|From Academe to Government
Other than for an illustrative example or two, I do not propose to go into the individual cases he has quoted: Dr. Usvatte-aratchi has perhaps been a victim, over the long term, of his own academic achievements which seem to have taken him on a long ride across the world and brought him to where he is now. He has spent much of his working life in the upper echelons of the UN in New York, and despite that being the heart of the Information Age, or some place close, hes clearly out of touch with people and events here. As he is wont to do, he has got some of the prominent names right - but not the histories that are associated with some of them.
Let us bear in mind that Usvatte is not writing about the human condition but about actors and events in a specific theatre. He has chosen to become an actor in it once more and, especially for that reason, I commend to him, as I commend them to those politicians, bureaucrats, captains of industry and others who cower behind security gates, the following words of Anna Akhmatova:
"...I pity the exiles lot. / Like a felon, like a man half-dead, / dark is your path, wanderer, / wormwood infects your foreign bread. // But here, in the murk of conflagration / where scarcely a friend is left to know / we, the survivors, do not flinch / from anything, not from a single blow. // Surely the reckoning will be made / after the passing of this cloud. / We are the people without tears .."
Anyone who has lived in this country for no more than the last year or two would understand the context in which those lines would apply. The title and first line of that poem is "I am not one of those who left the land". I do not think that Dr. Usvatte-aratchi meant to leave; its more that he seems to find it so hard to get back home.
That, let us say, suggests the macro picture. Dr. Usvatte-aratchi seems to have ignored it in his dreamlike hopes for a feed back into universities of their experience by politicians.
That has happened already in the most instructive manner conceivable. One needs look only at the white papers on education, the structure, or the absence of one, in the reforms that have been proposed in the school system and its curricula, and the functioning of the UGC, to see the contribution that politicians have made to university education. One does not need to look, for example, since Dr. U. mentions it, at Dr. G. L. Peiriss record as Vice Chancellor - an academic given to structured inquiry might ask the parents of those who were his wards about that, - or at the role of politicians in orchestrating criminal behaviour on the campus.
As for political leaders getting back into academic work, one needs at the least to examine their academic credentials. Dr. U. mentions President Clinton. By all accounts he had fled the draft and got to Oxford as a scholar; in his case he had spent his time chasing girls.
In Lanka, besides a few he has mentioned, only the likes of D. B. Jayatilleke, N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, C. Suntheralingam, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Lalith Athulathmudali could have found, or continued, a career as an academic.
As for public servants providing a feed-back of their experience in to the universities, the police officers should may be begin by teaching the criminal justice system to their staff and to politicians. As they evidently do. As for the public health system, the higher administrators in the Ministry of Health have for many years been drawn from specialists in public health, and nobody would accuse of them of having done anything to even maintain that system.
No need for intellectuals
Doric de Souza is no more and I shall remind Dr. U. only of the notorious battle for the Chair in economics. At Prof. H. A. de S. Gunasekeras funeral, Prof. Saratchandra said that "we now live in a society that has no need for intellectuals or for artists", and that Prof. Gunasekera suffered much by having to witness that spectacle. And that was in a "dharmishta samaajaya". Things have gotten better, have they, Dr. U?
Coincidentally, over thirty years ago, around March 1970, an article by Dr. Usvatte-aratchi and one by me appeared in the centre page of the Daily News. Regrettably I do not have a copy of his, but, a couple of weeks ago in the process of rescuing some papers from white ants, (an occupation no more or less satisfying in retirement than engaging in debates such as this), I came upon a copy of mine. Since it could be construed even as a case study of the matters raised by Dr. Usvatte-aratchi, I quote from it at some length.
It was a response to an article by Dr. Michael Roberts titled "Should Research be Socially Relevant?" in which he had dealt with the work of Dr. Gananath Obeysekera up to that time. I refer here only to two questions that were raised in that context. One has to do with the notion of science, a subject on which some of my views were published in these pages a few months ago, and the other relates, more directly, to Dr. Usvatte-aratchis proposition/s. As I have stated in that article, my comments were based on Michael Robertss account of what Gananath Obeysekera had written or said. I quote:
Professor Obeysekera had argued that "an advance in pure science as distinct from applied science is of considerable value in the furtherance of a discipline and is a basic function of academic research which involves the whole philosophy of science." At that point, in view of what followed in Dr. Robertss exposition, (which had to do with sorcery, astrology, pregnancy cravings and so on), I had raised the question, "How pure a science is sociology?"
From that point on, I had commented on Dr. Robertss account of Dr. Obeysekeras major study at the time, "Land Tenure in Village Ceylon", in the course of which Michael had eulogized the diachronic depth of that work and claimed that "administrators, economists and policy makers would find socially useful material in it".
Quite the contrary was the case according to the author himself. In his introductory chapter, Dr. Obeysekera states: "The techniques and economics of agriculture presented (here) have no direct relevance for the subject matter of this work. We are also not concerned with land use or agricultural ritual. Ours is a sociological study of land tenure in relation to tradition and change in (this) village. Demographic facts are also of little relevance for this work. Some of the present inhabitants of Medagama" [a village in Hinidum Pattu in Galle district], "are outsiders planted on the outskirts of the village by the government through its village expansion programme. Others, more significant from our point of view, have left the village to reside elsewhere É" At that point, obviously, the points of view of an academic bent on pursuing the testimony/ies of pure science to whatever end, and those, say, of the Land Commissioner, the Government Agent / Galle, the Director of Agriculture, et al, move inexorably towards an irreconcilable separation.
As for the relevance of the study to conditions current at the time in that area, the study, while it examines at length a number of colonial enactments from the Crown Lands Ordinance (1840) through the Encroachments Ordinance (1848), the Waste Lands Ordinance (1878) and the Grains Tax Ordinance, makes no mention of the major post-colonial piece of tenurial legislation, the Paddy Lands Act 1958. The Paddy Lands Act was in full operation in the Galle District in 1961. Data for this study had been gathered in 1961, re-checked in 1964, and revised for publication in 1967.
While I am acquainted with some of the notions behind Dr. Obeysekeras focus in this study, the claim made by Dr. Roberts that it could guide policy making is patently preposterous unless he was arguing for policy-support to maintain a kinship-land tenure relationship, the vestiges of which had evidently been the subject of this study.
"Diachronic depth", however far back it started is of little use in decision-making in such circumstances. Nor would such a study pass muster as a piece of pure science at work. Scientific inquiry in such a field as this, I submit, should be able to place a social system within the context of change and vice versa.
In the same article of 1970, I had mentioned the Agrarian Research & Training Institute [ARTI], and suggested that the need for such an institute had arisen, partly, from the fact that academics in our universities had distanced themselves from or not addressed themselves to issues / conditions that people face in real life.
My article concluded with the following lines: "The relationship between the ARTI and the departments of economics, sociology and agriculture in our universities has yet to be worked out. One hopes that when it has, the association would prove useful to them all and to our society".
In its early phase, perhaps validating Dr. Usvatte-aratchis "first principle", university dons did join the ARTI which paid marginally higher salaries, (and also offered them an opportunity to work with foreign agencies that gave promise of pathways to a better land elsewhere). So did foreign scholars, some of whom have made a name for themselves as academics on the basis of the work they did here in collaboration with native researchers / pathfinders, - and proceeded to tell us what our agraraian culture was, how its water management system worked, and who a Sinhala peasant is.
Of them all, the academic who could have guided social research / studies in this country, - at the ARTI, the Universities and elsewhere, - Dr. Ernest Feder, the first Director-designate of that Institute, was unfortunately required to leave in circumstances that may throw some light on the present discussion.
Ralph Pieris encountered, both in the University and within the government, episodes of what he termed "frictional unemployment". They resulted in his putting together a corpus of sustained reflection that those who are more firmly tenured rarely, if ever, embark on. That has been so with a few - too few other academics as well. Dr. Ian Goonetileke and Dr. Nalin de Silva come to mind.
There is though, yet another category of activists, such as a senior public servant who pocketed, so to say, a government project which he was to oversee, and took it home as a private institute of development studies. It takes little imagination to picture the quality and direction of the development that resulted, or how such a corporation that seeks to straddle government and academe, as well as the myths of globalisation, would continue to fall between stools. In this upside-down world, or is it downside-up?, such transvestite enterprises might survive, as on life support systems that are in fashion nowadays, the brain dead.
Since we are on value-free, scientific academic work, and Dr. Usvatte-aratchi has mentioned John Maynard Keynes in laudatory terms, we should remind ourselves of Keyness "Open Letter to Mr. Churchill" in which he had told Churchill that capitalism counters inflation by throwing people out of work. Could Dr. U. name a few academics in this country who would say something as pertinent to what or who passes for our government? As for his examples from the USA, perhaps he should go through those names again and reflect on the precise relationships he had in mind.
And to the pure and applied scientists, as to those who do not claim to be either, I submit these words of Zbiegniew Herbert from "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito":
"go upright among those who are on their knees / among those with their backs turned and those / toppled in the dust // you were saved not in order to live / you have too little time you must give testimony".
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