23 October, 2017

Investing In An Educated Society

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

The presidential election result that ushered in new hope on 8th January 2015 came about because many in this country felt that we were in a hopeless rut and wanted change badly. The issues around which the change was mooted were centred on corruption, state accountability, and freedom of expression untrammelled by fear and intimidation. In the latter which, for Immanuel Kant, is the pivotal freedom under which democratic change could be pursued, there has been enormous relief. The main challenge is to consolidate the gains, which requires far-reaching institutional transformation.

What transpired on 8th January was an opportunity for change, not a revolution. We still have to contend with the same state structures, the same administration and practically the same MPs. The minorities, who are more sensitive and expected to see benign change towards efficiency and professionalism, frequently encounter the same obstacles. There is no revolutionary solution to such dilemmas. Lenin replaced the Tsarist administration with party functionaries, who became corrupt soon enough; the result was the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 which almost wrecked the Soviet regime. The post-apartheid government in South Africa showed considerable wisdom in trying slowly to transform the old regime’s institutions by putting in place committed persons who would act wisely without giving undue offence. That required a Nelson Mandela.

While the challenges confronting us are enormous, one does not see the necessary bold initiative to challenge institutional decadence that is only too evident. One instance is the shying away from a uniform standard for those under arms who committed crimes. It is a dangerous fallacy to divide them into heroes and terrorists, which is evident in the failure to find a way to release quickly, Tamil PTA detainees who have been languishing many years without charges.

Such disregard for the legal rights of others, or the common courtesy owed to them, are symptoms of a closed society mired in identity politics from before independence. The record we have of Lankan history is one of remarkable tolerance and a willingness to learn and benefit from others from the earliest times on record, in contrast to the religious violence against Jews in Europe at the onset of the Crusades. Lanka, if it is to become a great nation, needs to go much further than technical compliance with pledges made to the UN. It needs to be in earnest about uniting the country behind a common purpose, which requires the healing of past wrongs and complete openness.

Much of our conflict, and the mass murder it witnessed, has behind it the use of history to make claims to land, to mount religious edifices and to exclude others. The State set the precedent and the disease of claims and exclusions becomes an infectious game played by all comers. To cite a typical instance, once our scholars identified Fort Frederick in Trincomalee as the site of Gokanna Vihare in the Mahavamsa through absurdly flawed historical reasoning, based on occurrence of the generic name in contexts far apart in time; it provided the Army, other state institutions and assorted patriots the pretext to turn the area into a ‘historic’ Buddhist location. The contribution of such follies to the making of the ethnic war, and the tragedy of superfluous heroes on both sides, cannot be exaggerated. We have to heal ourselves by changing our attitudes. There is little the UN or a foreign government can do to help in this regard.

Ancient Greece gives us two precedents that have hugely influenced the course of history. One is Sparta, a highly militarised, xenophobic society using harsh measures to keep out new ideas. Soldiering was the main occupation of its males from a tender age, constantly to subjugate their neighbours who produced their material needs. A part of the training of young boys was secretly to exterminate those identified by their spy-masters as having dangerous ideas.

The other example is Athens with its democratic polity which took to the sea, traded and conquered; fair trade being the main objective, the conquered party was frequently invited to be part of a federation of internally self-governing states. The legacy of Athens comes to us from the memorable speech by its leader Pericles: “Not out of fear but out of a feeling of what is right should we abstain from doing wrong…Virtue is based most of all upon respecting the other man…We ought to do our utmost to help those who have suffered injustice…The wise man belongs to all countries, for the home of a great soul is the whole world…Our administration favours the many instead of the few: this is why it is called a democracy. The laws afford equal justice to all alike…We are taught to respect the magistrates and the laws and never to forget that we must protect the injured. And we are also taught to obey those unwritten laws whose sanction lies in the universal feeling of what is right…Our city is thrown open to the world; we never expel a foreigner.”

