading order. Said Swaraj:

“We have all benefited from globalization. We must further develop our trade and investment cooperation. We support an open, stable international trade regime based on centrality of the World Trade Organization,”

Even if one to look beyond Trump’s unpredictability, there is scope for synergies between New Delhi and Beijing in terms of economic sphere and some crucial connectivity projects.

Economic Opportunities

For long, trade has been skewed in favour of China, and this is a growing concern for India. Trade deficit between India and China has risen from 51.1 Billion USD in 2016-2017 to 62.9 Billion in 2017-2018 (a rise of over 20 percent).

The imposition of US tariffs has opened up opportunities for China importing certain commodities from India. This includes commodities like soybeans and rapeseed meal. In a seminar held at the Indian embassy in Beijing in September 2018, this issue was discussed and one on one meetings between potential importers (China) and sellers (India) was held. India urged China to remove the ban which had imposed on the import of rape meal seeds in 2011.

Connectivity and Afghanistan

Another area where there is immense scope for cooperation between India and China is big ticket connectivity projects. During his India visit, Uzbekistan President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev invited India to participate in a rail project connecting Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has welcomed this proposal, saying that this would strengthen cooperation between China and India in Afghanistan. India-China cooperation on this project is very much in sync with the China-India Plus Model proposed by China at the BRICS Summit in July 2018.

India and China can also work jointly for capacity building in Afghanistan. New Delhi has already been involved in providing assistance to Afghanistan in institution building and disaster management, and if Beijing and New Delhi join hands this could make for a fruitful partnership. The India-China joint training program for Afghan diplomats is a significant move in this direction. India and China can also look at joint scholarships to Afghan students where they can spend part of their time in China and the remaining time in India.

Both India and New Delhi for any meaningful cooperation in Afghanistan can not be risk averse, and will have to shed their hesitation. Beijing for instance has opted for a very limited ‘capacity building’ , where it will work with India in Afghanistan. While Kabul had expected that both sides will invest in a significant infrastructure project, Beijing with an eye on its ally Islamabad’s sensitivities opted for a low profile project.

Conclusion

New Delhi should not be too predictable in it’s dealings with Washington DC, and has to do a fine balancing act between Beijing and Washington DC. While on certain strategic issues are synergies between India and the US, on crucial economic and geo-political issues, there are serious differences, and India’s ties with Beijing are crucial in this context. New Delhi and Beijing should seek to expand economic ties, and the latter should give more market access to Indian goods. Apart from this, both countries should work closely on connectivity projects. If both sides build trust, the sky is the limit but it will require pragmatism from both sides. Beijing should not allow the Pakistani deep state to dictate it’s links with India (especially in the context of cooperation in Afghanistan). New Delhi on its part, should not make any one issue a sticking point in its complex but very important relationship with Beijing.

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South Asia

The “Neo-Cold War” in the Indian Ocean Region

Kagusthan Ariaratnam

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Addressing an event last week at London’s Oxford University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said some people are seeing “imaginary Chinese Naval bases in Sri Lanka. Whereas the Hambantota Port (in southern Sri Lanka) is a commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchants – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.”

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has denied US’ claims that China might build a “forward military base” at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port which has been leased out to Beijing by Colombo. Sri Lanka failed to pay a Chinese loan of $1.4 billion and had to lease the China-developed port to Beijing for 99 years. Both New Delhi and Washington had in the past expressed concerns that Beijing could use the harbor for military purposes.

Image courtesy of Google

The USA, China, and India are the major powers playing their key role in the “Neo-Cold War” in Central Asian landmass and the strategic sea lanes of the world in the Indian Ocean where 90% of the world trade is being transported everyday including oil. It is this extension of the shadowy Cold War race that can be viewed as the reason for the recent comment made by the US Vice President Mike Pence that China is using “debt diplomacy” to expand its global footprint and Hambantota “may soon become a forward military base for China’s expanding navy”.

According to some analysts, the deep-water port, which is near a main shipping route between Asia and Europe, is likely to play a major role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In his book “Monsoon” Robert D. Kaplan (2010), a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security notes the following:

[…] the Indian Ocean will turn into the heart of a new geopolitical map, shifting from a unilateral world power to multilateral power cooperation. This transition is caused by the changing economic and military conditions of the USA, China and India. The Indian Ocean will play a big role in the 21st century’s confrontation for geopolitical power. The greater Indian Ocean region covers an arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Its western reaches include Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug trafficking […]

Two third of the global maritime trade passes through a handful of relatively narrow shipping lanes, among which five geographic “chokepoints” or narrow channels that are gateway to and from Indian ocean: (1) Strait of Hormuz (2) Bab el-Mandab Passage (3) Palk Strait (4) Malacca and Singapore Straits and (5) Sunda Strait.

While Lutz Kleveman (2003), argues that the Central Asia is increasingly becoming the most important geostrategic region for the future commodities, Michael Richardson (2004) on the other hand explains that the global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through the strategic international straits, waterways, and canals in the Indian Ocean.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)  report published in 2017, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit” (p.1). These channels are critically important to the world trade because so much of it passes through them. For instance, half of the world’s oil production is moved by tankers through these maritime routes. The blockage of a chokepoint, even for a day, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and thus these chokepoints are critical part of global energy security.  Hence, whoever control these chockpoints, waterways, and sea routes in the Indian Ocean maritime domain will reshape the region as an emerging global power.

