Another batch passes out:Musings on Pera Convocation


By Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Department of Sinhala

University of Peradeniya

For those of us in the Sri Lankan academia happiness is something rather fragile, but we enormously cherish whatever little happiness that life offers us. As university academics the happiest moment of our life is to see our students graduate. This year, we at Peradeniya are even happier that they are graduating in time.

These are troubled times for national universities. We do not know how much the fund cut the government contemplates for the next year will amount to. Even to get whatever little it gives, one has to write an endless number of proposals, letters, reminders and the like. For those of us in the faculties of arts the challenge is far greater because we have to prove annually that what we are doing is worth doing. Those great Enlightenment thinkers in Europe, we thought, answered all the skeptic questions asked of the validity and utility of arts and human sciences. We thought for example, Immanuel Kant convinced the world that the utility of arts is a utility of a different kind. Nevertheless, we still find ourselves facing those questions all over again. Still, we are happy, however fragile that happiness may be, because another batch of students is graduating from Peradeniya.

A protracted trade union struggle by university teachers was suspended a few months ago in the hope that the government would honour its promises. Many months on, the promises are still to be kept. Concerned about the future of students, the university teachers are still trying to negotiate with the government. Students, too, remain unhappy due to many different reasons while the proposed private university bill has been the main cause of unrest among the students.

Students are hardly perfect; they have not been able to stop the inhumane tradition called ‘ragging,’ though Sanjaya Bandara, the Convener of Inter-university Student Federation reportedly said that "ragging is something far too outdated". They want to fight for revolutionary changes to have greater democracy while holding on to so called ‘traditions’ that are totally authoritarian. It is learnt that certain political parties do use ragging as a tool of indoctrination. A political movement that employs ragging as a means to achieve certain ends cannot be trusted however lofty its goals may be. The ragging, however, seems to be a much more deep-seated phenomenon than it is often represented in the popular media. Where pro-government student unions are in power, there is ragging!

State and state media exaggerate ragging in order to use it as an excuse for interfering in university affairs. After spending so many millions on so-called leadership programmes, the government has not been able to curtail ragging or any other acts of violence by students, who, too, do not show much of maturity in dealing with the State encroachment on university autonomy. Incidents of violence are reported from almost all universities. The response of the State to student activities has been overly violent. When students engage in protest march at Peradeniya, for example, the state turns Galaha Junction into a battlefront. To observe all of these is disheartening for some of us.

Despite all this, we are proud that another batch of students is graduating from University of Peradeniya.

We at the Faculty of Arts have many reasons to smile in spite of difficulties, and in fact, we are able to smile. The Faculty of Arts, which is often called the pride of the university, experiences more difficulties than others. Thee result from inadequate resources and funding. While student intake has gone up annually over the years the allocation of funding either remains the same or has dwindled. The Faculty of Arts, however, with the support of the Vice Chancellor and the rest of the university, was able to score some noteworthy achievements in the recent past.

In December 2011, the faculty organized the first ever-international conference in the Humanities and Social Sciences attended by national and international scholars. A host of internally known scholars, intellectuals and dignitaries such as Prof. Savithri Gunasekare and Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala supported us by giving keynote addresses and participating in plenary sessions. The conference was a forum where all of us were reminded of the significance of the intellectual freedom and autonomy of the university. We could raise a new awareness that the role of university was to promote critical thinking. The conference beautifully supplemented a re-discovery that we made during our trade union actions. It is true! We re-discovered that university education was for freedom and emancipation from dogmas and all forms of oppression. At least some of us, did make that re-discovery. Our international conference only strengthened that renewed understanding. During the conference, some graduating students, too, became even more aware of what they could do to make their society better place for everyone.

The opening of a new postgraduate centre at the Faculty of Arts is another achievement of ours. It is by a beautiful creek that runs across the campus. A significant percentage of the cost was borne by the Faculty itself. As Dr. O. G. Dyarathna Banda, Chairperson of the higher degrees committee mentioned at the inauguration, money had come from the savings the faculty made during years of postgraduate teaching. Although we are still years away from starting a fulltime graduate education system, something like many international universities have, this centre has surely brought us a step closer to that goal. We do hope that the creme de la creme of graduating class will return to us as postgraduate students.

The Faculty of Arts could play an active role in the 50th Anniversary Celebrations of Prof. Ediriveera Sarachchandra’s play Sinhabahu––one of the landmarks of South Asian theatre and the contributions Peradeniya dons made to the modern Sri Lankan art. At the celebrations, we did not blindly worship a work of art but re-evaluate it critically by contextualizing it anew, rethinking its theme, felicitating its creator, and even lamenting that we could not continue with some of the traditions established by great men like Sarachchandra. But, many of us are at work to regain the tradition of critical inquiry at the Faculty of Arts, for which University of Peradeniya is well known.

There are talks of non-state universities of international standards. It is great if we have institutions of quality higher education that we could call ‘real universities’ for the brightest sons and daughters of the nation. However, an institution that trains mere mercenaries for a field that is likely to be ephemerally in vogue cannot to be called a university in the real sense of the word. The Faculty of Arts at Peradeniya, in spite of its limitations, currently offers an impressive range of courses and degree programme in seventeen departments thus becoming the largest Faculty of Arts in the country. And we teach those at an unbelievably low cost compared to many universities in the world. For sixty years we have tried not to lose our grip on the universal ideals of a true university.

Therefore, on March first 2012, we are happy that those graduates have had an education only a true university can provide them. They are university graduates - of course Peradeniya ones. To be happy on that day would be one of small way of safeguarding our national university system. In that sense, our happiness, it is true is fragile, but it is still political.

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