What should the word ‘Education’ mean?


(Excerpts of a lecture delivered
by Prof. S. N. Arseculeratne

(First part of this article appeared in Midweek Review of Feb. 24)
(Continued from Feb. 24)

I have myself as a young child flown model aeroplanes. In the first Stage of Romance, it was a wonderful sight, of a heavier-than-air object, taking off and flying like a bird. In the Stage of Precision and when he studies physics and in undergraduate years when he learns about the dynamics of air flow, he is told about Bermoulli’s effect of providing aerodynamic lift to an aeroplane. And in the third Stage of Generalisation which can last a life- time, and which he often has to acquire through the arduous process of wide reading, reflecting on what he reads, and weaving a synthesis of the many things he learnt about, by himself or through discussions with wise people, he will realize, for example, that the take-off of a Jumbo jet, the possibility of sailing against the wind, and the swing of ChamindaVaas’s fast ball are all explainable on this same generalized Bermoulli effect.

If later his reading or contact with archaeologists and historians in Lanka have been eclectic enough, he will further know that the ancient Lankans of the early centuries till about the 9th century, produced the world’s best steel, that was exported to Arabic countries, by a unique process that used the aerodynamics of strong winds on the southern slopes of the Uva hills that drove their unique furnaces; these again illustrated the Bermoulli effect. Isn’t that a wonderful example of the Stage of Generalisation? The student can consolidate his knowledge of the Bermoulli effect, and aerodynamics and perhaps never forget them. This illustrates the Unity of Knowledge that Gregory Bateson wrote about. I wonder whether our university students ever reach that exciting third stage; it is that eclectic teaching towards the third stage that is solely missing in our education; the third phase is the characteristic of a meaningful education.


One can provide further examples of the synthesis that Stage three provides, from Lankan history; the youth uprisings of 1971 and 1989 are not merely pages from Lanka’s history book but they involve the social and psychological determinants of conflict and change. For the growth of modern science, it was economics in Britain, Feudalism in China and, as I think, the religious-cultural life of people in India that determined that growth. Do our university science courses deal with these aspects of the history of modern science? No. Our education has been arrested at the 1st stage of information or data gathering, or at best at Stage two when analysis has been introduced. Our current obsession, on the other hand, is with Information Technology with IT cafes as common as thosai cafes. I think it is useful to recall Edward de Bono’s answers at an interview in Colombo some years ago. When asked "You have said that there is a difficulty with children when they use computers and the internet, because they begin to believe that thinking isn’t necessary, which you have asserted is a dangerous trend. Can you qualify that claim?",Bono replied: "Youngsters with access to computers and IT start to believe that all you need is to do ‘search’ and find the answer. They believe that they do not need to think themselves. Yet, knowledge without thinking is not enough. We need more creative thinking than ever before in order to make use of what technology has to offer". My conviction is that the process of education in our schools and universities has been arrested at the first stage.

I taught in a rich Asian medical faculty that prided itself on up-to-date computer programs one of which was Computer Assisted Instruction, (CAI). The students had stock questions on which they were fed stock answers. What was missing was original thinking. If the catch-phrase ’outside the box’ has any relevance, it is to our stifling incarceration of students in a Skinner’s Box that is used for training of rats to do a prescribed task. How would a creative student with many questions to ask, cope with the stereotyped, constricted answers from CAI?

Let me recall two instances that reflect what, in my opinion, is the orientation in education that parents and teachers sorely need.

I was spending some time waiting for the arrival of a day-time flight and on the floor of the hall under renovation, I noticed a spot of light from the sun; it was moving slowly. I told a man nearby, who had a boy who was probably his son, that he can explain to the boy what the spot was and why it was moving. He said it wouldn’t be of interest to the boy and thenceforth ignored me. I don’t think it needed a knowledge of science on the part of the man to have appreciated the value of that explanation to excite the imagination of the boy about Nature. On the other hand was, a rural school teacher in India, who observed that his young pupils had injuries after their trek to school. He, with his pupils retraced their path through the scrub jungle and found the thorny Lantana bushes that caused the injuries. The teacher with his pupils examined the bushes and noted that the leaves were being eaten by insects. They decided to propagate the insects and released them in large numbers among the Lantana bushes which of course were eradicated by the fascinating and no less important phenomenon of biological control of weeds.

I related these two stories to emphasise two important matters that I must discuss in relation to education; Research & Development (R&D) inputs in the administration of education and administration itself. What financial R&D input was incurred in having such an imaginative and sensitive teacher? Probably little or nothing.

