29 June, 2022


A U.S. Allegory: Desegregation & Integration In Lankan Education

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

Ruwan Jayakody

Idealism sans pragmatism is mere wishful thinking at best and a recipe for disaster at worst. 

Cabinet Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesan’s proposal for the desegregation of and integration in institutionalized education within the public school based system, for all students regardless of ethnicity, race or religion, and the ending of the apartheid of multifarious instances of discrimination prevalent in schools in the name of diversity and diversification, development and national education policy reforms, is indeed commendatory as both a lofty goal, and a move away from the utilitarian, one size fits all approach that has plagued education in this country for too long. Presently however, it is conspicuously lacking in clarity on how to practically achieve its stated and intentioned goal. 

It is learned that a Cabinet paper in this regard is to be presented in the near future. 

Brown v. Board of Education

Minister Ganesan’s brainchild however, has a precedent, most famously harkening back to the civil rights movement in the United States (US), one which involved, among others, the use of black and white dolls in a psychosocial experiment and arguably the greatest civil rights practitioner of the era, a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. 

As Juan Williams in an interview with psychologist Kenneth B. Clark explains, the latter and his wife social psychologist Mamie Phipps, assisted by sociologist and activist June Shagaloff, via tests conducted on black children between the ages of five and nine, had found that to the test subjects, the white dolls were not only prettier, smarter and better at everything they did, and therefore preferable, but also that a majority of the study sample saw the black dolls as being bad and the white dolls as being nice. A minority when asked to choose the doll most like themselves, had pointed to the whites.       

The results of these tests concerned the birthing of an inferiority complex on the basis of race and skin colour, which triggered an identity crisis that resulted in the crippling development of low self-esteem and low levels of motivation among children whom Frantz Fanon described as having skin which captured all the “cosmic effluvia”. The results were subsequently used by Marshall who would go on to become the first black African American negro Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the US, to bolster his plaintiffs’ motion in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 

The central argument of the aforementioned case was that the separate but equal or equal but separate doctrine (that segregation was justified so as long as the facilities and services provided and treatment given to students, among others were on equal par), was in fact, equal to unequal, and therefore did violate the equal protection clause in the US Constitution. The latter in terms of the right to equality and the equal protection of the law is also found in the Sri Lankan Constitution. 

This argument of separate but equal or equal but separate being unequal formed the rallying cry for not solely desegregation but also for integration. In a historic unanimous decision penned by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court held that the separate but equal or equal but separate doctrine was inherently unequal.  

Not The Two Sides Of The Coin  

However, desegregation is not integration. Desegregation alone does not make integration a reality. 

The cold, hard reality in the aftermath of the Brown decisions (specifically Brown II), provides our present times with an example of the pitfalls that befall administrations tasked with implementing a court’s ruling when the highest Court of record of the land in staying well within the confines of their mandate and through the practice of judicial restraint, fails to adequately specify or does not specify, a time bound course or plan of action or at the very least provide the faint outline of a set of guidelines with regard to the method or process to be adopted on how to, case in point, make integration happen. It should however be noted in all due fairness to the legislators and the Judges, in the name of practicality, that when formulating a time bound course or plan of action in relation to such, the fact that desegregation and integration is a major transition which is both, time and resource consuming, must be considered. Yet desegregation and integration is ultimately vital. 

In the aforementioned US cases, the arduous task of carrying out the reform in the form of desegregation and integration was delegated to school boards at the district, local and zonal levels, which authorities in the backdrop of the absence of a well thought out plan for the implementation of such, and already in many cases prejudiced towards the prescribed move, a situation further compounded by the lack of political will and the requisite infrastructure (both human and material), resorted to resisting, avoiding and adopting delay tactics citing various grievances, legitimate and otherwise. 

Minister Ganesan’s Tabula Rasa

Back to Sri Lanka. What exactly Minister Ganesan is proposing is lacking in coherence. It must also be noted that this is being put forward in the aftermath of recent events in Ampara and Kandy which had more than a tinge of communal (ethnic, racial and religious) characteristics to them, and therefore one should be circumspect at the prospect of education and especially the school system, being used as the laboratory, and the children therein as guinea pigs, for rectifying Frankenstein’s monster – that of reconciliation – and the performing of the alchemy of political demagoguery as solutions proffered for actual concerns and perceived phobias that arise in the context of communal life and living. The mere removal of any references made to race, ethnicity and/or religion in the names of the existing schools, while having symbolic value, does not suffice for the purpose of making desegregation and integration a reality. And nor too does the mere encouragement of school administrations to enroll children from all racial, ethnic and/or religious backgrounds. 

For an example, the extent of integration and whether it involves existing schools or new schools {preschool/nursery/kindergarten/Montessori, primary and secondary} including private ones, whether integration would also be among teachers and principals, and whether it is considered on the basis of the composition or proportion of students from each group (in this case racial, ethnic and/or religious) per school and the balance created therein in each school, or whether it is considered on the grounds of the equal distribution of students from each group among schools, is not yet known. 

How To Do What

Therefore, measures that the Sri Lankan State, the Executive and administrative branch, the Government of Sri Lanka and Minister Ganesan in particular can take concerning ensuring the practical aspects of simultaneous desegregation and integration and its smooth transitioning thereof, via legislative reforms and/or affirmative action policies, along with stakeholder consultations (including with private sector involvement), have to involve addressing the various concerns and questions that arise out of the matter at hand and those that pertain to it. 

