By Ruvan Weerasinghe –
Almost two decades ago, when I started attending University Senate meetings, the long attendance list consisted of several with the title ‘Dr.’ and some with ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ and a few right at the top with that of ‘Prof.’. Some of those in this small list at the top were in fact recognized as those who had dedicated their lives to the study of science or of letters. Some, not all, even then. That was already different to the absolute respect we felt towards those with that title who taught us two decades prior to that. Today, the Senate attendance list is full of those with this title, with a few at the end with ‘Dr.’ or ‘Mr./Ms.’. In fact, a new kind of animal has appeared at the top of the list with a Sri Lankan specific title ‘Snr. Prof.’! While the great Valentine Joseph in the sciences or Ediriweera Sarachchandra in letters, were all titled ‘Prof.’, this new breed of ‘super-intellectuals’, led by no less than Vice Chancellors, insist on being addressed in public as ‘Snr. Prof.’ and not simply ‘Prof.’!
The public is mostly still in awe at these titles, but business and industry have figured out that if they expect any cooperation with the universities, they better title all academics. Their simplified strategy is to avoid any issue of ill-titling by referring to any academic as ‘Prof.’, as that will not upset almost anyone – except probably the ‘Snr. Prof.’ title appropriators. As a junior academic I used to correct these ‘outsiders’ each time, but stopped doing so after realizing that it was a strategy than the conferring of any kind of respect! Besides, the countless academics in cultures where academics are in fact referred to as ‘professors’, made it futile to try to correct, as it was not incorrect in their contexts.
Ironically, what the outside world has adopted as a strategy has seeped into the university as well. This works out in a way that if one is ‘old enough’ to be a ‘Prof.’, they are automatically addressed as such, irrespective of what their designation is. That must offend newly promoted ‘Prof.’ title holders no end! However, within the university there’s far more hierarchy starting with the ‘bottom of the pile’ ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’ titles, then ‘Dr.’, then ‘Prof.’, and now, the new high, ‘Snr. Prof.’.
And then, there’s the confusion of medical doctors who’ve long established the tradition of using the title ‘Dr.’ soon after graduating with a bachelor’s degree! That is so entrenched, that PhD holders almost feel they are usurpers of the title! Not to be outdone, engineers started using ‘Eng.’ and architects ‘Arch.’ or some such! Today, there are a ridiculous number of such titles floating around, many of which are quite obscure.
This obsession with titles, especially in countries like Sri Lanka, appears to point to some deep underlying insecurities. The strange thing is that education doesn’t seem to address these insecurities, but rather apparently exacerbates them! We have heard of horror stories of patients being corrected for referring to a ‘rival’ consultant as ‘Prof.’ when they had ‘less points’ than themselves (another consultant), and even being withdrawn attention in critical situations owing to such! And yet, these are considered the absolute cream of our society on whom the country spends the most amount of time and money educating!
Apart from ‘Dr.’ which is an earned title, the use of these (primarily internal university) titles in public, in particular in business and politics, is akin to using the title ‘Snr. Manager’ or ‘Snr. Director’ in public by those in other organizations – something that doesn’t happen, yet! The moment one steps out of one’s organization, one becomes simply a person with a designated name. So, if these, the most ‘educated’ of our society behave in this little-minded way, what can we expect of the rest of society that has not had such opportunities (largely at state expense)?
This is why, we need to all think of the implications of the Aragalaya in each of our spheres of operation – not just that of politicians. Within that movement, we were all equals, citizens joined by a common interest in getting rid of these ‘old ways’ and seeking to install a ‘new order’ where past performance is the fundamental determiner of future potential. All facades were thrown aside, and each had something to learn from the other, irrespective of their diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. It was a breadth of fresh air that was a sign of what Sri Lanka potentially could look like, if we concentrated on what unites us, rather than distinguishes us in terms of pseudo titles, ranks and socio-economic status.
To be sure, the Aragalaya is not dead – far from it! Nor does the Aragalaya refer to any single bunch of people such as those who manned Gate Zero, the IUSF or even exclusively the youth – though these groups inspired the many. The Aragalaya is you and me, all those who walked to Galle Face in the blistering heat with very little public transport and while hard pressed financially! Moving forward, these post-2022 years are about how to work out those ideals in the nitty-gritty world of governance. The guardians of the ‘old system’ have been and will continually try to edit the narrative, but our eyes must be firmly fixed on reaching the goals that the Aragalaya gave us a glimpse of.
The upcoming local government election is likely to bring some of the same old bad elements in owing to the exploitability of poverty, but it should also send an absolutely clear signal to all who think that the Aragalaya was a ‘failed attempt’, that those ideals are here to stay, and that unless one aligns with them, their doomed to fail in the years to come.