These words spoken 2450 years ago contain the essence of what we need to know about democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It gives considerable satisfaction to know that these noble words of Pericles were generously recorded by the historian Thucydides, whom, Plutarch informs us, was his political adversary and disliked Pericles’ democratic leanings. The legacy of Greek humanism is by no means alien to us. Writing 1500 years later, ample tribute was paid to it by the Persian-born Islamic scholar, mathematician and scientist, Al-Biruni, in his Tarikh Al-Hind (History of India), before its rediscovery by Renaissance Europe.

While Pericles’ is good and sound philosophy, it is rather the legacy of Sparta that appeals to the will to conquer and dominate, which, having become the anchor of Rousseau’s Social Contract, took the world by storm. Writing in 1946, Bertrand Russell tells us in his History of Western Philosophy, “Much of [the Social Contract’s] philosophy could be appropriated by Hegel in his defence of the Prussian autocracy. Its first fruits in practice were the reign of Robespierre [in the French Revolution’s Terror of 1793/4]; the dictatorships of [Soviet] Russia and [especially Nazi] Germany.”

Indeed, modern nationalism, not least in our land, has drawn heavily from the Spartan legacy. Lanka has seen enormous destruction of its potential with little to acclaim. The French Revolution after the Reign of Terror which ended when its leaders sent one another in turn to the Guillotine was followed in 1794-5 by the White Terror, where royalist remnants tried to reassert themselves; the revolution ended with Napoleon’s accession in 1799. No major event as a revolution ends without convulsions in its wake. Having observed the convulsions in France, Marx reflected, following the latest in 1848, “All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

The youth who launched the Tamil struggle in the 1970s espoused egalitarianism, secularism and ending caste exclusion. The Jaffna University whose staff I joined in 1985 breathed all this. We too had our reign of terror. Now we seem to be longing for a Napoleon to restore old privileges and exclusions. Important pointers are, we have suicidally antagonised the Muslims and rudely dismantled the secular spirit of Jaffna University. This is an extension of what has happened on a national scale: Our educational and university systems have become part of the decadence that has overtaken the nation. The failure of our guardians of intellectual integrity has been long standing. An important step towards making us a great nation is to look for bold correctives in education.

Our study of history – the story of humanity in its complexity, diversity and the challenges it faced – from our school days plays an important role in building a sound intellectual tradition as an alternative to closing minds. To teach history as propaganda that worships ‘national heroes’ and execrates others, is a sure means to numb our intellect and dull our humanity. It should rather be done with a critical mind as exemplified in Plutarch’s account of Lycurgus: “… although the history of these times is such a maze, I shall try, in presenting my narrative, to follow those authors who are least contradicted, or who have the most notable witnesses for what they have written about the man.” It is in school that students should have such scholarly exposure. This still happens in Britain, where a teacher collects A. Level students who want to offer Russian or French history and guides them through recent scholarly works.

I am aware that this critical attitude is largely not developed even in our universities. Matters become worse when one goes to Mathematics – the Queen of the Sciences. One could obtain a special degree with a class almost never having attempted independently a tutorial problem. It is these graduates who go to teach Mathematics in schools, where students are not exposed to a scholarly appreciation of a discipline that Plato’s Academy regarded as key to understanding the Universe. The West, Russia, Japan and China accord Mathematics a revered place that holds the sciences together. Such is the view of Mathematics here that after university entrants opt first for engineering and then several applied science courses stitched together under the job-oriented category (the task of polytechnics), Mathematics gets the left-overs.

Little wonder that our intellectual climate and universities have become marked by a lack of interest and even contempt for fundamentals. It is reflected in our public debate, and reflections on history and politics and general indifference to the wider world and its throbbing developments. It is journalists in Lanka and not academics who write the best articles on the wider issues. Taking a walk through a university library and looking at books on two decisive events affecting us, the French and Russian Revolutions, one finds mostly books donated by a generation long since retired; hardly any have been ordered by university staff using fairly generous library allocations. Few of the available books show evidence of use by staff or students. One could find similar neglect in other disciplines. In the vital areas of intellectual life, the Humanities and Sciences, we are sending out intellectually demotivated graduates into the world, frequently seeking to pass life doing banal government chores or in insipid teaching.

