Corruption of Kannangara Vision


By Rohana R. Wasala

The interesting correspondence in The Island (27 to 29 October 2014) between Mr Bodhi Dhanapala and Mr Subash Wickramasinghe touching on the subject of the introduction of native languages (Sinhala and Tamil) as the mediums of instruction replacing English in our education system has inspired me to add a few comments to this exchange of ideas about an important topic.

In an opinion piece of 28th Tuesday, Mr Wickramasinghe is critical of the change of the medium of science teaching from English to the vernacular mediums brought in by Mr Wijayananda Dahanayake as Minister of Education of the nationalist government that came to office in 1956 under Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Prime Minister; he was responding to an earlier commendatory note by Mr Dhanapala (27th Monday) about a commemorative article penned by Mr Gaston de Rosayro in the Sunday Island of 26th October on Mr Dahanayake who was an endearingly eccentric political genius of great popular appeal, under the excellently descriptive title ‘Political maverick with wit and grit’. In his response to that article, Mr Dhanapala praises the memory of the late politician for services he had rendered to the nation by being instrumental in initiating science teaching in the native languages. In a rejoinder written in response to his critic on 29th October, he reiterates his reasons for praising Mr Dahanayake for the changes he implemented.

I, for one, totally agree with Mr Dhanapala’s point view; but I understand that Mr Wickramasinghe’s criticisms are well meant too, though ill founded. Dialogue of this kind, even though too brief in this case to mean much, should be valued, because it is useful in that it has the potential to make those of the younger generation aware of, and interested in finding out about, some epoch-making successes that the enlightened leaders of the past were able to achieve for the country despite powerful opposition.


However, it is high time that this vexed medium change non-issue was consigned to history. Arguing about it is a futile exercise; it is nothing more than flogging a dead horse. But it has been used, for too long, by a handful of antinational elements traditionally ill disposed towards us to put shackles on our youth in their march into a prosperous future through quality education supplemented with a good knowledge of English which is achievable without reverting to the English medium.

Mr Rosayro’s article that triggered this correspondence was about Mr Dahanayake, who availed himself of the opportunity he got as Minister of Education to carry out a further stage of the language planning programme initiated more than a decade earlier by a lawyer turned politician from the same part of the country, namely, Mr C.W.W. Kannangara. (Probably, at that time, the like of that historic exercise was yet to be described as ‘language planning’ by researchers.) He was a senior contemporary of Mr Dahanayake. Apart from sharing the same birth month (Kannangara was born on 13th October 1884, and Dahanayake on 22nd October 1902) and the common rural background of their youth, they were both fired by a nationalist fervor and a dedication to the service of the long oppressed poor of the country.

It has been customary for decades to malign the ‘Sinhala Only’ official language policy born out of the heady patriotism of 1956 that overshot the healthier, calmer, and certainly more viable trajectory of harmonious national resurgence that Mr D.S. Senanayake would have tried to sustain but for his untimely death due to an accident in 1952. This policy has been appropriately modified since, but it is still unequivocally blamed, in some quarters, for the withdrawal of the English medium from the school system allegedly depriving the masses of a standard education that is not available in Sinhala or Tamil. Needless to say, this is a misconception.

The truth is that the switch over to the mother tongue medium was effected in the mid-1940’s as part of the far reaching educational reforms introduced at the initiative of Mr Kannangara for the very purpose of putting education within reach of all the children of the country irrespective the social rank or the economic status of the parents, something not available then. To determine whether the medium change was a positive step or a negative one, we need to have at least a brief look at the status quo ante that prompted the reforms, and the role that Mr Kannangara played in the education sphere from pre-independence times.

Anagarika Dharmapala

As a young man Mr Kannangara joined Anagarika Dharmapala’s temperance movement that gradually evolved as a vibrant independence struggle. Working shoulder to shoulder with such other patriotic leaders as D.B.Jayatilleke, F.R. Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake and Athur V. Dias he was drawn to the vortex of politics. He defended prominent Sinhalese national leaders who were arraigned under the oppressive British colonial government before courts on trumped up charges of complicity in inciting the 1915 riots. He was elected to the Ceylon Legislative Council in 1923. On the grant of universal franchise in 1931 under the Donoughmore Commission reforms, Mr Kannangara was elected to the newly created State Council of Ceylon, where he was made the first chairman of the Executive Committee on Education. (He was returned to the State Council again in the next elections held in 1936.) This was the beginning of his sixteen years of service as minister of education (1931-1947).

