‘Unleashing minds to create a sustainable future’

International conference on humanities and social sciences Faculty of arts, university of Peradeniya– 26-27 July 2016


Keynote Address by Prof. G. H. Peiris

‘For a Sustainable Tradition of Research in the Peradeniya Faculty of Arts’

The Chief Guest, Dr. R. H. S. Samaratunga; Vice-Chancellor, Professor Upul Dissanayake; Chairman, Professor Shantha Hennayake; distinguished participants of the conference,

I thank the Vice-Chancellor and the organising committee for inviting me to make this presentation. Apart from the honour, any visit to the university is, to me, a sentimental journey down the memory lane stretching back almost exactly 60 years to July 1956 when I came here as a first-year student..

I should begin with a comment on the conference theme –‘Unleashing Minds to Create a Sustainable Future'– by stating that it would be prudent to make it more explicit with an addition of a few words for it to read: ‘Unleashing minds to create a sustainable future of peace and prosperity for the people of Sri Lanka’ to clarify that what we expect is not, say, a future of dependence and subservience to the global powers, not a future as a component of the Indian federation, not a future that discards our treasured cultural heritage, and not even a fancifully imagined future as "The Knowledge Hub" of Asia, or of South Asia or of the Indian Ocean periphery.

Assuming that what the phrase ‘unleashing minds’ in the conference theme is intended to mean the reinvigoration of learning in the Arts and the Humanities, I decided that my presentation should be contextualised in that objective by looking at the past record of research in the Faculty of Arts here, and make some suggestions on what could be done in order to remedy the inadequacies of that record.

On the alleged ‘leashes’ that are believed to restrain the intellectuals here, I also find it necessary to clarify that externally imposed restrictions on what we teach and learn, on our choice of research issues, on accessing and disseminating information and, indeed, on our participation in mainstream politics have generally been less formidable than those that have all along been self-imposed.

‘Arts’ at the University of Ceylon

The most momentous attempt to enhance the quality of higher learning in our country, as generally acknowledged, was the establishment of a ‘national university’ – a unitary, autonomous and residential institution of higher learning located in the western periphery of the municipality of Kandy (and not in the village of Peradeniya which, as old documents indicate clearly enough, was restricted to the other side of river). Most of us know that its statutory framework was formalised in 1942 and that the development of its infrastructure commenced in the aftermath of the Second World War, guided by a vision of making it the foremost symbol of national resurgence.

No investment and no effort was spared to provide the best for the university – the enchanting setting, the ornate architectural embellishments reminiscent of ancient glories, the physical comfort for its students and staff comparable or superior in quality to that of post-war Oxbridge or of the minute ‘upper middle-class’ here.

In order to highlight the place envisioned for ‘Humanities’ in that national university, I should refer to a little known fact about the campus layout which was depicted in a scale-model displayed at the ‘Colombo Exhibition’ of 1951, and placed thereafter in a backroom of the old Economics building for visitors to admire. It showed a set of structures elegantly styled in Kandyan design in the locality presently occupied by the teaching hospital as the precinct of an ‘International Centre for Religious and Cultural Studies’. The related documents, traceable among copies of Sir Ivor’s correspondence (now found dumped and decaying in a small store-room above the lobby at the entrance to the ‘Arts Theatre’), indicate that the Centre, along with the Botanical Gardens on the other side of the highway, were intended, from landscape perspectives, to form a gateway to the city of Kandy; that ‘Buddhist Studies’ were to occupy the pride of place in its scholarly endeavours; and, more importantly, that the sponsors of that idea included Jennings himself, Shirley de Alwis, and several stalwarts of the State Council who could by no stretch of imagination be branded "Sinhala- Buddhist chauvinists" in the fashion now in vogue.

Expectations and Achievements

The transfer of the university from Colombo to the new site in Kandy commenced in October 1952. Thereafter, for nearly 10 years, Peradeniya remained almost exclusively the domain of the Faculty of Arts and Oriental Studies. Among its academic disciplines, those concerned with historical, linguistic and aesthetic studies occupied centre stage, with the "social sciences" ̶ Economics, Sociology, Geography, Political Science, Education and Law ̶ despite their increasing popularity among the students, maintaining relatively low profile. The more productive social scientists at Peradeniya were themselves drawn in their research towards the study of Sri Lanka's past, preferring to write on topics such as: ‘Society in a Time of Troubles’ (19th century social transformations); ‘From a Dependent Currency to Central Banking in Ceylon’; ‘Plantation Agriculture and Land Sales Policy in Ceylon, 1836-1886’; ‘Ethnic representation in Ceylon's Higher Administration Services, 1870-1946’; or ‘Local Government Institutions and Education in Ceylon 1870-1930’. The economist was usually an economic historian; the sociologist, a historian of social change; the political scientist, a political historian; and the educationalist, a historian of education. For many on the teaching staff at Peradeniya, with access to the archives in London almost routinely provided in early career, history of one sort or another was a convenient launching pad. In the Social Sciences segment of the ‘Arts’, barring a very few exceptions, it was usually an outsider ̶ an Edmund Leach, Howard Wriggins, Bryce Ryan, Das Gupta, B H Farmer, Hans Singer, Nicholas Kaldor, Joan Robinson, Donald Snodgrass or a Nur Yalman ̶ that ventured into contemporary affairs.