We were given a sharp jolt on our contempt for fundamentals and its consequences in the Z-score fiasco over university admissions in 2011 that had to be rectified by a Supreme Court decision. It has its origins in our university system having produced several experts in Statistics who are weak in their Mathematical fundamentals. One with a sound background in Advanced Level probability would not have made the blunder affecting the future of hundreds of students.

In 1971, a professor of electrical engineering (who fortunately is still active in the public domain) told our class, “If a problem stumps you, go back to your fundamentals and think it through.”

We are sending out graduates avoiding any real check on what we are producing. They will get into our public services and make decisions for us. The system is underwritten by the Government and works towards protecting itself by covering up glaring shortcomings. In Jaffna roads are being broadened at huge expense for high speed vehicles and trees are disappearing for ever, for the benefit of a tiny rich or privileged segment. There is no thought for the approaching depletion of oil that calls for an entirely new transport policy.

The present state of affairs signifies that we have lost our self-determination in relation to planning our future and have been reacting to economic pressures. The world economy would move on and would be happy to accommodate us as a purveyor of low-end outsourced services. Others use us as they find us and would happily lend us money for wasteful projects to protect their own banks and industries. Our running down of Mathematics, the Humanities and accomplishments of the intellect is our own fault. No self-respecting country would accept this and we could see its effects in the qualitative debilitation of our services. Developing a healthy economy would require that we protect and advance the accomplishments of the intellect. Lee Kuan Yew was careful about that.

Correction takes time, but fortunately we have many expatriates willing to help and have knocked on our door in vain. For a start, we could open up our university system by taking a strict view of abuses in recruitment that make us academically sterile and end restrictive practices that enable obviously good scholars to be kept out on silly technical grounds as a mismatch between the first degree and the postgraduate degree in closely related fields. Our current president is not the first to invite qualified expatriates to come and serve. When they do try, they soon find they are unwelcome in the universities and the UGC passes the buck when approached.

More important than our universities is to reform our school system so that students would have exposure to real scholars and have real experience of scholarship before they go to university. This would mean enabling academically well-grounded persons who go into school teaching, to earn what would be paid a university teacher.

On a related matter, national reconciliation and fair play call for change in the present admissions policy; for it entails that the academically best school leavers from the war-affected zone are sent to Jaffna, Eastern or South-Eastern universities which are stagnant, run down or conduct several important courses just in name. This becomes pressing given the indifference shown by the UGC and the Ministry in addressing appalling abuses in universities on the fictitious pretext of university autonomy. On present showing there is little prospect of improvement and the war-torn region would remain condemned to relative backwardness.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    0

    Thanks Rajan!

    • 1
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      Dr. Rajan Hoole

      Investing In An Educated Society

      Thank you.

      We should Invest In An Educated AND Skilled Society, that can meet the society’s needs.

      “In the latter which, for Immanuel Kant, is the pivotal freedom under which democratic change could be pursued, there has been enormous relief. The main challenge is to consolidate the gains, which requires far-reaching institutional transformation.”

      Yes. An Educated AND Skilled Society understands this better.

      “Little wonder that our intellectual climate and universities have become marked by a lack of interest and even contempt for fundamentals. It is reflected in our public debate, and reflections on history and politics and general indifference to the wider world and its throbbing developments. It is journalists in Lanka and not academics who write the best articles on the wider issues. Taking a walk through a university library and looking at books on two decisive events affecting us, the French and Russian Revolutions, one finds mostly books donated by a generation long since retired; hardly any have been ordered by university staff using fairly generous library allocations. “

      Very sad and very pathetic. Ultimately,m it is the Internet, the Broadband, and Google that will have to fill in the deficiencies.

      So, we are producing and “Educated” and Unskilled workforce.

      Are we producing a generation of Monks, Priests and Ulama, educated in their disciplines, but unskilled in contributing otherwise?

  • 5
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    A most perceptive and welcome article which has immense current relevance to all of Sri Lanka – and a new photograph of Rajan Hoole.

    We had got used to some very necessary chapters of internecine warfare among Tamil groups in the out-of-print 14 year old book: Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” which are going to be of significance only to later generations.