Under the State Council a special committee was appointed in 1942. Its brief was to look into the state of education in the country and to make recommendations for reform. The committee was chaired by Mr Kannangara. The colonial government which had no ambitious plan for educating the children of the oppressed class (which formed the overwhelming majority) relied on a strictly two tier system of schools: English medium schools for the children of the privileged minority which charged fees, and vernacular schools that provided free ‘education’ not worth the name for the poor majority. The difference in treatment was reflected in the amount of government money spent on the education of the two classes of pupils. The percentage of English medium schools out of the total number of schools in the country in the early 1930’s was 07%, while the corresponding figure for the vernacular schools was 93%.

The discrepancy between the amounts spent on the two types of schools percentagewise was: 37% of the money went to the 07% English schools, and the rest 63% to the vernacular schools which accounted for 93% of total number of schools (that is, at least seven times more money was spent on the education of an English medium student than on that of a vernacular student.) The highest form of employment that a vernacular school qualified young person could expect to secure was working as someone like a primary school teacher, a notary public, or a village headman.

English medium

The English medium schools meant for the elite turned out the clerks that the government needed to do its routine administrative work and personnel to occupy other more lucrative and prestigious positions in government still under the supervisory control of senior British civil servants.

The highly subsidized fees charged for an English school education, being only nominal but too high for poor parents to afford, were actually intended to keep the hoi polloi out in order to maintain the class divide intact, and the masses indigent, ignorant and easy to govern. As Mr Dhanapala has pointed out, around the time that the Kannangara reforms were being fought for, English, the unchallenged language of administration, higher education, jurisprudence, business, and other important departments of public life, was available only to about an incredibly low 03% of the population. Mr Kannangara’s goal was to ensure equal opportunities for education for all the children of the country irrespective of their social, economic, religious or ethnic background. Among the recommendations made by the 1942 committee on education headed by Mr Kannangara the most important one was that education be free from the kindergarten to the university for all the children.

Another was for a curriculum for the young learners which would develop their "head, heart and hands" (i.e a holistic education that would guarantee the intellectual and emotional growth of the children along with practical skills development that would enable them to earn a living by being useful members of the society). To ensure that education was accessible to children in every nook and corner of the country, the mother tongue of the child was to be made the medium of instruction in all primary schools.

Meanwhile the indispensability of English for being competitive among nations (for making educational and economic headway) was emphasized. So, an associated recommendation was that English be taught as a second language in all schools from Standard III onwards. This was very significant. Earlier the poor had been firmly shut out from English, which effectively ruled out a decent education for them. By the time these reforms took effect, the percentage of English language proficiency among the population, with even those with a bare, smattering knowledge of English counted in, was 06% (Census 1946).

As Minister of Education of the State Council, Mr Kannangara was responsible for the implementation of the reforms which were deemed operative from October 01, 1945. He didn’t scrap English medium education altogether. What he did was to make it available free of charge to the promising young boys and girls at the secondary level of school through his central school system. Mr Kannangara modeled these central schools on the Royal College Colombo, and established them in village locations outside major towns because his idea was to take quality secondary school education to the rural poor. He planned to build one central school in every electorate.

Fifty Central Schools

By 1950, there were fifty central schools in the country providing English medium instruction for secondary students in the villages, which was not an insignificant achievement. Mr Kannangara also started a scholarship programme to help bright students to enter these schools and continue their school education in English and enter the university.

It should also be remembered that Mr Kannanagara saw his free education bill through the State Council in the teeth of intense opposition from representatives of the privileged class which knew that justice to the poor majority of the country meant necessary curtailment of their accustomed privileges.

Though the English medium was phased out from the central school system in the early 1960’s in accordance with the government’s official language policies (which had to come sooner or later in the national interest), these pioneers and every subsequent government have always emphasized the importance of English for education and have spared no effort to teach it to the children. It was not possible then (and it is not even now) to make English the universal medium of education for all the children of the country all of a sudden because of obvious reasons. We should be able to learn English as an indispensable second or foreign language along with other useful foreign languages such as Japanese and Korean that are likely to give our young people a competitive edge in the job market, because education without a good knowledge of English in these times is empty of meaning. Even far bigger and far more economically and technologically advanced countries like China and Japan focus on English as a second language that they can’t do without. But they don’t try to transform English into their mother tongue in the process.

Politicians are usually the worst promoters of change in any field unless they are motivated by a clear vision that has nothing to do with their ambition to remain in power. Mr Kannangara was unique in that he was a politician with such a vision. But he was more a visionary than a politician. And Mr Dahanayake was a go-getter Education Minister fired by his senior contemporary’s vision.

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