Teaching history has always been tricky. I have been examining how history is taught in architecture programmes in Bangladeshi universities. Even though my focus has been on one particular discipline, the inquiry reveals multidisciplinary implications and, more broadly, current intellectual challenges in higher learning and research.
As one would imagine, all architecture students are required to study architectural history from ancient to modern times, as a way to understand how architecture as a civilisational practice has evolved over time and across cultures. This historical knowledge would then, one hopes, empower them to think about the built environment as a holistic building practice in all its complexities and connectivities.
But teaching architectural history, just like history proper, is not easy because interpretations of how things happened in the past are obviously not universally agreed on. Different historians write about the past from different political, social, cultural, and philosophical vantage points. Who is writing history and for whom leave unmistakable traces of biases, prejudices, and power relations. One way or the other, history is political.
Alas, our students in Bangladesh mostly remain unaware of Fletcher's Hegelian Eurocentric attitude. Some architectural schools here still use his book with uncritical loyalty, inadvertently perpetuating a West-centric pedagogy in which architecture students quickly buy into the West's alleged superiority over the rest of the world. The situation is further complicated by a dearth of well-researched local teaching materials that could present alternative narratives. The lesson here is that educators and researchers in Bangladesh need to reduce their dependence on imported textbooks, while offering a more balanced view of the world by writing textbooks themselves.
We haven't done a good job of teaching history critically, often failing to expose hidden meanings in the things that we learn. For instance, in Bangladeshi architectural curriculum, students learn about architecture through a linear model of history that begins with Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Indus Valley civilisation, but triumphantly ends in the US and Europe, where modernism flourishes. In this linear model, things that are deemed static or culturally insignificant are discarded. For example, the Roman Emperor Justinian's 6th-century Byzantine Church, Hagia Sophia (in Constantinople or Istanbul), is taught, while contemporaneous Buddhist architecture in Bengal is not. Mahasthangarh is rarely mentioned in the required course on the history of world architecture.
In fact, history of Bengal architecture is taught only in later years as a stand-alone (often elective) course, as if Bengal was an isolated region, cut off from other geographies. Unwittingly, we indoctrinate our students with certain types of intellectual self-pity. Both West-centrism and ultra-nationalism are expressions of this phenomenon.
A stand-alone Bengal history class in later academic years has the propensity to falsely isolate Bengal from global networks and movements, while giving students the troubling impression that history of Bengal is tangential in the curriculum, only to be learned after most important contents have been covered.
Unfortunately, architectural history teaching in Bangladesh is still grinding along the old Eurocentric path. The University Grants Commission (UGC), responsible for setting accreditation standards for academic curricula across universities, must be aware of current curricular revisions going on around the world in many disciplines. The Institute of Architects Bangladesh, a professional body that advises the UGC with regards to architectural education, must continually assess the changing landscape in architectural pedagogy. Both organisations should institute a built-in research cell to monitor curricular trends around the world and recommend strategies for judicious adaptation. We must realise that this discussion is about a wider culture of inability to bring pedagogy to the frontier of knowledge production, not just about one discipline and its unique challenges.