    Now we have Rajan focussing on present problems, and I hope that this article gets thoroughly discussed because the issues he has raised are going to have significant effects on the development of analytical skills among the children now growing up.

    Rajan has directed our attention to the benign government of Athens by Pericles, but let us not forget how short a flowering it had. In the ultimate analysis its “destruction” by 404 B.C. was as a result internal weakening owing to the “lunatic democracy” of the demagogues, rather than the super-efficiency of the Spartan war machine.

    We don’t want to get bogged down in contrasting Pericles and Cleon, though, but rather let us hope that some of the incisive minds which were not commenting on purely Tamil affairs now tell us what they see as the applicability of Rajan’s observations on how young minds are getting shaped today.

    • 3
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      Sinhala Man,

      Thanks for your comment and the remarks on how a vibrant and progressive Athens was destroyed by the demagogues.

      It is from articles such as those of Rajan Hoole and comments like your’s that I learn and remember now.

      Dr.RN

    • 1
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      Sinhala_Man

      Thanks.

      Here is the link for the book, SRI LANKA:THE ARROGANCE OF POWER
      Myths, Decadence & Murder

      by Rajan Hoole

      http://www.uthr.org/Book/Content.htm

      1.2 Roots and Implications of Sinhalese-Buddhist Ideology

      http://www.uthr.org/Book/CHA01.htm#_Toc521555833

  • 3
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    The quote from Pericles is quite apt in the circumstances in which we are trying to write a new constitution to shape our future. I hope the words of Perucles will penetrate the thick skulls of our politicians and the extremists who are crawling out of their dark holes once again to do mischief in our names, Let us aspire to make an Athens and not a Sparta!

    Thanks Dr. Rajan Hoole for focusing light on what is right.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 2
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    The highest percentage of school candidates that have qualified for university education from the advanced level examination of 2015 has been from Jaffna District, Examination Department sources said. According to Examination Department sources out of a total of 7,346 candidates who had sat for the examination from the Jaffna District, 4,872 of them had passed the said examination resulting in a 66.33 percentage. The lowest percentage has been recorded from Polonnaruwa District. In the Polonnaruwa District a total of 3,455 candidates had taken the examination of which only 1,961 had qualified for the university entrance, which has resulted in a 56.76 percentage.

    Meanwhile, Colombo District has had the ignominy of having the most number of candidates (2,071) who had failed in all three subjects. That is percentage wise is 7.99. The second place in the list has gone to the Gampaha District which is 1,771.The Western Province has gained the first place from the Biology stream while the Northern Province has claimed the first place in the Maths stream. The Sabaragamuwa Province has gained first place in both Biology and Commerce while the Uva Province has gained the first place in Arts stream.

    • 3
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      Dear Anpu,

      I fear that I tend to make comments that are “safe”; let me change that practice here:

      I’d like to thank you for that interesting collocation of statistics, but point out that some of the figures that you have given are percentages, while others are numbers of candidates. I can’t help feeling that you’ve been selective in what you present. That’s what most of us do, I guess; we are peddling some agenda. That begets suspicion. Some guys will get suspicious, no matter what, but a few try to identify people whom they have had no knowledge of, who appear to be fair. Dr Rajan Hoole I have not met for forty-five years, but I don’t hide the fact that I know him. And what a guy he’s turned out to be! He has succeeded in emptying his self when he writes: absolutely objective he is. Some still confuse him with his brothers, particularly Samuel RatnaJeevan, but I think that now most readers have begun to realise that this is one guy who will say the same thing, no matter what his audience is.

      However, I have noticed that there’s one thing that he seems never to do: that is to comment on the comments. I just don’t know enough Maths to “expose” what you are saying, but I think that it has to be done! Not to prove you a villain, but so that we gradually come to sharing viewpoints where-ever that is possible.

      If I say, thanks Dr, Rajasingham Narendran, I hope you will not consider that mutual backscratching. Some will say that! Never mind; I know him only through his CT comments. The same is true of Amarasiri, Native Veddah (is it the same person?), Spring Koha, Justice and Fairplay, Maheshan Niranjan etc. His brother, Maheshan Nirmalan, I got to know because of comments that we had made on the Internet. I think it is time that we began identifying writers of balanced articles and comments who have backgrounds different from ours.

