23 June, 2024


How To Groom Intellectuals For The Future? Two Contrasting Views From Thailand & Sri Lanka

By W A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Two views to groom intellectuals for the 21st century

Two intellectual discourses have recently taken place in Thailand and in Sri Lanka, one month apart from each other, relating to the development of intellectuals in the respective countries for the 21st century.

The first was an address by Professor Worsak Kanok-Nukulchai, President of the Asian Institute of Technology, popularly known as AIT, before the Royal Society of Thailand or RST in December 2017. The title of Worsak’s address was ‘Grooming the Intellectuals to be Global Citizens in the 21st Century’.

The other was a discourse delivered by young and daring media person Chapa Bandara in two sessions, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, before a group of students reading for a special degree in economics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura or USJ in January 2018. The theme of Chapa’s multilogue with students was the state of Sri Lanka’s economy today and the future economic strategies to be adopted.

A summary of Worsak’s discourse is presented in his FaceBook page. Chapa’s two sessions could be accessed at YouTube:


A common goal for Thailand and Sri Lanka

Both Thailand and Sri Lanka have the same economic goal today. That is to become a rich country within the next generation. Of course, Thailand with a per capita GDP of slightly more than $ 6000 and categorised as an upper middle income country, has started the race much ahead of Sri Lanka. In contrast, Sri Lanka is still at the threshold of joining that group with a per capita income of about $ 3900.

Thailand is fast becoming an industrial powerhouse with about 20% of its manufactured exports representing high-tech exports in 2015 according to World Bank data. The comparable figure for Sri Lanka is a little less than 1%. Hence, the challenge for Thailand is to consolidate its power in the export market. Sri Lanka is just an infant in this trade and, therefore, has to first crawl on knees before starting to walk on its two feet. But, there is a promise for Sri Lanka.

That is due to the inclusiveness of technology, which the futurist Peter Diamandis has called ‘democratisation of digitisation’. Accordingly, an infant today can rise quickly on its feet and start running along with other racers without waiting for so many years to get itself ready for the race.

Framing the educational policy vs. micro treatment of students 

The audience addressed by Chapa had consisted of undergraduates at USJ who in the education industry are called ‘throughputs’. A firm in the industry like USJ takes students as throughputs, subjects them to a transformation within the institution during a specified study period and releases those throughputs as ‘intellectuals’ to society.

Hence, the guest lecture arranged by USJ with Chapa is a midway treatment of the throughputs similar to the injection of muscle-growing hormones to broiler chicken by a poultry farmer. In economics, it is called micro-treatment.

In contrast, the discourse of Worsak before RST is to educate those in Thailand who are charged with the task of deciding on the methodology and technology to be used to transform the throughputs to be taken by all the higher educational institutions in the country. Thus, Worsak’s attempt was to enlighten the country’s top policy makers as to how they should frame the future education policy of the country.

In this article, we look at Worsak’s wisdom. In the next one, we look at that of Chapa.

Worsak, the highly qualified engineer turned academic 

Worsak became the President of AIT, a position equivalent to that of the Vice Chancellor of USJ, in 2014. He is an engineer who had his undergraduate training at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. He completed a Master’s degree in engineering at AIT and a doctorate in the same subject at the University of California, Berkley.

Before becoming the President, he had held numerous positions at AIT including the post of the Dean of the School of Engineering.

Worsak is a fellow member of RST which has a history of close to 100 years. It is the national academy of Thailand that advices the government on academic matters. Hence, his education of fellow RST members will certainly help Thailand to frame its future education policy to meet the requirements of an emerging era.

From digital natives to global citizens

Worsak has presented the concept of ‘global citizen’, the emerging trend that unifies the peoples of the world. The present young generation, according to him, are ‘digital natives’ who are to evolve into global citizens one day.

Of course, this is not the first attempt or the first tactic used to unify the peoples of the world. As documented by Yuval Noah Harari in his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, there had been three other attempts at unifying peoples of diverse origin and dispersion through money, empires and religion.