It was rather the proper selection of a square peg for a square hole or a meaningful training that the teacher received. On the other hand, what financial R&D inputs could have offset the insensitivity of that father who could have, at no administrative cost of inflated R&D inputs to the Ministry of Education or Science, stimulated the imagination and fascination for science of his son? But both instances provided forceful examples of the fundamental basis of a proper education in science. To repeat, what so-called R&D inputs into the science or education budgets were required for the proper handling of those two instances? Probably none. Yet we grumble that our poor state of science is due to a low R&D input as a percentage of GDP or whatever as compared with the inputs of rich countries such as the US that spend a large financial investment in science and technology for space exploration and armaments.

What I am trying to say is that it is not the level of R&D inputs that matters, it is rather the proper orientation and administration of education and meaningful utilization of whatever funds we have, that is required. A commentator to the daily press wrote (The Island 21 Nov. 2008): "What is important is not the percentage of the GDP that is spent on R&D, but for what and how it is spent". I’d agree but I will consider a converse corollary; it should be understood that there are vital measures that feature in our development that would require little or no R&D funds at all, as I have pointed out. This obsession with R&D is another futile way of trying to establish a veneer of scientific and technological respectability in trying to increase this percentage to match that of more developed countries. The question this writer posed in his essay on "Make research more effective" is what I imply: "During the last decade, perhaps billions have been spent on R&D. But what were the benefits the country enjoyed from all the money spent?"

Making search meaningful

If as some recommend that more R&D inputs are made, to keep up with the Jones’s, then I am afraid that they will be spent on meaningless seminars and workshops in 5-star hotels, repeatedly re-inventing the wheel as is now being done on the hackneyed exercise of formulating yet another National Science Policy. The question that the writer should have asked is How can research be made more effective? The answer that I would give is really straight-forward, that the only means of making research more effective is to provide a meaningful education in science, beginning with what science is, the nature of scientific exploration, the philosophy of science, in addition to the fundamental topics such as the history of science. My personal experience as well as my experience with undergraduates and postgraduate students is that it is that kind of exposure that will equip a person in the art of scientific exploration. Is a large R&D input needed for that exercise? No.

I have been repeatedly told by administrators of science-funding agencies that plenty of funds are available if only well-formulated research grant proposals are submitted. So our short falls in effective scientific research are certainly not due to a lack of funds or insufficient R&D inputs but basically to an incompetence in the practice of scientific research. I have often stated and written that the level of literacy in science in this country is appalling, for instance, several young PhD’s did not know why their degree is called a Doctorate in Philosophy. How often have training programs on the methodologies of scientific research been held for young researchers? I can recall only two in 1978 and 1981 initiated by the late Professor K.N. Seneviratne as an individual. They were so successful that, I am told, WHO took them as models for similar exercises in China. That is where inputs of R&D, however small, should be in. we have had many workshops and lectures on Scientific Writing but isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Obviously research must first be done before results could be published. But I think I am right in saying that training courses in the methodology of scientific research have seldom or never been held except in 1978 and 1981.

The University

I now come to the university that Professor Jayasuriya and I spent our working lives in. The role of a university in education seems obvious enough but in more specific terms, the question is prompted, Education, for what? This is related to many commentaries on the topic, The Idea of a University. There are some important writings on this question but I would select RB Hunter’s explicit views on the functions of a university: they are (a) the establishment (in the sciences) of a scientific culture; (b) the generation of new knowledge; (c) professional training and (d) the diffusion of knowledge in society. The Director of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said as much as four years ago. I was happy to read an essay in 2008 by Professor Laksir iJayasuriya, my childhood friend, that had this theme, the idea of a university. He referred to the contemporary political exigencies that tend to stifle the pristine idea of a university that he and I do not think is dead or should be compelled to die – that it is a hallowed place of liberal education, that tries to establish a culture (whether in science or the Humanities), that goes well beyond mere professional training. That means, in his words, "… we need to recognize that the university is an institution with its own values, core ideals, ends and objectives – all of which are intrinsic to its institutional practice". I do not for moment subscribe to the perverted ends to which the politicians and politicians in academic garb of the early 1970s subjected our universities. They mutilated the "…time honoured ideals of a liberal education – (which) requires a degree of institutional autonomy to ensure that these social ideals do not succumb to external pressures, especially state control" to quote Laksiri Jayasuriya. On the other hand our nationalistic chauvinists would claim that we have to resuscitate our own ideals or ends and objectives of our ancient seats of higher learning, the pirivenas. We need not forsake one for the other but we can retain those important ideals of a university within the framework of our own culture. But we have fallen between two stools; yet if we are to reckon with the modern universities that we claim to have, we have to recognize their pristine objectives and the justification for their existence in a civilized society which Jayasuriya summarized as lying " in the liberal values of freedom, intellectual tolerance, critical inquiry, humanism and the ‘capacity for human awakening’ (Jaques Maritain)." I will avoid getting mired in the quick-sands of Relativism about that basic view which I hold as an absolute view of what a modern university represents. I do not believe that the idea of a modern university that we claim to have, is negotiable to fall below those ideals.

