Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sobering reflections on our education system

A few years ago, Vasudeva Nanayakkara mentioned something about the state of education in this country. He is reported to have said that the conflict between the government and the Federation of University Teachers' Association (FUTA) reminded him of the conflict between the biological and the foster mother in Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. That was apt. Spot on. But hardly consoling.

Nanayakkara was a Minister at the time. He isn't any more. But what he said stands. Big time. What he said applies equally to every aspect of our education sector. Indeed, what he said applies no matter what the government in power is. It's perhaps a sign of our lethargy or the lethargy of the powers that be, but we have institutionalised the defects in our education system to such a level that removing them would be, if I am to be liberal here, most difficult.

Let's face it. Governments can do only that much. But this doesn't license lethargy. The problem is that it took two insurrections, both by the JVP, for reforms in education to be looked into. The problem also is that while these reforms began with zest, and while everyone, whether in power or in the opposition, promised change, they didn't deliver it the way we wanted. What we got, sadly enough, were a bunch of scuttled, halfhearted reforms. Not much, you must admit.

Mind you, there's much to change. Where do we start? The schools, of course. Our schools, to put it mildly here, have become all but completely divided. We have institutionalised what I like to call the "popular-outstation syndrome" to such a level that we can't really unshackle ourselves of it. We have managed to deter some of our brightest students from displaying talent with an admission system that favours political or religious patronage over anything else.

This isn't all. We have ensured that as much as a "national" school system ought to favour the "national" part to it and facilitate inter-ethnic reconciliation, what we have today is a system where privilege and elitism reign supreme. We live in a time, after all, when even our schooling subtly imparts a culture of patronising the local and privileging everything else. Yes, it's that bad. Statistics might not attest to this. But we're not talking about statistics here. We're not talking about census data. We're talking about mindsets. About mentalities.

If it's about reform, this is where we all need to begin.

When both Sirimavo Bandaranaike's and her daughter's governments began reforming education, no White Paper was issued. Civil society was not consulted. That's bad. A government is accountable to its people, not the other way around. To rush through reform or delay it for expediency is not the way forward. As Rajiva Wijesinha has noted, while we have every reason to be proud of our education system, disparities remain. Starkly. It is these that reforms must attack. And it is exactly these that they do not attack.

There are other things. Other issues. Like how deeply we've divided our schools based on race and religion. Or how we've politicised Year One admissions. Or how unholy the alliance between the so-called "tuition mafia" and the Examinations Department has become. Or how fragmented the "language divide" has become within the school itself.

Yes, we are in a sorry state. Is it too late to amend? I don't think so.

I am a writer. I can't offer solutions. I can only generalise. But let me try. Some commentators have championed secularising our schools. That's the magic formula, for them at least. Laudable, but hardly practical. The truth is that doing away with any religious background in our schools won't be easy. A compromise, therefore, must be struck. But where? And how?

The key word isn't secularism. The key word is multiculturalism. All too often, however, commentators have mistaken the one for the other. Where the focus should really have been on engaging different faiths together, we have tried to do away completely with any form or religious instruction. We have substituted faithlessness for multiculturalism. At a time when reconciliation is needed more than ever before, we need to accommodate. Not strip away. Throwing baby with bathwater, after all, is not the solution, and inasmuch as I am opposed to the sort of religious indoctrination which certain (faith-based) schools indulge in today, I must say that removing it completely isn't the answer.

There's more, by the way. There's that ever present issue of English education. As Professor Carlo Fonseka pointed out about three years ago, when our leaders decided to go ahead with "swabasha" and removed English, we managed to divide the haves (who could learn that language on their own) from the have-nots (who couldn't).

What happened (and Professor Fonseka puts it very honestly here) was that for the next few decades, these have-nots built up a (false) sense of superiority that managed to (erroneously) look down on English. This led them, in the end, to what the Professor refers to as an "equality of degradation", where they became hellbent on preventing English being implemented at all.

What's the solution? We don't really know. There are mentalities that need to be changed. There is that popular-outstation divide that needs to be got rid of. Perhaps these are our starting points. We can't be sure. Not yet. But if it's about reforming education, reforming the state of English would be top priority. The popular-outsation syndrome has anti-swabasha (on the one hand) and anti-English (on the other hand) lobbies that are equally to be frowned upon. We need to get both out. Not easy, you must admit, unless total commitment is given from every quarter.

But there's no real reason to fret. Or brood. We have achieved much. We have progressed with our education system. Now is not the time to think back and worry. Now is the time to look forward, to take stock of what has gone by, and achieve those halfhearted reforms we didn't give much thought to all these years and decades.

The first step is that long overdue Education Act. That's radical I agree. But needed. Without it, any reform or change attempted can be thwarted the minute a government changes hands. That, in the final analysis, will be detrimental to the spirit of education itself. All the way.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at