Thursday, November 9, 2017

Shelton Wirasinha and the parameters of education

The inaugural Shelton Wirasinha Oration was held at Wesley College on Thursday, October 19 and was presided over by Kumar de Silva.

Probably many people feel about the weather these days as I do: it’s bewildering. You can never tell where it’s headed to, whether it’s going to drizzle, pour, or simply overwhelm. What happens more often than not, therefore, is that an already gridlock-choked Colombo becomes even more throttled and suffocated with bumper-to-bumper traffic on weekday evenings, a problem because, one Thursday evening last month, I had to be at a particular school several kilometres away from where I usually am (my office) within 20 minutes. Not difficult, but that’s only if you don’t account for the sudden downpour, which on this blessed evening materialised. Neither the rain nor the police-officers on the road, however, could keep me from reaching my destination, and so at 4.45 I was at Wesley College, drenched to my fingers, waiting for Kumar de Silva to open up what he told me was a very, very promising Oration.

To those of us who haven’t been to Wesley and to those who have been to Wesley after the eighties, the person around whom this Oration revolved around remains a mystery. I first heard the name when I sat down for an interview with the gentle, suave Saliya Pieris, the fundamental rights lawyer whose anecdotes I put down on paper and print years ago. Pieris had been, as he told me, an avid quizzer, a fanatical stickler for facts and figures and statistics, which had got him to what was then Sri Lanka’s premier Quiz Show: the Dulux Do You Know Contest. Heading that contest, as part-organiser and presenter, was a gentleman whose entire life, career, and views on education Kumar expounded on, ravishingly and for us, that evening. The gentleman, incidentally, was Shelton Wirasinha.

I sat down in the Wesley College Hall. The coloured glass, partly shattered, the piano, the stage, and the table and chair on the stage all stared back at me. The sleek blend of passion and piety that the College Choir gave out impressively in their performances, the preparatory speeches by various officials, and the half-whispers that everyone around was engaged in helped make me forget the torrential deluge outside. Moreover, the piano and the stage, brought together, took me back to an earlier, gentler era, of the Wesleyans and the Methodists who had, true to their roots, musicalised the experience of ordinary Christians the world over. And then, as I was contemplating on the quaintness of it all, Kumar came and began to speak. I took down notes, recorded what he had to say, and jumped to certain conclusions.

Shelton Wirasinha’s life in itself deserves, I believe, an entire biography to itself. Born in 1923 in Richmond Hill, Galle, he was educated at Richmond College and educated so well that he walked away with prizes for participation and victory as a debater, a dramatist, a scout, an athlete, a musician, and a cricketer. As a scholar too he triumphed, winning the prestigious Darrel Medal for Best Student. A student with so much promise could only be a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer, in the general scheme of things. But this student dared to disagree: he wanted to be a teacher, because he wanted to share what he had learnt. His first stint at teaching, at St Anthony’s College Rakwana, ended with him contracting cerebral malaria; after a short stint at St Peter’s College in Colombo, he returned to Richmond College as Vice-Principal. The year was 1947. About 10 years later, as the Principal, he would inaugurate Sri Lanka’s oldest school quiz club.

In 1961 he left Richmond College for Wesley College, where having assumed duties as Principal he waded through the difficult years of government takeovers and shifts in the national education policy. Having encountered the “difficult choice” of either going for the State or embracing a non-fee-levying model that would depend on private donations, Wirasinha and Wesley opted for the latter. It was around this time that Kumar made his entrance, being admitted in 1968 and surviving a tumultuous period in our education sector (owing to the syllabus change from the Ordinary/Advanced Level model to the NGCE/HNCE model that was aborted right after the government responsible for it was).