The new attempt at doing so has been the modern technology which has created a completely different Homo sapiens. According to Worsak, a gap between the educators and students has arisen in the new digital age ruled by students categorised as digital natives.

Digital natives more inclined to use the web

In his FaceBook page, Worsak has noted: “Many students of current generation, known as “digital natives”, keep wondering why they are expected to take notes in the classroom when they can acquire the same knowledge directly and comprehensively from the web. In fact, some students today are using their mobile phones to search and verify teacher’s contents on the screen. Any university that refuses to recognise and prepare for the reality of change will be out of the business soon.”

It’s challenging to teach digital citizens 

This writer has personal experience in what Worsak has noted when he taught students at AIT at the Master’s degree level. Students come to the classroom armed with their mobile devices connected to internet via AIT’s fast WiFi system. It is highly risky for the reputation for the teacher to make a mistake in his presentations because within minutes, a student who has already verified it from the internet would counter him.

Such open countering will help the teacher as well as the students. The teacher has to prepare himself thoroughly before he walks to the classroom not to make any mistake. But mistakes are natural and unavoidable. In those cases, the teacher should have the humility and humbleness to accept his mistake and promote a vibrant interactive class discussion.

In this manner, the teacher will get the opportunity to engage students actively in the learning process. It helps the other students too because by participating in in-class discussions, they would improve their probing, critical and questioning skills, three essential ingredients for becoming an intellectual with creativity.

The entry of the flipped classroom

Learning is a continuous process not necessarily confined only to the classroom. As Worsak had noted elsewhere too, modern learning differs from the traditional learning in which students present themselves in a class before a teacher and rely on the latter to pass wisdom to them. Homework is given to them to ensure their understanding of the subject. Today’s learning starts before the class, gets solidified in the class with interaction with peers and instructors and continues even after the class. This is a blended system of learning which educationists call ‘The Flipped Classroom’.

 Preparing the students to face the unknown future

Worsak has elaborated on this point as follows: “Our current education model was introduced since the 19th Century in order to serve the industrial revolution. While the responsibility of teachers was to transmit the knowledge, the responsibility of students was to accumulate knowledge by memorising and taking notes. Upon graduation, they are expected to use and apply the accumulated knowledge for the rest of their life. The same model has continued until today. This model is ill-suited for the digital world of constant change and uncertainties, especially with readily available knowledge on the web”.

He says that today’s challenge for educators is how to prepare the next breed of students in dealing with the ‘unknown future’.

Exponential growth of technology

How would the future be unknown? In his address before RST, Worsak has traced the history of the change in technology and noted that in the current era, technology changes at an exponential rate – a sharp growth moving directly into the sky and into unknown territories.

He says: “I really believe that a more fundamental paradigm change in the education of mankind is necessary. My concern with the current state of higher education has to do with the exponential growth of technology. The ‘digital world’ that we are living today is characterised by disruptive technologies that constantly drive social changes. We will be facing a world of tremendous uncertainties in the years to come. This creates a huge challenge for educators. The exponential growth of technology, with shorter and shorter innovation cycles, will certainly transform every aspect of how we live and work.”

 Joseph Schumpeter: Creative destruction is beneficial

It is a different world that we face today, according to Worsak. Old technologies are disrupted by new technologies that take place almost every day.

The Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter called this ‘creative destruction’ in a 1942 book titled ‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’. While disruption is unavoidable, it is essential too for a society to move forward.

Evolution from the slide rule to mobile phone app

Worsak has given a fine example to illustrate this. In 1622, the slide rule was invented and it was the main instrument of use by any engineer to make precise measurements. But by 1970s, the scientific calculator was invented throwing the 350 year old rule of the slide rule to history’s archives.

But the reign of the scientific calculator was confined only to about 30 years. It has now been replaced by the smart phone which can be at the easy access of every student or engineer.