Yet, on the achievements of the faculty at that stage, specific mention should be made of the project to compile a Sinhala encyclopaedia; a similar collective effort on an encyclopaedia of Buddhism (on both of which one could reasonably ask ‘what for’); the University of Ceylon History of Ceylon project; strengthening of the all-island survey of the economy of rural Ceylon pioneered by Professor Das Gupta; internationally acclaimed works on aspects of Buddhist Philosophy by K. N. Jayatilake; the far-reaching impact of Professor Hettiarachchi and his senior colleagues to the lexical development of Sinhala without which it would have been almost impossible to use it as a medium of communication in the sciences (in Tamil, I have been told, the required vocabulary was available in South India); and the regularly published research journal University of Ceylon Review, besides other journals of wider participation such as Piyawara and Sanskruthi that depended largely on the Peradeniya ‘Arts’ community.

In addition, there were the Sarachchandra-led breakthroughs in the Fine Arts, continued and enriched by a whole generation of its highly gifted alumnae – Gunadasa Amarasekera, Siri Gunasinghe, Dayananda Gunawardena, Gunasena Galappathi, D. B. Nihalsinha, Vasantha Obeyesekera, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Somalatha Subhasinghe, Simon Navagaththegama and Jayalath Manoratne, to name only those who readily come to mind.

The objective which the Faculty of Arts and Oriental Studies at Peradeniya set for itself in its early stage of existence was clearly more than that of producing graduates for the job market. In research, one of its main preoccupations was the ‘discovery’ of Sri Lanka (emulating Jawaharlal Nehru?) for an English readership here and abroad.

The liberal scholastic traditions of the older British universities which the university at Peradeniya was intended to adopt were also consistent with the objective of promoting a mildly nationalist brand of intellectual elitism rather than that of catering to economic needs. Economic needs were, of course, catered to in an incidental fashion; for, its products found ready employment in the main growth industry of the country at that time ̶ government administration.

Moreover, the standards maintained by the Faculty were such that its graduates, regardless of speciality, were believed to be (and often, found to be) suitable for the executive cadres in civil administration, diplomatic services, the armed forces, banking and commerce, and in many other fields of employment where educated young men and women were in demand.

Thus, in public sector employment it was not unusual to find a ‘Philosophy’ policeman, a ‘Sanskrit’ land administrator, a ‘Classics’ tax assessor or a ‘Pali’ revenue officer among the more numerous ‘Social Scientists’. Conditions of full employment for ‘Arts’ graduates were also assured by the rapidly expanding schools system. The best graduates from Peradeniya found a higher level of acceptance than their counterparts from most other commonwealth countries by the leading universities in Britain in their admission to doctoral programmes. Even in sports, with national champions and record holders in many competitive games in its student body, the university was right in the forefront.

It would, of course, be incorrect to assert that all was well with the university at Peradeniya of the 1950s. One of its aggrieved graduates referred to it as a paraputuvangē pārādeesaya (paradise of parasites) ̶ a view not peremptorily dismissed by our iconic guru Sarachchandra in his ‘Convocation Address’ years later. Joseph Needham who in the late-1950's was invited by the government to probe the development of higher education during the 16-year period since the establishment of the University of Ceylon referred to "... widespread criticism levelled at the university in Parliament, by the national press, graduates, parents, educationalists, religious leaders and even university teachers themselves." It is of interest, however, that the ‘ivory tower’ ethos of ars gratia artis was not among the criticisms carefully recorded and commented upon by him.

That apart, the forceful case the Needham Commission made on intellectual and educational grounds for an increased intake of students to the arts and humanities streams of the university, and for a carefully planned change in the medium of instruction from English to Sinhala and Tamil, conformed to what the government of the day in expedience (i.e. the need to somehow find room in the universities to accommodate the ever increasing numbers completing school education in the swabhāshā media), demanded from a hesitant faculty. The university succumbed to the pressure and permitted the avalanche of students instructed only in Sinhala or Tamil media with the requisite qualifications for further education in the arts and the humanities at tertiary level.