Ill-fiting administrators

It is with that frame of mind that I resisted, during my entire academic career, glaring attempts of ill-fitting administrators at all university levels at subverting the aims of an ideal university. I resisted as much, what I considered the misguided, stifling attempts of the "Medical Education" industry to stereotype uncritical, unthinking teachers of medicine, to make them straight-jacketed robots, which will be the inevitable results of the current, compulsory courses on teaching that academics must follow. I chose, instead, to follow my own instincts of how students should be taught, as

I’ll add a fifth definition of education, from Bertrand Russell: "Education has two purposes; on the one hand to form the mind, on the other hand to train the citizen". These seem to correspond broadly with R.B. Hunter’s functions of a modern university, establishment of a culture and professional training. The process of education is so widely pervasive in the vitality of our society that I considered it, in a draft of a national policy for the promotion of scientific research, as the basic premise for the promotion of scientific research capability.

I will end by returning to another of my favourite themes – the role of individuals rather than institutions in our nation’s growth or non-growth. If one looks at nearly all the instances of failure or collapse of our efforts, onc can, as I said in the 2nd Professor S.T. Fernando Memorial Lecture, identify the role of the individual administrator who not merely rocked the boat but also scuttled it. To that extent, as I have said before, I must dissent from our distinguished diplomat Mr Jayantha Dhanapala who wrote; Ï have long believed that the most durable achievement in public policy are best realized through institutions rather than individuals". My view is supported by the role that two individuals, whom I am familiar with, played in worthwhile innovations in our school and university education; I refer to Professor V. Basnayake and the late Professor K.N. Seneviratne; it was the over-arching synthesis of the content of science (Whitehead’s Stage Three) that characterized the very educative lecture by the late Professor K.N. Seneviratne on Some central concepts in the philosophy of cSience.

What generally seems to have happened to our academic community certainly, as well as in other areas of governance, is that it was the individual administrator who set in motion the inexorable Law of Academic Decay, when the original political sin of dismembering a stable system for political advantage resulted in the installation of square, decrepit, pegs in round holes. On their need for survival, these misfits ensured that subordinate appointments were made of inferior persons who could be subjugated without being a threat to their own incompetence, and this trend spiralled down to the current state of illiteracy and ‘invertebracy ‘(I need to coin that word), certainly in the universities that I have some familiarity with. It was that original political sin that, for example, of mis-appointing a plain accountant as the Bursar of our centralised university, who did not know the difference between a magazine and a technical journal, an ignorance that resulted in a permanent hiatus of two years ( 1973 - 1974) of specialized science journals in the university’s libraries. That is another example of what I meant by saying that it is the individual who makes or breaks an institution and its policies, not the other way round.

What our Lankan society can do, in the midst of the political carnival that has gone on for several decades, is to re-establish the traditions of a liberal education to produce intellectuals rather than degree-holders because, if we are to believe Edwards Said: Nothing is more reprehensible than those habits of mind… that induce avoidance, that characteristics turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take".

The aims of education should also include the enabling of citizens to fulfil their roles in the social contract; we cannot wait for the several millennia-long evolutionary process to entail sufficient gene mutations to produce stable humans that could belie the dismal view of humans that Richard Dawkins gave us: "Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish"(Dawkins, 1978). Organised religion clearly has, locally and universally, failed: rather, as Dawkins and Bertrand Russell clearly wrote, (organized) religion is the most potent cause of human misery.

Meaninful secular education

I have therefore nowhere to turn than to a meaningful secular education. I do not know of any other means for achieving that stability in society except through a sound secular education, with the proviso that it should involve a degree of conditioning that B.F. Skinner argued for in his controversial but important book Beyond Freedom and Dignity; for if you read any page of our newspapers you would realize that we live in a sordid world with a self-destructive human society, and that Skinner was probably right that we cannot rest on, or trust, our mythical dignity as humans: we need to condition ourselves from childhood to acceptable behaviour as did the famous salivating dog of Pavlov. Behaviourism, of which Skinner was the recognized father, is claimed to be dead but I feel that it is well nigh time we resuscitated it; I think what is dead is the Behaviourism that is associated with robots or the salivating dog, but ethologists will tell us that ‘conditioning’ is a biological fact of Nature and I think that we should use education as the means for civilizing humans, through the potent tool of conditioning.

But I have to add an after-thought that has an even more dismal prospect than what Richard Dawkins expressed. Even if we do achieve a meaningful education and civilized behaviour that I assume the British Public School- boys of William Golding’s novel the Lord of the Flies had, I am afraid that given the increasing stresses of the modern world, the veneer of being civilized can break down to produce the savagery that those Public School-boys lapsed into under the stresses after their ship-wreck, on a forsaken island. That is the human condition about which we can do very little.

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