In 2017, the Government of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) proceeded with yet another edition of its 'Australia Awards Fellowship' program. This time, however, the spotlight was on Bangladeshi educators and academics.
The basis for this particular program was to bring established teachers, lecturers, journalists, bureaucrats and influencers from all over Bangladesh to a short training program hosted by Deakin University in Melbourne, in an attempt to equip these professionals with the tools to incorporate a very specific and promising approach toward limiting the rise of religious extremism and radicalisation of youth in Bangladesh: by leveraging art and culture.
This was not the only instance that art and culture have been viewed as a means of targeting long-term UN SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals); the concept has roots that go as far back as the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, the oft-misunderstood German philosopher commonly associated with his anti-Christian proclamation, "God is dead". Although he was a staunch opponent of many of the fundamental tenets of Christianity, Nietzsche did not doubt the importance of religion, particularly its role in maintaining civil order and social harmony.
Where his philosophical standpoint saw many label him as a nihilist, in reality, Nietzsche was far from it. In fact, the author believed that the role of religion should be passed on to philosophy, art and culture; such that the influence of these gatekeepers may then translate to the commoners' goals for personal achievement and growth.
Much like Nietzsche, the 2017 Australia Awards Fellows set out to utilise the influence of art and culture to counter a rising trend of youth extremism. The program was set for slightly over a year after the Holey Artisan shootings: one of the darkest examples of youth extremism that shook the nation as well as the safety reputation of Bangladesh around the world.
Dr Fara Azmat, a decorated academic who dedicated much of her career to researching grassroots development in Bangladesh, defined radicalisation as a failure of society in engaging the youth with their passions; and the youth, who are often assumed to be the most impressionable demographic in any society, are then left vulnerable to the passion that radicalisation as a pathway offers.
When Dr Azmat engaged with the prospect of directing the AAF to Bangladesh, the entire process appeared seamless – yet, art and culture remain in our back burners while the ordinary schoolkids remain locked in either a stressful struggle to achieve academic excellence at all costs or an internal struggle to find a greater meaning beyond education.
Contrary to popular belief, education policy is rather complex. Education in most developing societies is greatly influenced by external environments.
Religious and cultural biases, political systems as well as systemic politics, and regional economics govern communal mindsets which translate to educational norms. In Bangladesh, there appears to be a cyclical pattern of regressive education.
Students study to pass exams rather than to learn; parents nudge their children towards STEM subjects by default, leading to an unofficial academic 'hierarchy' where the sciences sit atop the list followed by social sciences and commerce, and finally the arts. Yet, various studies have shown that students worldwide are usually far more passionate about music, theatre, art, media creation and culture than they are about mathematics, sciences, commerce or history.
The 2017 Fellows achieved a respectable deal, but how far has educational culture accepted this shift? The masses – unknowingly acting against the nation's best interests as one could always expect from a nation with crippled education – resisted, and the movement to expand Dr Azmat's vision of undoing extremism of any kind came to a long pause.
How does all this relate to the vision of Nietzsche? It is a matter of principle. We use religion and culture as an excuse to limit what schools can teach, and in the process block some of the most important subjects all school-goers should be exposed to at some stage.
As mentioned earlier, Nietzsche believed that society's limits should be determined by our respective individual motivations and preparedness to act rather than by religious doctrines that preach acceptance of the limitations of the circumstances of one's birth. Bangladesh has proved this brilliantly: we learn a certain way and are taught not to question these ways, and so we develop with the belief that our knowledge is absolute, which then spills onto our kids, who in turn continue the cycle.
If we go around in circles forever, when will we ever reach our destination? We grow up never questioning why, despite being a secular nation based on equality, we have so much oppression, whether in terms of gender, sexuality, philosophy or even passion.
Interestingly, Indian superstar Aamir Khan portrayed versions of Nietzsche's philosophy in his movies. The 2009 blockbuster, '3 Idiots' aptly challenges our neighbour's education system, and its pitfalls by highlighting how our efforts should not be toward mediocrity in a crowded field but rather excellence in a field where we find passion.
In the 2014 film 'PK', Aamir Khan goes on to challenge the religious divide and intolerance that exist among all religious communities. Is Bangladesh all that different? In what appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, these films based on Nietzsche's philosophies succinctly achieved the goal of entertainment per Nietzsche's ideology: get people questioning the norms; get people chasing their dreams.
This is, in no way, advocating a nihilist world where religion as a concept is rejected overall. It merely gives the individual a nudge to forge his/her path rather than being guided by principles of "defeatism".
Being human is no joke. We are complex, beautiful creatures capable of boundless achievements yet we use our complex beauty not to create harmony or achieve individual and collective growth, but to limit ourselves to the ground with shackles.
We allow rapists to loom because we are too afraid to teach sex-ed. We allow close-mindedness by promoting rigid curriculums that limit questioning and critiquing.
We suppress art and free expression because of our limited minds and their insecurities. We enforce religious views such that it becomes a collective action rather than an internal means of spirituality.
Our faiths have become what others would want them to be instead of what they should be: an individual's connection with his/her Creator. We are moving towards extremism not as an individual's version of doctrinal interpretation but rather as absolute law.
Could it be that Nietzsche had a point (however far fetched)? Perhaps we could begin by being people of faith rather than taking it upon ourselves to be faith police for the world and, in particular, for our children.
The author is a Foundation Chartered Manager (UK), a social entrepreneur and education policy development enthusiast
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard