Personal Perspective
Darkness visible

by Rajiva Wijesinha

The heavy footed State, which made a mess
of your fragility, called this progress — (Richard de Zoysa)

Of the excessive workload I have undertaken in the last year, perhaps the most productive is the preparation of materials for English medium learning in schools. It is also most instructive, though sometimes very depressing.

For instance I discovered last week that children study Social Science for 5 years from Grade 7, but omit quite a lot that I would have thought absolutely basic. I may of course be getting very old fashioned. But I suspect even those much younger would be horrified to know that students at school learn nothing about river valley civilizations, about the Industrial or French revolutions, about agricultural practices in the world outside South Asia.

I remembered then what the President had said, at our University Convocation, when she spoke of Sri Lankans being like frogs who dig deeper and deeper into their well. It was a striking image, which came to mind last year too, when she was digging herself deeper and deeper into a hole. But at the time, way back in 1998, I thought these were the words of someone who understood what had happened to education and would try to do something about it.

She tried I think, first with her Task Force and then, rather like Karna employing the one sure weapon he had, by sending Tara de Mel to be Secretary of Education. And certainly things moved then, in a way they had not since the heady days of Edward Wijemanne. But there was - there is - so much to do that I fear sometimes the task is hopeless.

For it was in fact at just about the time the President was talking about frogs that this appalling new syllabus was prescribed. And I hasten to add this was not PA preposterousness. The big wigs at Education were precisely those the UNP had nominated in the early nineties, to the Secretaryship of the Ministry, to head and man the National Education Commission, and by extension the National Institute of Education too.

Of course mention of all these agencies makes one wonder why they are necessary. My own theory, not entirely frivolous, is that when Ranil discovered the Ministry could not move fast, he created the NIE. Less than a decade later, when the Youth Commission (GL and Radhika and Lakshman Jayatilleke) reported that education was a failure, Premadasa established the NEC to report direct to him. When Chandrika found that the ideas of the NEC were not being implemented, she created a Task Force. Now the wheel has turned full circle, with the NEC being brought under the Minister again. Who exactly is responsible for what is not quite clear, but I suppose that is not a problem in a context in which there are 3 ministers with none of them as yet in the cabinet. In all cases, it should be noted, when a new body was created the previous one continued to exist with the same powers it had before. In Sri Lanka we don’t just reinvent wheels, we ensure that they turn in different directions when attached to the same vehicle.

It is notable that the composition of the NEC has not been changed, just as it was not changed when the PA came into power. Despite the political capital the UNP in opposition (in the days when it was working together with the JVP) tried to make, the policies and reforms the PA implemented were essentially theirs. Such behaviour is endemic in this country, and now we can expect the PA in opposition to complain about English and Z scores with the same irresponsibility the UNP displayed three years back.

The NEC, I should say, has on the whole had good ideas. And I suspect none of its members would have acquiesced in the sort of syllabus or text book now inflicted on our children had they looked at them. But unfortunately they don’t. I don’t think anyone with a wider perspective bothers. And so our poor children miss out on education, and are instead force-fed with concepts such as the following, taken from the Year 6 Health and Physical Education Textbook -

‘Here is a quotation from Vinu’s diary. He is in grade six. "Today we had PT in the first period. All the students in our class like our PT sir. He has good qualities and he is very pleasant. The way sir sits, walks and stands is very nice. So we are automatically attracted by him. I remember the lesson on ‘posture’ that he taught us."’

Of course my translation may be bad, just as it is possible I did not grasp everything in the five Social Science syllabuses I went through. But making every allowance possible for my lack of understanding, for differences in idiom between English and Sinhalese, for the capacity of 11 year old children to hero worship their teachers, it must be granted that this is unmitigated nonsense.

Now I should point out that this book will shortly be withdrawn. And in all fairness nothing else seems to be quite as mad. But the very existence of such a book, and the inadequate syllabuses I described, surely makes it clear that such a system must be changed.

Frederick von Hayek, it may be remembered, made an absolutely irrefutable point when he objected to state monopolies on the grounds that, when mistakes were made, they destroyed a whole nation. This is what, in this country, uniquely amongst non-Communist countries, we have done in education. We have left the futures of all our children to be decided, not by brilliant Civil Servants, but by the frogs they barely notice. I don’t suppose the Permanent Secretaries of the last decade, the Directors General of the NIE or the Chairmen or members of the NEC have been through these books. I cannot believe they are aware of the omissions in the Social Science syllabus which contains all the history and geography children learn in their school careers.

All these people are intelligent (and honourable) men. They make policy and leave implementation to others. It would be nice to find out whether they accept responsibility for these matters, or try to justify them. But nobody will bother to check. It is, after all, other people’s children who suffer, not those of the politicians or the decision makers.