In a recent analysis of globalization and its impact on Central Asia and Indian Ocean region, researcher Daniel Alphonsus (2015), notes that the twists and turns of political, economic and military turbulence were significant to all great players’ grand strategies:

(1) the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China’s anticipated strategy to increase connectivity and trade between Eurasian nations, a part of which is the future Maritime Silk Road (MSR), aimed at furthering collaboration between south east Asia, Oceania and East Africa; (2) Project Mausam, India’s struggle to reconnect with its ancient trading partners along the Indian Ocean, broadly viewed as its answer to the MSR; and (3) the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, the USA’s effort to better connect south and south east Asian nations. (p.3)

India the superpower of the subcontinent, has long feared China’s role in building outposts around its periphery. In a recent essay, an Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote that the fusion of China’s economic and military interests “risk turning Sri Lanka into India’s Cuba” – a reference to how the Soviet Union courted Fidel Castro’s Cuba right on the United States’ doorstep. Located at the Indian Ocean’s crossroads gives Sri Lanka the strategic and economic weight in both MSR and Project Mausam plans. MSR highlights Sri Lanka’s position on the east-west sea route, while Project Mausam’s aim to create an “Indian Ocean World” places Sri Lanka at the center of the twenty-first century’s defining economic, strategic and institutional frameworks. Furthermore, alongside the MSR, China is building an energy pipeline through Pakistan to secure Arabian petroleum, which is a measure intended to bypass the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca altogether.

A recent study done by a panel of experts and reported by the New York Times reveal that how the power has increasingly shifted towards China from the traditional US led world order in the past five years among small nation states in the region. The critical role played by the strategic sea ports China has been building in the rims of Indian Ocean including Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Port of Chittagong in Bangladesh clearly validates the argument that how these small states are being used as proxies in this power projection.

This ongoing political, economic and military rivalry between these global powers who are seeking sphere of influence in one of the world’s most important geostrategic regions is the beginning of a “Neo-Cold War” that Joseph Troupe refers as the post-Soviet era geopolitical conflict resulting from the multipolar New world order.

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South Asia

IMF bail-out Package and Pakistan

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Pakistan may approach IMF to bail-out the current economic crisis. It is not the first time that Pakistan will knock the doors of IMF. Since 1965, Pakistan has been to IMF 17 times. Almost all of the governments has availed IMF packages. Usually, IMF is a temporary relief and provide oxygen for short time so that the patient may recover and try to be self-sustained. The major role of IMF is to improve the governance or reforms, how the ill-economy of a country may recover quickly and become self-sustained. After having oxygen cylinder for 17 times within 5 decades, Pakistan’s economy could not recover to a stage, where we can be self-sustained and no more looking for IMF again and again. This is a question asked by the common man in Pakistan to their leadership.  People are worried that for how long do we have to run after IMF package? The nation has enjoyed 70 decades of independence and expects to be mature enough to survive under all circumstances without depending on a ventilator.

The immediate impact of decision to approach IMF, is the devaluation of Pakistani Rupees. By depreciating only one rupee to US dollar, our foreign debt increases 95 billion rupees.  Today we witness a depreciation of rupee by 15 approximately (fluctuating), means the increase in foreign debt by 1425 billion rupees. Yet, we have not negotiated with IMF regarding depreciation of Rupees. Usually IMF demand major depreciation but all government understands the implications of sharp devaluation, always try to bargain with IMF to the best of their capacity. I am sure, Government of Pakistan will also negotiate and get the best bargain.

IMF always imposes conditions to generate more revenue and the easiest way to create more income is imposing tax on major commodities including Gas, Electricity and Fuel. Pakistan has already increased the prices of Gas, Electricity and Fuel. It has had direct impact on basic necessities and commodities of life. We can witness a price hike of basic food, consumer items and so on. Except salaries, everything has gone up. While negotiating with IMF formally, we do not know how much tax will be increased and how much burden will be put on the common man.

We believe, our rulers know our capacity and will keep in mind the life of a common man and may not exceed the limit of burden to common man beyond its capacity. We are optimistic that all decisions will be taken in the best interest of the nation.

It is true, that Pakistan has been to IMF so many times, so this might be a justification for the PTI Government to avail IMF package. But, there are people with different approach. They have voted for change and for “Naya” (new) Pakistan. They do not expect from PTI to behave like previous several governments. If PTI uses the logic of previous governments, may not satisfy many people in Pakistan.

Especially, when Pakistan was in a position to take-off economically, we surrendered half way, may not be accepted by many people in Pakistan.

The government has explained that other options like economic assistance from friendly countries was also very expensive, so that they have preferred IMF as more competitive package. I wish, Government may educate public on the comparison of available options, their terms and conditions, their interest rate, their political conditions, etc. There might be something confidential, Government may avoid or hide, one may not mind and understand the sensitivity of some of the issues. But all permissible information on the terms and conditions of all options in comparison, may be placed on Ministry of Finance’s website or any other mode of dissemination of knowledge to its public.

Against the tradition, people of Pakistan have voted Imran Khan, who so ever was given ticket of PTI, public has voted him or her blindly in trust to Imran Khan. A few of his candidates might not be having very high capabilities or very good reputation, but, public has trusted Imran Khan blindly. Imran Khan is the third most popular leader in Pakistan, after Jinnah the father of nation, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Former Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1970s.

People of Pakistan have blindly trusted in Imran Khan and possess very high expectations from him. I know, Imran Khan understands it very well. He is honest, brave and visionary leader and I believe he will not disappoint his voters.

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