Wirasinha, enduring all this, took to teaching Kumar personally, given that the latter happened to be the only student at the time who had offered English, French, and German for his A Levels (a choice that was to follow his life as journalist, broadcaster, compère, and raconteur). He knew his poets (Wordsworth, de la Mare, Keats) and his playwrights (especially Shakespeare), so what Kumar learnt about these poets and playwrights, he learnt from his Principal. Having retired in 1983, Wirasinha then served as the presenter of the Do You Know Contest right until his death two years later. Two days before his passing away, he was reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I have not read it, and neither has Kumar (though he was asked to by his erstwhile guru). The date was November 13, 1985. 11 days later, he would have turned 62.

What of the man’s character? Kumar told us of his perseverance and of his at times erratic, unpredictable behaviour: how, for instance, he would go on teaching him long after the interval bell had rung and would accompany the hungry English student to the tuck-shop and get him excused long after the interval was over (“The prefects, obnoxious as they were, took delight in pulling me up. I had the perfect cover. I would say, ‘Ask the Principal.’ They dared not”). He was also a fervent believer in the cane, which Kumar affirmed (“You used the cane and corrected the child”) and yet also in nurturing the student’s innate sensibilities, which is how, during his tenure, a horde of teachers and children who tilted towards the arts made a mark for themselves in their respective cultural spheres: among the teachers, Felix Premawardhana and Cyril Wickramage; among the students, Givantha Arthasad and Kamal Addaraarachchi (who was given the encouragement to act in Gamini Fonseka’s Sagarayak Meda that he needed but did not get from his parents, to whom he lied for his first role; the rest, they say, is history).

In fact what emerges from Kumar’s Oration is the portrait of a polygot as a teacher. Because he was just that: a polygot, who knew almost everything under the sun. It was an almost self-contradictory man who resided in him: on the one hand he believed firmly in education as a means of emancipating the mind (without focusing only on jobs), and yet on the other he believed as firmly in obtaining technical skills.

The shift from the one to the other was, naturally, a sign that the times were changing: he had been a polygot who had received his education from a system that would become more democratised, more open, and hence more pressurising and employment-oriented. (The much heralded Medium Term Plan for education under the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government, which substituted the NGCE and HNCE for the Ordinary and Advanced Levels, was implemented 12 years after Wirasinha became Principal.) This shift affected the content of the subjects he had loved as well: at the time of his retirement, we had moved from Leavis’s Great Tradition of Austen and Eliot and embraced contemporary poets and novelists, including Gabriel Okara. Kumar remembered how he got his former student to teach him these writers and their works for his private tuition classes, after his retirement. ”Such was his humility!” the student remembered the teacher in his tribute.

Broadly speaking there always have been two schools of thought that dominate our education discourse: those who believe in the good old days and those who look to the future. The nostalgic tree-dwellers, so the discourse goes, believe in an education system which imparts as much knowledge, and wisdom, as possible in the student without extrapolating and finding out whether that knowledge and wisdom are practical and can obtain employment. The futurists, on the other hand, are specialists: they want to divide knowledge into several streams, cut off from each other so much that doctors don’t know how to paint and painters don’t know the first thing about first aid. I am of course being simplistic there, but my point is (and this is something Kumar implied in his Oration) that this so-called discourse has for so long been embroiled in a conflict between those two schools: a conflict which never existed among the likes of Shelton Wirasinha. I never met the man, I never studied at any of the schools he taught at, but I do know this: he was an educationist who believed in the congruence of education and employment without those needless doomsday predictions about which subjects were worthy of careers and which are not.

So yes, I did enjoy Kumar’s Oration. The man has that rare ability to keep his audiences transfixed (which is why I am surprised, if not shocked, that it took more than 10 screen tests for him to become Bonsoir’s presenter back in the eighties), with just the right blend of wit, sobriety, and soul-searching that an Oration of this sort needs. Did I know Shelton Wirasinha any better? Yes. Do we all miss him, and the likes of him? Yes. Can we look forward to the day when the likes of him will flourish? For our sake and for the sake of generations to come in this blessed country of ours, I certainly hope so.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 9 2017