The process of disruption has been explained by Worsak as follows: “Innovative disruption is not new. In the history of mankind, innovative disruptions used to be of a gradual process so their impacts were not felt so much. The only difference now from the past is that the disruption is abrupt and exponential, in time and magnitude, thus carrying much greater impacts to the human lifestyle. For example, the Industrial Revolution has disrupted a big chunk of agricultural process whichever can be mechanised. Likewise, the Digital Revolution has also disrupted the many industrial processes that can be digitised. Soon, we will see the Artificial Intelligence Revolution disrupting and embracing our digital world today”

Disruptive technology: cheaper and more effective

Worsak has also elaborated on the advantages of disruption. Says Worsak: “Any process/product that can be digitised has the advantage of being accessed, reproduced and distributed globally at the speed of internet. This requires much less material and reproducing cost, making it cheaper and affordable to the global mass. Initially, its growth can be deceptively slow but when it reaches the exponential stage, it will suddenly disrupt the previous paradigm due to its better performance in both effectiveness and cost.”

No need to fear new technology

This speed of disruption taking place in the world today is frightening. It has relegated the mankind to an unknown future. Human beings are not wired to accept such abrupt and fast changing worlds as natural. It breeds fear and that fear has been exploited by many to make vulnerable groups ‘intellectual slaves’. Instead of looking at the change in technology with optimism – a powerful weapon to solve emerging problems – those who stand to gain by promoting fear spread stories of ‘pessimism’ going back to history or past nostalgia which cannot be regained today.

What they forget is that time changes in one direction and that direction is forward direction. The case for optimism was elaborated by the futurist Peter Diamandis in a TED lecture in 2012. What Diamandis said was that the fear of scarcity is unfounded. The emerging technology can make this world a place of abundance. One has to create a need for it and wait patiently until the next big thing happens in the scientific world.

Worsak’s last piece of advice

According to Worsak, “The contemporary shift in all aspects of life as parts if the globalisation process require that we must nurture our students the so-called ‘Global Component’, to understand and to act on issues of global significance” The responsibility cast on university academics is to help students to merge with the globalisation process seamlessly.

The challenge of university teachers today, says Worsak, is to prepare the students to face the unknown future and help them to transform from digital natives to global citizens.

In the next part, we will examine how Chapa has attempted to do it with students at USJ.

*W A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Itis not the University teachers finding that their students are having an edge at least in one area of the subjects presented, but this is the story of all other professionals too. Lawyers are getting consultation from their own clients of what turns to take and how to proceed with their cases. Tax accountants have been seeing for some time that their customers are as good as them in matters with IRS. Doctors have been seeing the patients demanding the treatments they want because they are too well educated on the conditions they have. The Apps, software and the search engine are turning anyone who can read in their language as a professional of their need.

    The problem Universities facing in one dimension is only described by Prof. Worsack. But it is multidimensional. The question arising is who is going to be the future professionals and what useful role a university can play in creating, preparing and supporting the so called professionals. The Industrial revolution based system requires one member of one generation to break the barrier. Say the first man become a worker. Then he barely fetches his kids some education. They in turn the kids can make their next generation elites. Once they become elites that family leads the neighborhood. As matter of fact though it has become elites, the third generation need not to still possess the innovative traits the first generation worker, the grandfather who broke the barrier, had. The Old System did not deliver the needed education for the one the one who is most suitable for that, but only delivered to the generation who cannot handle it. This is the exact problem we see in Lankawe.

  • 1

    The object of inventors of Internet is to deliver very high quality knowledge free for anybody who seeks for it. So the current turmoil, or as it is called in the essay, the destruction is well forecasted one. This is not an unexpected Genie.
    When the Expert System software started come out, the expectation was professionals delivering better service, because they would come to access up-to-date better information. These software were targeted at professionals, yet not expected to replace them. But after the internet search engine revolution, the professional knowledge is no longer hidden within the professionals’ mind. The knowledge is not simply delivered as it is; it is customized to the seeker, with warning and safety precaution needed of how to use the knowledge. Here you don’t have to be waiting for three generation become an elite family member to go to a University and get a professional degree. What the search engines doing is, if you are a Colon Cancer Patient, right away you become a Colon Cancer Patient Consultant too. It is more than diagnosis and treatment. It is put you in the same group, with all available social helps too. No longer you just take a dangerous Chemotherapy, go home and lie on the bed and cry if you will survive, because your doctors and the nurses would not be entertained on wasting their time on discussing all with you beyond the treatment.

