(A shorter version of this speech delivered was via Zoom at the Convocation of the Open University, Sri Lanka, on 15th of December, 2020)
Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Registrars, Deans, Directors, librarian, professors, lecturers, other dignitaries , graduating students, ladies and gentlemen,
It is with a sense of pride and gratitude that I deliver the convocation address of this year at the open university. We are in the middle of a pandemic. In addition to taking and harming many lives all over, the pandemic has robbed me of the opportunity of standing in front of you in a grand convocation hall looking at lighted with happiness. Yet, I am speaking to you standing in front of a computer, and you are participating in one of the most important events in your lives. Let us collectively show that human spirit can cope with and survive any pandemic.
Because of the current Covid 19 epidemic, some scholars argue, access to education will fall back to the level of access existed in 1980s, and, in some countries, 9 out of 10 children will fall out of schools. In our country too, the long –term impact of the epidemic on education, is likely to be much worse than we think. Perhaps, the need for the kind of education provided by the Open University will be greater in a post-Covid Sri Lanka.
The Open University has a special place in my heart for several reasons. For one, I have some of my closest friends at the Open University, and they are among the most renowned literary writers, scholars and intellectuals in the country. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, the concept of education at the Open University is also dear to my heart. Teaching at a conventional university, I have the luxury of meeting and teaching a considerable segment of the brightest young men and women in the country. But all of them come into the university through a single, narrow path called GCE (A/L). I wish I had students entering my own university through other legitimate doors making our student population more diverse in gender, age, region, ethnicity, religion and so on. Extremely competitive GCE advanced level is practically useful in selecting the best students for limited space at universities. But I am particularly in favor of leaving doors open for adult students to enter higher education, whenever they feel ready.
At crucial points of our lives, we all sit down and reflect on the way things have been, and at those times we often look for the help of new sources of wisdom to reorganize ourselves. At such moments, if someone wants to say to herself ‘I should return to formal education. But I don’t want to do A/Levels again’ that person should be able to find a way to do so. The Open University has been a haven for those who rethink, reconsider, reevaluate, and reorganize their lives. I intentionally used the prefix ‘re’ several times. Return, rethink, reconsider, reevaluate, reorganize, renew and the list can go on for several minutes. A society is truly free, truly just, truly democratic, when people have a second chance – another opportunity of taking a shot at a better life, a qualitatively different life. The Open University has provided many of you that chance. In a country that has witnessed epic scale bloodshed due to the lack of a second chance, you belong to an exclusive group of privileged people. A great Sinhala poet, Ariyawansha Ranavira said in a short poem,
යළි එති කවිය වෙත
මහළු හිස් නමමින
return to poetry
their aging heads
Not just to poetry, people do return to many good things later in their lives. As poetry, all areas of life should be beautifully ready to welcome those who return. Not just bending their heads over but their heads held high, people should be able to return to formal sources of knowledge and wisdom.
I hope very much that you will be able to carry that spirit of openness grounded on ‘the idea of second chance’ into your life worlds and to make some changes in those worlds as well.
Other meanings of openness
Let me now introduce few other meanings of ‘openness’ I like to see in education not only in your own university but in other institutions as well. For us in Sri Lanka, education is not just a mode of acquiring knowledge and wisdom. It is the greatest social leveler in modern Sri Lanka. Ours is an extremely unequal society. We are unequal in ethnicity, religion, gender, class, caste, region and so on. To make matters worse, we are unequal in terms of schools we attend. Education was the most important mechanism that has brought about at least some sense of equality in our society. Let me cite one quick example from Casting Pearls: The Women’s Franchise Movement in Sri Lanka – a wonderful little book by professors Kumari Jayawardane and Malathi de Alwis. In 1881 female literacy in Ceylon was 3% by 1921 it had increased to 21%. When the University College of Ceylon was established in 1921, only four female students entered there! Just four. That means, merely 3.5 % of the first intake of students were women.
Nearly hundred years later, at the University of Peradeniya, faculty of arts, 85% or more are female students. There are many areas where, women are underrepresented and underemployed. But if it wasn’t for free education, including open education that your university provides, the inequality between men and women could have been so much worse. I invite both ladies and gentlemen taking part in this convocation to imagine living in a Sri Lanka where female literacy rate is merely 3 %. After hundred years of higher education, rampant insanity of this country is oppressive enough!
Every one of us, teachers, students and administrators, must remember that free education has been the greatest social leveler of our country. So that we do not forget the significance of leaving it open to people from diverse backgrounds.
Let me touch on another aspect of being open in education. Human beings struggle with natural and social conditions everywhere in order to create a life with justice and equality and freedom; in order to create a finer co-existence with the natural world. In the process, human beings create knowledge everywhere and at different circumstances. Being open to such knowledge without being parochial is one key aspect of being open in education.
In a time of celebration of cultural difference, one of our challenges is to realize the shared history of humanity. What we have in common is often overlooked in our celebrations of uniqueness and singularity. Throughout human history human communities have had numerous intricate connections with each other. In terms of sharing knowledge and culture, globalization is much older than we think it is. More than ten thousand years ago, tribal communities from Mongolia walked over Alaskan ice and started three civilizations in the New World, in other words, American continents. Of course, for them that huge land mass was neither new world nor America. Even today, Native American people look a bit like Himalayan Asians. When I first met a Native American person for the first time in 1998, in Wisconsin, I thought ‘my goodness, he looks Asian!’ Even when people don’t look like us, we are related in multiple ways. A goal of our education should be to see why and how those connections were made.