From about the early 1960's when this pressure began, the university authorities had little or no control over the numbers admitted for higher studies in the humanities and the social sciences. But what they could and did control and curtail with cynical disregard of quality were the resources made available to the Faculty. Perhaps the earliest exemplification of the notion that higher education in the Arts requires only the most rudimentary resources ̶ "only a blackboard and some chalk" as one of its adherents declared was in 1961 ̶ when some 2,000 students (more than double the number

admitted the previous year ) were taken to pursue the ‘Arts’ at the University of Ceylon (in addition to those sent to Vidyōdaya and Vidyālankāra), making it necessary to conduct at Peradeniya its first-year lecture courses in the more popular subjects to several batches (‘internal residential’ and ‘internal non-residential’, in the three media of instruction), those of the Sinhala medium invariably consisting of several hundreds of students. In 1965, with a part of the faculty shifted back from Peradeniya to Colombo, even the blackboard and the chalk were not available to those of the staff required to teach massive gatherings of students accommodated in the spectators' gallery of a former race-course, using the starter's stand as the lecture podium and a megaphone for disseminating knowledge to the accompanied by the somnolent drone of crows and the traffic. Amazingly a few brilliant scholars emerged from that chaos – attributable, no doubt, to their personal commitment and talents (inculcated at home and school?).

More generally, the phenomenal increase of undergraduate numbers and the switch over to swabhāshā in the Faculty obviously had an adverse impact on the quality of what was being taught and learnt in the Arts disciplines. For instance, the tutorial classes conducted to groups of thirty or forty students lost their purpose. The expansion of the student body necessitated corresponding increases of the staff purely to keep the system ticking. At least in certain instances, this meant lax procedures of staff recruitment. The change in the medium of instruction also meant that some among those available a few years later for recruitment as university teachers themselves had language skills (such as they were) only in their mother-tongue and were thus handicapped in their attempts to improve their competence and talents after recruitment. The staff quality was also affected by other influences such as the substantially increased demand for the best performers at the Bachelor of Arts degree examination from the newly established universities within Sri Lanka, the declining attractiveness of university teaching as a field of employment, the restriction of opportunities for new recruits to the staff for post-graduate studies in foreign universities, and, above all, the ‘brain-drain’.

By the latter part of the decade, when the English medium stream in most Arts departments of study had dried up for want of students, there developed a language-based (Sinhala-Thamil) dichotomy which was often featured by ludicrous differences and anomalies between one medium of instruction and the other in respect of what was taught and learnt, despite the nominal availability of stipulated syllabuses. Staff-student interaction within the class-room invariably became a ‘closed system’ without the benefits of either external inputs of information into the system or feed-back processes within the system. Thus, formal learning in the Arts at the university came to take the form of uncritical acceptance by students of the wisdom conveyed orally by individual teachers working in isolation from one another. For the large majority of Arts students university learning became one of recording notes at lectures, and reproducing the notes at examinations, to be evaluated by the very same persons at whose lectures the notes, including the occasional joke, had been hurriedly copied. The change from English to swabhāshā also meant the severance of the earlier links which departments of study in the Arts at Peradeniya had with reputed British universities in examinations – the ‘moderation’ of question papers and the ‘second marking’ of answer scripts.

Perhaps the most significant negative impact of the wayward expansion of the Arts at Peradeniya and elsewhere during the 1960's was the resulting glut of arts graduates ̶ a supply to the job market far in excess of demand ̶ creating, especially among the students, disinterest and despair. Politicised procedures frequently adopted in the recruitment of arts graduates to public sector employment generated widespread cynicism among them, and a feeling that what eventually counts is not what they know but whom they know at the higher levels of the prevailing ‘regime’. Apart from its direct harm on the quality of learning, it generated the type of student unrest in the university which made it appear to those in authority that the faculties of Arts was a breeding grounds for subversion and militant forms of protest.

By the early 1970s the concept of an "autonomous, unitary and residential" university at Peradeniya had been entirely abandoned. The intellectual and cultural role ascribed to it had been forgotten. The university had lost its earlier image as a trail-blazer in aesthetic, language and religious studies. Scholars with ability and promise had left the faculty in large numbers; and its teaching programmes, especially in the popular disciplines, were being conducted for the most part by inexperienced and relatively ill-equipped graduates. Unemployment was rampant among those graduating from the faculty, and the notion that Arts graduates are unemployable was firmly entrenched in many quarters. The output of research had been reduced to a mere trickle, and consisted almost entirely of the work of a tenacious few who appeared to be writing mainly for a foreign ‘market’ and who, in any case, had only a tiny local readership.

This was made evident by two sets of data that I compiled in the early 1990s. From 1942 to 1992, the university had awarded Master’s and Doctoral degrees in the ‘Arts’ to 322 students, of which 257 were the latter – the ‘Master’s’– which included 116 awarded by the Department of Education (M. Eds) that had a large course-work component. Ph. D.s and M.A.s in other disciplines of the faculty thus constituted an aggregate of 206, which averaged out of about 4 per annum over the 50-year period, while the corresponding annual average of the baccalaureate degrees awarded was about 400 ̶ a ratio of 1:100 at the two levels! Clearly, the students’ research output was minute.

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