The role of the link language (English in this case) would have to be rethought in terms of whether the link language would have to be the main means of communication between the students and the teachers while the main/official languages (Sinhala and Tamil) instead occupy the role of the link language. This should not be seen as a move to obliterate cultural identities but merely a case of adapting to reality, not just local but global. It is founded on the continued maintenance of the primacy of the Sinhala, Tamil and English languages in the making of the Sri Lankan man/woman of the times. However, the fact of the matter is that multiple barriers and obstacles face a robust discourse regarding the latter due to the mere suggestion of such being considered a faux pas or worse, a transgression.  

Elsewhere, if busing is being considered as part of the solution, the distance of travel from home to school and the available transportation systems must be looked into. 

Costs, budgets, income, funding, investments, expenditure related disparities, salaries and related hikes, financial support, education related taxation and affordability are some of the monetary concerns that must be taken into account in this regard. 

On the question of the organizational aspects of the program of desegregation and integration including the pace of the process of implementing the changes, enforceability, the maintenance of it, sustaining it, control over the operation in schools, ensuring compliance, mechanisms for monitoring and supervision, evaluation and oversight and the extent to which the jurisdiction extends to which authorities including the judiciary and school committees among others, must be decided on along with who is to be placed in charge of the program and who would thereby be held accountable or liable for acts of commission or omission which constitute offences committed in the process of desegregation and integration, and the penalties stipulated and remedial actions prescribed for such. 

In the schools itself, aspects pertaining to the ‘closest school is the best school’ concept being made the choice and option available when deciding on which school to admit one’s child to, the admission of students, open enrollment and the criteria adopted for their recruitment, the latter being applicable to teachers too, the provision of qualified teachers and providing for their training, literacy levels, the curricula including extra-curricular activities and sports, attendance, discipline, academic performance and the assessment of both students and teachers and the criteria adopted for the grading of such, examinations and testing, the requisite physical and material infrastructure, resources including learning material such as textbooks, and equipment, distributing uniforms, the provision of scholarships and educational opportunities including for vocational and leadership training, participation and volunteerism, growth and innovation, and other related qualitative, quantitative and substantive aspects, also must be focused on. 

Health and welfare related aspects too must be taken into account. This includes nutrition, site selection for the building of new schools or the reconstruction of existing ones, architectural design of schools, classroom design and construction and the following of the related engineering safety standards, practicing ergonomics, ensuring mandatory accessibility, and providing for the requirements of children with special needs. 

Such programs also have to inevitably deal with issues arising due to the assignment and placement of students and staff including non-academics, overcrowding, student dropouts, teacher shortages, turnover rates and transfers, gender sensitivities, the mismatch between the ever changing expectations and preferences of parents, students and teachers, staffing, the closing of schools, the lack of facilities, aspects pertaining to neutrality and flexibility, the socio-economic status of families, poverty, crime and violence, entrenched and systemic segregative practices and the rat race compounded by the psychology of competition and necessity. Demographic factors related to geography, population, housing and locale of residence, land values including of school properties and property tax structures, economy and employment, and migration and urbanization, all play a role in contributing to the aforementioned circumstances and conditions. 

Also, in order for this program to bear fruit, there must be a method to identify challenges that would arise, update or tailor the relevant policies if the situation warrants such, and push for any further required legal reform. 

Finally, there are intangible, no less volatile factors such as the inevitable social and cultural assimilation and dissonance that arise in any multi-ethnic, racial and religious interaction, and the parallel concern for the preservation of individual cultural identities.


The task at hand before Minister Ganesan et al is not Sisyphean in nature, merely Herculean. It is therefore not impossible, nor improbable. Ultimately, as is the case with any grandiose vision of such scope and magnitude, the form and function of its manifestation – whether the end result is desegregation and integration or further segregation and disintegration – is a question of how far the political will mustered thus far, extends to, when it concerns this most national question.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Segregation/discrimination based on race/ethnicity is mostly promoted by the minorities who want to hold on to their ghetto enclaves. I cannot see how a politician who’s political survival depends on ghetto politics can make a change. If he did, he would be out of a job. Mano knows this better than anyone

  • 2

    This seems a good policy. IT is not a US govt policy.

  • 0

    Ruwan Laknath Jayakody ~ “Idealism sans pragmatism is mere wishful thinking at best and a recipe for disaster at worst”.
    Is there anything called ‘pragmatic idealism’, Ruwan?
    We must also address the fundamental reason/s for the infusion of apartheid in our education system. It obviously has benefits but do these outweigh the damage (if any) which resulted?
    What is/are the reason/s as to why Mono Ganesan is unable to claw ahead?

  • 0

    Dear Ruwan Jayakody,
    All your articles are on worthwhile subjects, your thinking is very clear – and sound. Your writing is brilliant – a little too good, perhaps, so not many seem to be reading because the writing is not “populistic”.
    I don’t know how you earn your living – you seem to be a young man. But if you can afford to keep writing these excellent articles, please do so. What you’ve had to say about the roles of the three languages in Sri Lanka is spot on. Also on school administration. Some of these subjects are discussed elsewhere with more reader-participation, but your articles say most of those things more tellingly and with greater economy of language.
    For example: “not Sisyphean in nature, merely Herculean.” is a clear statement, which makes complex discussion possible without making the writing excessively lengthy. But what’s to be done about the allusions to Greek mythology not being understood by a majority of readers? Nothing. Just be yourself.
    These articles must be getting studied by more serious scholars, even if they don’t comment. Let’s hope that the CT archives will be maintained for a long time.

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