  • 1

    Yes , Intellectuals and few more Central Banks for every province with
    as much as Mahendrans and Ravis for brighter future !

  • 1

    There are different teaching Styles. I think for difficult or students who know it, the best approach would be a discussion based on different questions which includes t subject matter.

    • 0

      Jim softy dimwit

      “There are different teaching Styles.”

      Whatever the teaching styles yet all your teachers had failed to educate you.

  • 0

    Dr. Wije. thanks but this is all a little bit naive! There is NO Magic Bullet or quick techno-fix for our troubled education system for a good liberal arts and values based education to cultivate educated minds for global citizenship.
    Climate change has shown us that the “fear of scarcity” is very well founded, and mother earth cannot tolerate exploitation at the current rate. Cyber space is not the real world or real economy..

    Someone said wisely recently that “Smart phones make people stupid” Technology can take us only so far before the real world and real economy including massive economic inequality and poverty kick in.! Barack Obama is worried about how social media is a closed loop that serves to re-in force prejudices.
    We live in a world of instant experts (like instant noodles) and Fake international development Experts. We have fake accounting firms that fix FDI, Debt and Growth figures to suit the stories of corrupt politicians. Global accounting firms like PWC, Enron, Arthur Anderson. IMF, works for global 1 percent etc. Price WaterHouse Coopers was recently banned from India for fake accounts. Today the president says that 10 trillion is the SL debt, and Bond scam Ranil has presented Fake FDI figures of 1.6 billion!
    Today we need a new model of development that is socially equitable, and environmentally sustainable and NOT based on get rich fast mentality, materialism, and the notion that Greed is Good.

  • 1

    The Colombo air is polluted and everyone is suffering from bad throats and flu and respiratory health issues that never leave because of the smog and dust we are breathing because of the destruction of tree cover and the particulate dust of the Mega Port city, Sri Lanka is increasingly a development disaster.

    At the end of the day corrupt and uneducated Sri Lanka leaders who have been colonized by and follow Fake international development experts and institutions, rather than working wisely and dismissing fake advise, who are to blame for the Economic Disaster in the name of “Development ” in Sri Lanka today..

    The second reason is the destruction of critical thinking is the Sinhala Nationalist university system and the spread of racism against minorities promoted by corrupt politicians to hide their corruption that is the reason for the current failed development and debt disaster.

  • 2

    Thank you Dr. Wijewardena, for your article. It was very informative and a stark deviation from the usual political article.

  • 0

    It will take more than the simple cell phone to develop a comprehensive digitized educational program. Computerizing education in line with global trends will take a huge chunk out of national earnings (and if considered an investment in, it will be of long-term generational time-span returns).
    In the US, it has produced a digital divide between rich and poor students. Yet it is upheld to sustain the computer industry. It is also found that there is little difference in exam scores between students who use computers for education, and those who learn the more traditional way.
    Yet, if it can be shown that if Thailand and Sri Lanka can come up with a drastically cheaper alternative to create and sustain this industry, then it should be looked into of course. But always remember, Thailand has the advantage of oil-rich Asean countries to give it a boost.

    • 0

      ramona grandma therese fernando

      “In the US, it has produced a digital divide between rich and poor students. “

      Here in this island even without computers, the society has created haves and have not, even at early stage of their birth and development. The few who have and the rest who don’t. I am talking about brain gap.

  • 0

    Unlike in Thailand our politicians do not pay any attention to issues raised by the intellectuals. Our National Academy of Sciences (NASSL)has raised many issues in the past but no one was willing to listen. Most recent is the unscientific banning of glyphsosate without an iota of evidence that it causes kidney disease. Using our mineral resources for value added products is one such instance where the NASSL has recommended the manufacture of single superphosphate from Eppawela apatite. However, politicians are hell bent on selling this deposit to foreign company to reap commissions. Similarly beach sands remain under-exploited. Our politicians are only interested in selling our national assests and not developing them because selling involves underhand collection of commissions..

