Colombo Telegraph

Literate But Stupid?

By Sujata Gamage

Dr. Sujata Gamage

A talented, vivacious and kind young woman was buried on Independence Day, the victim of a senseless crime. Apparently, a man who had been helped by the family came to rob her house thinking nobody was home, but there she was, a familiar face. A senseless murder followed, leaving a family in unfathomable grief, friends and colleagues shaken and the world a lesser place. The perpetrator too is as good as dead for his wife and children.

These sorts of senseless murders seem to happen too often. A young executive, married to a school teacher, throttles the wife in bed and kills the young son who was a witness to the crime and the infant who was nursing. Then he sets fire to the bed leaving more than enough clues to be caught.

Violence and murders are part of the human existence.  But are we at a stage in this country that murders are committed by ordinary people with unexpected cruelty and stupidity? We boast of a “98 per cent enrolment in primary education, 92 per cent participation in the compulsory span of schooling, adult literacy of 92.5 per cent and gender equality in education,” etc. but, have we allowed human decency and common sense to erode, in the process?


Jayantha Rukmini Siriwardena, an intellectual I respect, wrote an article sometime back with the title “Saksharathaava ihalayi, e vunata modayi”, meaning ‘literacy is high but stupidity is rampant’. I use the title here with apologies to her.

Similar views are expressed by Mr. Wimalaweera Dissanayake, Minister of Education, Cultural Affairs, Land, Land Development & Transport in the Eastern Province. For the last year I have been visiting the Eastern Province helping this unique politician achieve his dream of a better educational system. He would say at every opportunity that we boast of a high literacy rate and we push for success at exams, but we as a society are in a brink of total collapse.  We have lost the ability to live as human beings. We do not know how to handle life’s challenges. Faced with a challenge, you either kill somebody or kill yourself (maranavaa nathnam marenavaa). He puts much of the blame on the education system. At times I felt it was hyperbole, but, with stupidity hitting me in the face, robbing me and others of a lovely human being, I too have become a believer.

It is too easy to blame the politicians in power, but, they are a reflection of us as a society. Why can’t the present regime with the popularity it enjoys give us a moral compass, it is tempting to ask. But they too are part of web of relationships built over years of brutal war which has brought the worst of us into the fore, I think.  Our education system, of which I intend to write at length, too has made us stupider as a society.

There is no short cut out of the present situation. As Siddhartha Gautama and other enlightened beings have taught us, change begins from within, within us as individuals and families. We have to put values above all, in our own lives first.  A good place to start is the way we educate our children. Next time you visit your child’s school, ask not about grades, but, about values. Ask whether your child is learning to be a decent human being? What opportunities does he or she get to understand and empathize with others?  Ask to see the teachers’ handbooks published by the National Institute of Education. You can see them online here . Take a look at the Grade V syllabus, for example. You will be amazed by the divide between theory and practice in our education system. Demand that our education system becomes what it is supposed to be.

*Written in memory of Mel Gunasekera, 1973-2014

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