Some of those similarities come into being because we humans are similar to one another in our hard biological wiring. Two American historians, J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, father and son, wrote a fascinating book called The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History, where they convincingly demonstrated human beings everywhere are connected one another both for genetic reasons and for social-cultural reasons. According to them domestication of plants and animals began in multiple separate places independent of each other: South West Asia 11000-4000 years ago, China 9000-6000 years ago, Central Mexico 6000 – 4000 years ago, South America 5000-4000 years ago. Roughly at the same time in history, human beings everywhere have decided to put an end to, their hunter-gathering lives and remain at one place farming a garden and raising a family. This similarity occurs because we human animals are alike in our basic nature. Interestingly, in nearly all those places women were the ones to domesticate plants and animals. Perhaps, they might have told themselves, ‘now it is enough of wandering carrying these children. Now we want to stay foot and make home. That thought, womanly thought, motherly thought, if you will, may have been a key thought that led to the creation of our civilizations. And the same thought may have unwittingly led to the domesticating of women themselves.
We may have discovered farming at different places unknown to each other. But our connections have developed to such a degree that manioc/cassava, potato, sweet potato domesticated in South American low lands, are our own several centuries later. Yes. We did borrow potato from South America through Europeans, but in South Asia we have more than four hundred ways of cooking it, as Shashi Tharoor once said.
Ladies and gentleman, I can go on giving you numerous examples of these connections and cultural uniqueness. Openness in our education should be to see these connections and to respect uniqueness. We also need to realize that some of the uniqueness may be also made of borrowed elements. Some of you are graduating today might be entering the field of education; some of you might be already in that field; our country needs this lesson of multiple interconnections and similarities between people and cultures.
In our higher education, there should be an openness of another kind. Let me briefly touch on it and it will be the last point I will be making in this speech. In our education system, different fields of studies need to be open to each other and to develop conversations on key concepts in those specific fields. Working in the field of literary and cultural studies, I should be able to engage in serious discussions with scholars in natural sciences, for example. Our education needs to foster such conversations. Descartes made an error in over emphasizing rational mind and considering other sensory experience to be secondary in cognition. Perhaps, it is the case in cognition; but cognition, acquiring rational knowledge on something, is only a part of human existence. We are human beings not only because we think, we are human beings because we feel – emotionally feel. Recent studies in neuroscience have shown that emotions, our feelings, are important even for our rational thinking. American neuroscientist Antonio Damascio’s research on brain-damaged patients has demonstrated that patients with injuries in the areas in their brains that deal with emotions are not capable of making, rational decisions about appropriate behavior and so on. In our brain, the areas that deal with emotions are physically separated from the areas that deal with reason and logic. as the faculty of arts and the faculty of science in Sri Lankan universities! Though physically located in separate domains, the emotion-compartment of the brain is required for the reason-compartment in making sound decisions. Damascio’s eye-opening book, Descartes’ Error, can be an invaluable guide in rethinking our education and in opening the doors of our specific fields to other fields.
Moreover, Descartes’ error has led to a kind of anthropocentricism where human beings are made supreme on the ground that they alone have rational consciousness. Recent environmentalists and zoologists have shown that even trees have their own collective consciousness, and they consciously act for survival. For example, when one tree is attacked by a swarm of locusts, that tree emits a hormone-like compound to the air so that wind can take the news of attack to other trees of the same kind. And those trees now have time to emit another chemical compound, that might repel the locusts. As long as we are closed in our educational habits and habitats, we cannot know that trees do communicate with one another, perhaps even with us. Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about ‘consciousness of trees’ in her beautifully written book, Braiding Sweetgrass. These are more other reasons for me to argue for more openness in education.
Such openness is not possible, if scholars are like the lion of Sinhabahu, the play, who practically imprison their intellectual progeny in the caves of narrowly specialized knowledge. We need a generation of Sinhabahus who are capable of holistic thinking not just of breaking the rock door of the cave, the compartmentalized knowledge.
In our times, specially learned person is not the one confined to one’s on narrow specialization. For us, specially learned person, is the one who is able to put his specialized knowledge in meaningful conversations with other areas of human knowledge. Scholars around the globe are increasingly realizing this openness in education. Respected professors in natural sciences, attending this convocation, please pardon me if I am stepping into your own areas of specialty. And I am making a case of such trespassing, anyway. Biologists talk about a part of our brain called “amygdala”. When we accidentally chew on, rotten food or something, a chemical reaction occurs in that part of the brain and we instantly throw up that food even before conscious thought occurs.
Here is what fascinates me: the same part of human brain gets chemically activated, when we see something morally disgusting, such as an old woman being physically attacked. Now, see brain chemistry of the faculty of science, and the ethics of the faculty of arts, are much more connected than we have made them look, particularly in our country. I learned these connections from the stunning book by Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
Ladies and gentlemen, You are graduating from the open university today. I wanted to stir your mind a bit about possible meanings of ‘openness’ in education. I hope you will be able to strive for more open conversations at your world of work and the world of leisure. After all, the idea of openness is in the name of your own university. You are graduating today taking that name with you. That alone makes you special.
From Peradeniya, I send you all, all the good wishes!