  • 1

    Wijewardane, the economic man and Worsak, the digital man, are the unlikely ones to give lead in matters of education. The ills of the digital age are completely ignored. Students just read the wikepedia and think that it is all that there is to know. They exchange e-mails or what,s app messages when the lecturer asks a question, making any personal contribution based on falsehood. The young are tied to the Facebook and other digital fora which give them a one-sided view of things. Once converted to a view -eg. Islamic terror- only an example- the pursuit of that angle and deepening commitment to it through internet sources become possible. The reading habit hardly exists. Students are wedded to the web. You can see them walking about peering into their handphones. Direct human contact does not seem to exist. The internet makes the young a pack of zombies. This is not something to celebrate.

    I am still to listen to Chapa. I think it is in English. This is good for the pirivena universities were seen as limited by language. We will not have problems mastering digital technology. Our people have a natural aptitude to such things. The problem for us is to become good humans first, ensure that there is a sense of fairness, introduce meritocracy, ensure that there is no corruption……. The digital technology cannot do much unless education teaches us to be good human beings caring of each other and not butchering each other because the other speaks a different language or belongs to a different religion.

  • 0

    Democracy , its offshoots such as freedom of speech , human rights , good
    governance etc; etc; are not so easy for a country where 43% of population
    is living below breadline . The developed world is flooded with electricals
    and electronics , textiles , cement , bricks and steel and fuel and they were
    invented and created THROUGH HARD WORK and SACRIFICES . It is also a
    mixture of cultural and civilizational advances at various stages in that
    GOVERNANCE (we forget this or ignore this due to our ego) .If you can buy a
    leather belt for ten pounds in London Heathrow and we have leather belts
    for fifteen pounds in Srilanka , what is it that we are talking about ? If a
    minimum standard hotel room in Srilanka is Rs 8000.00 . and you can afford
    a room in London for that price ? I am not talking about Ritz please ! Our
    intellectuals have already in their stocks , foreign education , training and
    travelling experiences ! Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Accountants Police
    high ups al have toured many parts of developed world and what have we got
    in return ? How is Doctor-Patient behaviour ? Lawyer-Clients ? Police-Crime ?
    It is the same with Politics-Voter ! In such an environment what is going to
    work for us ? WE HAVE NO LEADERS ! Simply We Have No Leaders ! In such a
    situation even existing intellectuals are a surplus . WITHOUT HEAD , TRUNK
    IS DEAD.

    • 0


      Who in your view are progressive leaders in the world?

      • 0


        “Who in your view are progressive leaders in the world?”

        Forget the leaders. Most people are liberal, secular, humane, generous, decent, progressive …………………….. except a few, for example the Sinhala/Buddhist fascists, ……. Supporters of Hindutva, Salafi movement, Zionists, ……….. you, ……………

      • 0

        Who in your view are progressive leaders in the world?

        The only progressive one in the world is you Shenal.

        Ok, Now, Can you leave us alone and bugger off from the place, please.

        Hopeless one!

      • 0

        Shenal ,

        I think NV and Mallaiyuran both saved my time with the most
        fitting answer making your life easier .

  • 0

    I Just watched Chapa’s presentation to Management Studies and Commerce
    students at Japura University . First thing first . While lecturers and guest
    speaker are in formal dress , the students , majority or all of them are in casual ,
    many are in T shirts . For many this may not be a serious issue but as far as the
    occasion is concerned , it is an important element . Now to the Chapa factor and
    the management study .Management students are not supposed to be learning
    negative or selfish attitudes of western exploitation of other vulnerable poor
    nations’ resources or labour ! It is purely a political aspect with links to economy
    and management . But whether , Management studies and Commerce students
    can benefit by learning about a subject like sustainable development from a
    negative angle is really questionable though his point has a reason .

