The importance of learning English/ Mathematics - VMarch 8, 2011, 7:00 pm
‘Medical College’, Colombo
By Nalin de Silva
It should be clear from what has been said so far that the importance or otherwise of learning anything from witchcraft to the so-called science (western science) is decided by the relevant society and that it is relative to culture. Relativism is not a crime as some who have been trained in the culture of western Christian modernity which in the final analysis depends on the existence of an all powerful omnipresent and omniscient god dictating absolute good absolute heaven and absolute hell seem to think. These people think that their beliefs are absolute and ask the relativists whether good and bad are also relative. Yes, they are relative, and my good and bad are decided relative to Nibbana. I not only try to refrain from killing animals but extend compassion (maithree) to these animals. I am not sure of the derivation of the word animal but I have been told that creature is derived from create implicating that all creatures have been created. The other creatures are killed by the homo sapiens, though the latter have also been created. The other animals have been created for the homo sapiens and apparently there is nothing wrong in killing other animals in various western cultures.
The importance of English and Mathematics in present Sri Lanka has been decided by the west that imposes a cultural colonialism even after the so-called political independence that was given to us (and, of course, to the rest of the empires). The political, economical and cultural components of western Christian colonialism are interdependent and we cannot be totally politically independent as long as we are under cultural and economical colonialism. At present the west imposes its colonialism not through the governors and government agents, the armed forces etc but through knowledge that has been created in the west during the last five hundred years or so. As I have mentioned in the previous installments neither the ministry of education nor the universities have any independence, except to engage in a little bit of tinkering with the structure of education. Even the present discussion on the importance of English/Mathematics is just tinkering and whether the Ministry of Education waives the condition of a pass in Mathematics at the GCE (OL) for those who want to enter the universities to study performing arts or not will not change the edifice of education that has been imposed on us by the English. However, these discussions are good if they open the eyes of the ‘educated’ people in the country, even if nothing substantial happens as a result of such dialogue.
The western education is gradually coming to a halt but it will take a few more decades before we experience it. The universities in the whole world have outlived their existence and with the Faculties of Management Studies and Commerce gaining importance the universities in the whole world are in the process of becoming technical colleges supplying labour to the entrepreneurs in general. When the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education, who himself is a graduate in commerce and management studies, said recently that the universities should take the responsibility for producing a graduate who can be employed, he summarized the present worldwide collapse in western education. England and its colonies in the British Isles could boast that so many higher educational institutes have been upgraded to university level and that there are so many universities in the country. However, what has happened is only a ‘downgrading’ of universities in the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century sense; universities have now become polytechs or poly technical colleges. Even at Cambridge it appears that the concept of an integrated university education has been lost and apparently one could get a degree from Cambridge after finishing a stipulated number of course units/modules at other institutes and taking some top up courses in the third year at the institute that could claim to be one of the best universities. When I was a schoolboy there was a ‘Polytech’ in Wellawatte which did not attract the ‘brilliant students’. The ‘good students’ wanted to enter universities and those who could not do well at the GCE (O/L) entered institutes such as polytechs. This practice has changed and now there are ‘good’ students who study in the so-called commerce stream.
However, in Sri Lanka, we have never had a university in the sense of Oxford or Cambridge or London, though we try to boast of Oxbridge traditions whether in mode or content or spirit. I am not concerned with the college/university structure with college tutorials as in Oxford and Cambridge but with the content that is taught, when I say Oxbridge traditions. The university college that was set up in 1921 at the Thurstan Road premises was nothing but a glorified ‘tuition kade’ that prepared students for the University of London external examinations. Our mode was not that of Oxbridge, Red Brick Universities or even London but in content we followed them. In spirit, we were no better than the present day private institutes preparing students for the degrees of various universities abroad with various colleges of the University of London still awarding degrees through some of these institutes. We still continue with some of the ‘traditions’ of the old ‘tuition kade’ at the universities conducting special and general degree programmes and collecting fees—two hundred rupees or so for invigilating purposes. In addition to the Thurstan Road ‘tuition kade’ we had the so-called professional colleges namely the Medical College, Law College and the Technical College that had been in existence from the latter part of the 19th Century and they were not even ‘tuition kades’ but institutes that produced western medical doctors, Roman Dutch lawyers and English engineers. In 1942, when the University of Ceylon was established, the Medical College was upgraded to a Faculty in the University and a Faculty of Engineering was added while keeping the technical college as was. We also had a Faculty of Law and a Law College and our downgrading of the western nineteenth century university had commenced in 1942 itself with the so-called upgrading. The Faculty of Medicine attached to the University of Colombo was called the Medical College until very recently, and even today a Law Medical match is played between students of the ‘Medical College’ and the Law College. The graduates of the Faculty of Law cannot practise in courts of law unless they sit for an examination conducted by the Law College.
After 1942, the ‘tuition kade’ spirit prevailed in the Faculties of Arts and Science while the spirit of the professional colleges prevailed in the so-called professional faculties. The ‘good students’ even then aspired to enter the so-called professional faculties while some other ‘good students’ wanted to enter the Faculties of Arts and Science either to become CCS cadets or assistant lecturers in their chosen disciplines or central bank recruits. Some of them would have ended up as scholars but not as intellectuals. They were endowed with the ability to understand the fundamentals and to analyze the ‘facts’ among other things but did not possess the ability to question the fundamentals and create new concepts and theories. It is difficult to expect a cultivation of the qualities mentioned last in a ‘tuition kade’, and on top of that there was the problem of creating knowledge in an alien ‘chinthanaya’ however sophisticated (westernized) the person may be.
While we discuss the importance of learning Mathematics the world has lost the universities forever and these so-called seats of higher learning are now engaged in teaching skills to students. Mathematics is not such a skill, though in Sri Lanka English/Mathematics are still considered skills that have to be learnt. The universities are now looking at ways of imparting skills such as English, IT together with what are called soft skills. They are all ‘job oriented’ and in a ‘job oriented’ education not much importance cannot be attached to Mathematics, western or otherwise. The emphasis on so-called soft skills which are nothing but skills in marketing oneself that can be called ‘moththe hapankam’ in colloquial Sinhala. The young people very often refer to danawa’ and there are many people having such ‘skills’ among the so-called top people (they are now called CEOs and other officers with big sounding titles) whether in the government sector or in the private sector. The importance of all these skills are dictated to us by the Americans who became leaders of western Christian modernity after the so-called Second World War and the introduction of soft skills signifies the collapse of the western modernity.
In Sri Lanka the importance of English/Mathematics is emphasized due to western Christian colonialism and I often wonder why the big bosses in the private sector cannot be taught Sinhala rather than teaching English to all the students in Sri Lanka. It is less expensive to teach Sinhala to the CEOs and other big boys and girls, and switching over to Sinhala in the private sector is not such a big problem. English that oppresses the great majority of people in the country has still not been dethroned by the society simply because the western Christian modernity imposes its hegemony on us. It is the will of the western Christian modernity that prevails and not that of the so called Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. Sometimes we tend to believe that if two people with equal ‘talents’ except for knowledge in English come for an interview then the person with some knowledge in English has the advantage. However, it is not so as there may be situations where knowing English and very often together with it some acquaintance with the relevant culture and logic could be a disadvantage. Sinhala Buddhists are familiar with situations where neither a given proposition nor its negation is true or both could be true where the English educated person familiar with Aristotelian logic and who has not been able to break away from the particular thinking would be at sea.
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