Colombo Telegraph

On The Art Of Learning How To Think For Yourself

By Tony de Silva

Tony de Silva

Let’s face it, most people who initially saw the title of this article (you could be one of them), clicked on it with the underlying notion that I would be going off on a tirade on something that should be so simple and familiar to the average human being. I’ve spent many days wondering if I should even broach the subject with others, afraid of their reactions to the accusation that most of us merely drift through life subjected to the influence of external entities.

Clearly, the fact that this article exists here means that I’ve reached the stipulated conclusion that most people do need to be reminded, even if just for a brief moment, to pause and think about the course of their lives and their place in this lonely blue planet. I do not intend to spin off on an existential narrative, but I do think it is important to put things into perspective. So, please bear with me if I do introduce the abstract now and then, as my sole purpose is to leave you, the reader, with nothing more than a few simple thoughts that may hopefully help you critique your life’s own discourse for the better.

First of all, let me begin with formal education as this is where our discovery and curiosity of the world is meant to commence and blossom. It sounds beautiful doesn’t it? You take a young child of around four years old, and guide him through the discoveries of many a man who trudged through the Earth, building upon theories and knowledge in order to help sustain humanity for generations to come, so that he in turn can one day venture out, once capable enough to do so, and contribute to the understanding of our surroundings.

In addition to being immersed in this learning environment, the child is also encircled by peers his age to aid in the development and maturity of key social skills necessary to coexist in future communities. As I can only speak from my personal experience of early education in Sri Lanka, unfortunately my subjective affirmation of this experience cannot be more far removed from this contrived description. I recall not so fondly an educational system that solely placed an emphasis on performance, subordination, and conformity. Material that yearned to be apprehended and understood was instead forced into the guts of bewildered students, not to be consumed and digested, but to resurface as regurgitated matter on a test paper. ‘Learning’ took place in the classroom, six hours a day, confined to the walls of a room only slightly larger than your average bedroom. Restlessness was not tolerated. Neither was the query of questions. “Speak when spoken to,” are words I became all too accustomed to. It speaks magnitudes on the atmosphere dedicated to educating our children, when a child would rather go home and engage in private tuition than solicit an answer from a teacher at school.

Once the seed of this dogma has been firmly planted in the depths of our foundation, steps are taken to nourish and feed the roots of subordination. Respect and unabashed obedience are highly valued traits in Sri Lankan society that clearly see its materialism both in school and at home. After all, how can one control and mould a child into what’s deemed to be right and proper, without pontificating their beliefs onto them? How can subjective truths and views exist when society has laid down rules and morals for an objective reality? I play with such sarcasm here, because it baffles me as to how us humans can impose and dictate such terms on one another while being audacious enough as to believe we hold absolute truth.

Our government will argue that resources aren’t plentiful enough to cater to the learning needs of each individual and as a result students will have to be assessed uniformly. While not necessarily incorrect, maybe it’s time we evaluated our educational system itself, instead of sacrificing the personal autonomy and individuality of our children. Finland has been daring enough to do so, and is now reaping the benefits of having some of the most successful schools in the world.

Sadly, the most disturbing aspect of our current system is its role in the breeding of demagogues, and I hope the disastrous consequences owing to the unbridled rule of the previous regime (which needs no further explanation here) will mobilize people to advocate for change. When children aren’t taught to question things at an early age, but to blindly accept truth from figures of authority, we’re eventually left with a nation of adults begging to be guided and told what to do. Insert your ruler fiendish enough to tap into this vulnerability, and a vicious decline is prevalent.

Another factor that needs to be addressed is religion. I have no qualms with organized religion, as long as it’s practiced within the sanctity and boundaries of one’s personal life. Life can appear meaningless at times and if religion fills that existential void and helps you get through the day, I’m not going to be the one to object. However religion should solely be a personal decision and not be thrust onto any individual. A child especially, should not be forced to adopt their parents’ beliefs when they are at an extremely impressionable age. Let them exercise their potential at their own pace to make an informed decision on how they want to live their lives. Instead of fearing repercussions and preparing for the afterlife, shouldn’t we be more focused on teaching our children to be compassionate towards their fellow human beings while on Earth?

Buddhism plays an important role in this country, but somehow appears to forego the propensity to be appraised and critiqued. I hope I’m not misunderstood by this statement. The Buddha teaches his followers an extremely insightful philosophy towards life, but the politicization of Buddhism through the constitution has allowed for unwavering conviction where minimal criticism is dealt with violence, begetting a paradoxical scenario between the non-violent teachings of the Buddha and reality.

Finally, I want to briefly touch upon culture, mostly because it’s something a lot of Sri Lankans are proud of. When I discuss our culture, I wholly refer to our daily norms and attitudes and not our heritage. There seems to be a recurrent theme in our society of being ‘good’. Sri Lankans emphasize this distinction between our culture and its inferior Western counterparts. I have heard many parents praise their children for being pure, i.e. abstaining from alcohol, cigarettes, and sex. And of most importantly, for always heeding their advice and doing what they’re told. Thus forming a repressed, frustrated individual struggling to adapt to adulthood independently, having barely experienced the natural progress of maturity. Well, at this point I hope you know what I’m getting at. I’m not implying that a person needs to experience all forms of vices in life to be self-governing, but the power of freedom to make decisions for your self will most likely lead to a more emotionally stable life.

We’ve been constantly conditioned to think a particular way as children and now even as adults are repeatedly intruded by the media telling us we’re incomplete unless we buy a particular product, or become a specific person. In our busy, technology driven lives, it’s easy to get caught up in the mundane and trivial nuances of life. I write this article with the main intention of stimulating introspection for this very reason. Set aside all other distractions for a moment and reflect on your life, both your past and the future that lies ahead.

Instead of accepting things the way they are, I implore you to challenge norms, traditions and ideas. To always question things. I think it is fundamental that learning how to think for ourselves becomes an integral part of our society in the road that lies ahead. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my journey thus far, it is to understand and be understood. I don’t think I can ask for more.

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