  • 0

    A kid with a Smart Phone and a Lap Top will deliver us into a High Income, Developed nation..
    How cool is that..
    Only the UNP kids who have them . Or can afford them.
    No Wonder Dr Harin is promising to digitize Everything….
    And Dr Akila is going to change the Education under Dr Ranil’s guidance..
    And move our inhabitants Kids in to Private schools and Universities.
    And Dr Ranil has put in place his PhD Brigade to utilize those digitized Kids in Economic Development, through Foreign Trade, Investment, Agriculture ,Manufacturing, and Hospitality Services.
    And even appointed Dr Mahendran PhD from Singapore to advice him..
    And Dr Ranil and Dr Rajitha even gave SAITM to us to train the Kids whom Dr Harin is digitizing..
    Why do we need Dr Wosaks?…..

  • 0

    What is needed is critical thinking and competency to apply their knowledge and skills to the problems they face!
    Not to sell their knowledge and skills to the highest bidder, but to use it as a member of a team for the people

  • 0

    Some time ago a human resources expert told me that none of the management students from SJpura were suitable for the jobs they were interviewed.. They have a mentality distorted by ragging, had no common sense, poor in English and could not face an interviewer with confidence. Thier personalities have been well and truly ruined by the raggers from the Peratugami party who want them to paste their posters instead of going for lucrative jobs. So they recruited some moratuwa engineering and Colombo science graduates for management jobs. Another human respource manager told me that they will never recruit students from faculties where there is ragging. This includes the arts and management faculties of SPura science and Arts at Peradeniya, all faculties of Ruhuna and the Arts and Management faculties of Colombo Univ.
    People who indulge in worst forms of human rights violations should not be at management positions is the argument. No wonder the private university graduates where there is no ragging are much more successful in securing to pbs.

  • 0

    Dr. wijewardane: I think every thing is in place in the world. So the universities have to aware of those routes. On the other hand, there is a big fight between developed countries for industrial espionage.I say, degree programs have to be curtailed once the country has enough of that particular discipline. via, exchange knowledge has to be updated very often. Bringing outside people talking to the educated is important. Even when you are thee lecturer, you can introduce new speakers who has some specific knowledge about a certain area of the subject. Knowledge is becoming obsolete very fast. So, research is needed. On the other hand, for basic degree and most employment positions, that much knowledge is not needed. for example, some of your knowledge you gained inside the university may be simply useless. Because the industry need only very little of that. I do not know whether that helped.

  • 0

    At present, what Sri lanka doing, I think, mostly is selling intelligent people or letting brain drain happen and earn foreign exchange out of that. In that context, multidisciplinary degree programs are needed. I heard sometime ago, in russia rocket Scientist could find only the Taxi driver jobs. the west was very happy. Putin changed it. Besides, they were letting those educated come to their countries and do menial jobs. On the other hand, what ever the education and ability is they do not get jobs that affects the country’s advantages over other countries. But, I have Hindians are doing well every where because, thy are happy to change the loyalty. I heard that Malaysian plane was destroyed because it had some very important scientists and they were heading to read a research paper which exposed their work which is lot of money, military strength. Anyway, when Sri lanka is not preparing graduates to suit our country, they should think for what needs we are grooming those peoples the word intellectuals has a wider meaning. the best way is middle way and continuous updating of the knowledge and training. It should not end in the university.

  • 0

    Perhaps we should discuss “Preparing personnel with management skills……..” rather than “Grooming intellectuals……..”.
    Persons with management skills need not be intellectuals but must have plenty of common sense. They must be able to recognise talent, keep up with modern developments and choose the applicable.

  • 0

    How do you define intellectuals?

    • 0

      If you shoot all the tall, the rest are taller! Ask the Old Brother Prince how does he make an intelligent one Thero de Silva!

    • 0

      K.Ananga ~ “How do you define intellectuals?”.
      Cannot define but is often perceived. Examples: Gods of all kind.

      • 0

        K. Pillai
        Thank you for your definition.. I believe Hindus have more Gods than any other religion. So much so one of my Hindu friends once told me that he is happy to be a Hindu because of so many Gods. If one god does not help him he can go to another and so on until he achieves what he wants. An intellectual’s. answer perhaps. Whether he will achieve, is another matter?(In lighter vein)

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