Education, reconciliation and post-colonial state building

Need for a new perspective


by Prof. Gamini Keerawella

Department of History, University of Peradeniya

(Text of the presentation made at the International Conference on ‘Delivering Inclusive and Sustainable Development’ held in New Delhi on 9th & 10th April 2012. The conference was organized by South Asian Policy and Research Institute (SAPRI) and Center for Policy Research (CPR, New Delhi)

Education as a catalyst for change is widely accepted and given great importance in contemporary political discourse relating to national integration and social cohesion. It has often been emphasized that education builds mutual respect, tolerance, trust and promotes social cohesion. In addition to the promotion of these ‘threshold values’ of, and for, civilized society, it is often argued that education can develop necessary skills for conflict prevention and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Proceeding a little further from the conventional peace education paradigm, my main thesis in this paper is that in order to utilize the full potential of education as a key to promote respect for diversity and, through that, peace and stability it is imperative to take into account, especially in the South Asian context, the multiple linkages that exist between state-building and education and carry out education planning and implementation with a clear vision. It further emphasizes the need to view the role of education from a new perspective as a means of forging a radical vision for both the state and the citizenship to go with the post-colonial historical conditions.

First of all, it must be noted that education is a double edged weapon in the sense that it could promote either inclusion and peace or exclusion and conflict. On the one hand education can be a key to promote respect for diversity. It equips people with necessary skills for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and reconciliation. On the other hand, it could play the role of catalyst for hatred, a source of negative stereotypes and the legitimization of exclusion. Because of these dual potentials of education as a catalyst for diametrically contrasting ends, it is essential to take into account the conditions and possibilities of both potentials in education planning. In the final analysis which type of role education ought to play will be decided by the particular approach that the regime takes to the state-building process.

I also intend to go beyond the conventional ‘public policy’ domain and to take a broad view towards education, to include all its formal and informal dimensions and to locate it in a larger politico-historical canvas to grasp its social and political dynamics. From a broad historical perspective education must be identified as a central element in the reproduction of culture. In any historical environment the production and transmission of knowledge is as important as the production and distribution of goods and services for social existence. Education is the key mechanism of production and transmission of knowledge. In that sense, education in any context is a historically conditioned political exercise. It is through this process of reproduction of culture, i.e., education, that necessary knowledge, attitudes and skills are imparted and also the rules, norms and procedures related to the construction of social reality are determined.

Hence, education should be understood as a broader social process where many actors are involved. It is constituted of both structured formal and unstructured non-formal elements. Structured formal education maintains a web of educational institutions with a regulated set curriculum. Non-formal education is a life-long process which also has a socially constructed hidden curriculum. As far as unstructured/ non-formal education is concerned, many sets of educators take part in different stages and different forms. These include family members, religious leaders, political leaders, media, peer groups, etc. The two parallel elements of the educating process are inter-related. Grasping all these elements is important in capturing the totality of the educating process. It must be noted that the production and distribution of knowledge is also determined by historically conditioned production relations and forces of production as in the case of production and distribution of goods and services. ‘Modern education’introduced by the colonial raj in South Asia could be cited as a case in point.

The so-called modern education introduced by the British in India and Sri Lanka was an organic part of the colonial construction of knowledge. It was a complex process. Under colonial rule, the validity of knowledge and attitudes and utility of skills were determined by mechanisms of colonial domination and subordination which was indeed a multi-faceted (political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual) process. It also created many socio-political contradictions. In analyzing the Modern education system in Sri Lanka that evolved under British rule Swarna Jayaweera pointed out "Colonial policy created a dual educational structures based on language and a system of dual control. The western oriented elite who were the products of the English schools, and in many instances the Christian ethos, were multi-ethnic or multi-cultural, comprising representatives of the Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay and Burgher population sub groups but was limited in number to a very small minority of around 6% at the end of colonial rule. The larger society was educated in inferior Sinhalese and Tamil schools. Education policy thus created almost culturally disparate English, Sinhalese and Tamil Societies". As education under colonial rule was a creation of the process of colonial construction of knowledge, reforms in education become a priority in the changed historical context of decolonization.

Decolonization is not simply the transfer of political power from the colonial raj to the indigenous leaders but a long and continuous process with many dimensions. Education, the construction and distribution of knowledge, constituted a key space in the de-colonization process. The fundamentals of education had to be defined in line with the transition from the colonial to the post-colonial historical environment. Accordingly, post-colonial state-building and post-colonial education are closely interlinked.

In order to trace the organic link between post-colonial state building and education, it is required to conceptualize the state not only as a tool for the exercise of power and authority but also as an ideological and practical mechanism to link people with state power. According to Antonio Gramsci, the state is an ensemble of the ‘entire complex of practical and theoretical activities’. The ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules [hegemony] through these theoretical and practical activities. Gramsci writes further that "It is true that State is seen as an organ of the particular group, destined to create favourable conditions for the latter’s maximum expansion. But the development and expansion of the particular group


Education, reconciliation...



is conceived of, and presented, as being the motor force of universal expansion, of a development of all the ‘national’ energies". Considering the fact that building hegemony of the state is partly a ‘theoretical’ exercise, the role of education in the state-building process is very crucial.

At this point the conceptualization of state by Barry Buzan is also useful to our analysis. He identifies three key elements of the state: organizing ideology of the state, the institutional expressions and the physical base (population and territory). He writes "the state exists, or has its essence, primarily on socio-political rather than on the physical plain. In some important senses, state is more an idea held in common by a group of people, than it is a physical organism". The three components of the state are interrelated. The organizational ideology of the state may be identified with political ideals of plural democracy or perhaps with an identity of a nation. It is the organizational ideology of the state that defines the citizenship (human base of the state) and the relationship of the territory to the people. Education plays a crucial role in deciding and crystallizing all the three elements of the state. Education is the means of reproduction and transmission of ideology of the state. As Buzan pointed out when ideologies come and go with different leaderships without striking deeper roots among the population, the other two elements of the state could not get related to each other in a coherent manner and the state stands on fragile political foundations. The ultimate outcome would be structural crisis of the state. In this context, problems and issues of post-colonial state formation invariably reflect on the education process.

The roots of the structural crisis of the state in Sri Lanka lie in its inability to present a strong organization ideology that could unite all the people irrespective of their collective identities. When there is a structural crisis of the post-colonial state, it first reflects in the sphere of education becoming the entire process of education disarray without a proper direction as to the link between state and nation. Every time a new minister of education assumes duties he wants to initiate new educational reforms. The importance of having a clear vision and broad national perspective for education reforms in post-colonial historical development must be understood in this political context.

The relationship between the organizing ideology of the state and the fundamental principles of education is a dialectical one. The organizing ideology of the state influenced the fundamental principles of education. It is reflected in many aspects of education including its curriculum. In turn, the fundamental principles of education reinforce the organizing ideology of the state. When there is a discrepancy between the two principles a crisis may emerge in both spheres. In a situation where the organizing ideology of the state is based on the supremacy of a particular ethno-national identity, the promotion of multi-ethnicity in the education system becomes a daunting task.

Hence, the present challenges and issues of education in contemporary South Asia should be understood against the background of post-colonial state formation and national integration. South Asia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic entity. A key issue in state-building in South Asia is how to define the relationship between the state and the nations/national identities within the state. In the multi-ethnic social milieu in the region, the respect for diversity, which education is expected to promote, is the key to political and social stability and peace.

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