      I quote what Rajan Hoole, PhD (Mathematics, Oxford) has said above:

      “We were given a sharp jolt on our contempt for fundamentals and its consequences in the Z-score fiasco over university admissions in 2011 that had to be rectified by a Supreme Court decision. It has its origins in our university system having produced several experts in Statistics who are weak in their Mathematical fundamentals. One with a sound background in Advanced Level probability would not have made the blunder affecting the future of hundreds of students.”

      I’ve just looked at the Supreme Court judgement (for the first time):

      http://www.supremecourt.lk/images/documents/SCFR_29_2012.pdf

      This is how it concludes:

      “The 2nd respondent is directed to comply with Section 15 (vii) of the Universities Act, No.16 of 1978, as amended and to take necessary and relevant steps to calculate the Z-Scores of the candidates who sat for the Advanced Level Examination, 2011 according to accepted statistical norms and principles on the basis that the Old Syllabus and New Syllabus are two distinct populations.

      The 2nd respondent is also directed to take necessary steps according to law to re-issue the Z-Scores to all the candidates who sat for the Advanced Level Examination, 2011, after correcting the aforementioned errors and shortcomings, without any unnecessary delay.”

      Dr. Shirani A. Bandaranayake, CJ
      Chief Justice

      N.G. Amaratunga, J.
      I agree.
      Judge of the Supreme Court

      K. Sripavan, J.
      I agree.
      Judge of the Supreme Court

      Note also the names of the judges. I think that most people in Sri Lanka (who were ignorant – like me – but were concerned not to continue in ignorance for ever) by now feel that Shirani Bandaranayake survived for long making judgements that were politically correct. However, when things got intolerable, then she fell foul of the Rajapaksas, and had to pay a huge price, without the prospect of her exoneration a year ago.

      However, please study now the predicament of the present perfectly decent (my feeling, going only on what I read in blogs etc) Chief Justice.

      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/abuse-of-national-list-impotent-judiciary-reported-to-commonwealth/

      I feel sorry for the poor man, but am I being a racist when I say that Tamils are often deliberately placed in important positions for two reasons? One is to tell the world community that there are Tamils in key positions; Two is the knowledge that a minority man will do as told by his king!

      Oh, dear what did I say? Criticising Maithri after working so hard to get him elected? Yes, that, too, is necessary! I still repose a good deal of faith in him, though!

      I didn’t know who Naganantha Kodituwakku was, but now I’m following what he is doing, but I fear that I’m spending far too much of time on the net.

      Another man I knew little of is this 88 year old who is writing courageous articles on Islam. I’ve actually by now spoken to him on the phone, and then found out his e-mail address; I feel that it would be a privilege for me to meet him:

      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/after-islamic-fundamentalism/#comments

      If you were to click on his name at the top of the article, you will find that he has written something even after that – but before that you will probably be taken to (I saw them an hour ago) virulent attacks on him by H.L.D. Mahindapala, whom I consider a very clever writer, but an absolute racist – living in Australia, part of the Sinhalese Diaspora.

      It’s time we had “moderates” from all communities trying to identify one another.

  • 5
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    Dr,Rajan Hoole,

    What is the solution? Does the fact that more students from Jaffna qualified for university admission this year, point to the excellence of the prevalent schooling system or the success of the tuition industry? Do the grades they have obtained reflect on the quality of the education ( knowledge + culture + wisdom) that they have imbibed? Is there an urgent need to change the curriculum and permit more leeway the schools to decide how they teach? Should the manner in which we recruit teachers and train them be changed? Should teachers be paid much better ( you have alluded to this)?
    Should society be more involved in running schools rather than the government? Was the nationalization of schools a big mistake?

    Dr.RN

  • 1
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    The Problem is, that it is not the Best Minds that go on to Teaching.

    It is the Students who have gone to Tuition Classes and learnt Answers to Past Papers ‘By Heart’, who become Teachers or run Tuition Classes.

    They cannot think for themselves or innovate new methods of Teaching.

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