2 March, 2024


Prejudice, Discrimination & Violence In The Free Education

By Jude Fernando

Jude Fernando

Jude Fernando

Sri Lanka Needs a Ministry of Inclusion and Diversity (Part V/VI)

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”  ― Paulo Freire,

“Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” ― Paulo Freire

Education and Learning (MID’s Objective # 3)

Third, the Ministry of Diversity and Inclusion (MID), in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, should address inclusiveness and diversity issues in textbooks and pedagogical practices. It should introduce mandatory education to prepare the learners to live in a multicultural society regardless of the subjects they pursue (and at every level of education). Why? Building a meaningful multicultural society begins with education. Education in such a society is viewed as moral and political practice aimed towards developing empathy for public good and civic responsibility. This approach to education is known as critical pedagogy advocated by thinkers such as Paulo Freire, John Dewey, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Ivan Illich, and Henry Giroux.

Multicultural education as critical pedagogy seeks to develop critical thinking about education’s role in the shaping of identities, and social and political power relations, and to liberate them from prejudices, oppression, and violence.   The purpose behind this is to expand the imagination of the society and empower it to find ways out these social ills by creating learning communities free from race, sexuality, gender age, and ability-based prejudice and discrimination in what is learned, how it’s learned, and how that learning is put into practice. It is also to make learners active participates in bringing such freedom to the rest of society. It is not about programs and events that demonstrate mere physical and symbolic diversity and inclusion; rather, it is about changing the mindsets and attitudes of society, and empowering it to make concrete policy choices and effective implementation strategies. It is also about making education a socially responsible reflection and the practice of meaningful freedom.

Education and Freedom

The key mechanism of this multicultural education program is Sri Lanka’s free education system. Free education is arguably Sri Lanka’s greatest asset and the source of every good thing Sri Lankan society has achieved thus far. Free education taught in Sinhala, Tamil and English mediums, is a privilege that must be protected at all costs. Our celebration of this freedom, however, has escaped many substantive questions about it. How ‘free’ is this free education system? What does this freedom mean? Is this free education system free of the prejudicial and discriminatory ideas, norms, values and practices prevalent in the society? Is it a catalyst through which Sri Lankan society might be freed from the same social ills? Unfortunately, these questions are not a concern of the proposed draft of the Higher Education Act.[1]

FUTAThe multicultural approach to education advocated here seeks produce an educated citizenry that is able freely think and identify ingrained lifestyles that propagate racism, sexism, ageism, and other biases and prejudices by fostering critical thinking, empathy for inclusion, and diversity. At the moment such freedom is limited to a few, and their knowledge does not trickle down to the majority of learners. I do not know of any instance of sustained attempts to address racism, sexism, and homophobia in textbooks and pedagogical practices, or to create an environment for students and teachers to come to terms with how they shape their identities and relationships and the insecurities and vulnerabilities they personally experience and create for others.

Educators lack the training and incentives to create inclusive, diverse and active learning environments in which learners are free to express their views as opposed to an authoritarian transfer of knowledge. Under the later system dominant in country’s education system, the educators and learners are not encouraged to test whether the concepts and methods of the subjects they teach are free of biases and prejudices. The education system takes pride in the religious and cultural values it imparts on learners, but educators rarely have an opportunity to learn how those values disguise and entrench prejudice and discrimination in their daily lives. We have no way of knowing the implications of their pedagogical endeavors for the identities and relationships of learners and for society. How many teachers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals are even aware of prejudices and discrimination in their respective practices?

The current education policies are bureaucratically determined and imposed on the society by the neoliberal institutions (e.g., the World Bank and private corporations) and the state, which devalue education as a public good and the civic responsibilities of its ‘consumers.’ The World Bank’s development models and corporate interests have infiltrated into the education system through works of hired consultant-educators and researchers in the academy, and the pressure exerted on state by the structural adjustment policies. The main purpose here is to subjugate academic pursuits to meet the interests of corporate capital/neoliberal rationality. While the state is complicit with the neoliberal interest, the state is also interested in using academic pursuits to enhance its popular legitimacy and ensure the academy will not be a critical voice against neoliberal economic policies and state power. The ethno-religious nationalism, sexism, racism, and xenophobia in the academy, and the militarization of the academy under Rajapaksa Regime, are all instruments used to create a population subservient to the interests of global capital and the state.

The change to the semester system in Sri Lanka, as in the United States, was well planned and resulted from a series of consultancy projects funded by neoliberal institutions. It is step toward transforming education into a commodity, producing quantifiable narrow economic outcomes, and constraining education. Indeed, combining neoliberal and state interests is challenging. Low investments in higher education and state encouragement toward private educational institutions are subtle ways of dismantling countries’ free education systems. With its primary concern the production of credentials and marketable excellence, corporatized model of education is removed from matters of equity, while schooling as a public good is reduced to a private good, and it offers “ethically debased technical and punitive solutions. It makes education highly vulnerable to breeding highly competitive, insecure and prejudicial learners. It completely deters critical thinking, self-reflection, imagination, and moral judgment beyond the interests of the state and corporations. Multiculturalism helps the learners to understand how corporate and state powers work through the production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge and provide the opportunity for students to be informed subjects and agents of social change. As Robert Hass noted, purpose of education as a moral and political practice is to “refresh the idea of justice going dead in us all the time.”

Resistance to Change

In general, the academy’s current culture is resistant to socially responsible innovative pedagogy. Defensive nationalism, sexism, and ethnocentric notions of Sri Lankan exceptionalism, which are prevalent in the academy, prevent such innovation. Those courageous few, who advocate progressive change, are stigmatized as foreign agents and anti-Sri Lankan elements in the same way that the state marginalizes its critics. Just like the state, charges of Western influences and international conspiracies (often made by those educated in the West and whose children study in the Western academies) are never clarified. Nor are the proponents of these charges interested in organized efforts to counter the corporatization of education under the dictates of the World Bank-led reforms.  The apparent selectivity of resistance to change suggests unwillingness on the part of the established power structure of the university system to change, and the complicity of the academics and authorities to uphold the status quo. While the Western educational system is becoming wide open and make conscious efforts to make leaning inclusive and multicultural, that same openness is slow to develop or is non-existent in the Sri Lankan academy.

Limitations to innovative critical pedagogy are also due to a lack of financial resources, priorities, knowledge, ideas, and professional values produced by the university system. For example, the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) organized a series of protests to increase public investment in higher education, but it has not shown similar interest in reimagining the current state of higher education to make it relevant to current issues of the country.  The education system primarily produces knowledge and professionals for the service of the very economy that is responsible for many of the issues plaguing higher education. Free education under these circumstances is not really free as long as it denies learners the opportunity to recognize their own enslavement to the same ideologies and practices that deny freedom, equality, and justice to anyone in society. Breaking the vicious cycle of impediments against a socially responsible pedagogy requires a systematic revaluation of the current vision, approaches and evaluation mechanisms of the country’s higher education system as a whole, without compartmentalizing it into different disciplines.

Banking and Dialogical Education

Current models generally follows the ‘banking model,’ where teachers deposit ideas into students’ minds as opposed to using dialogical methods (ala Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, John Dewey) where students and teachers share with each other and function as co-creators of knowledge primarily for the purpose of ensuring a more equal and just society. With ‘banking’, students are passive recipients of knowledge, not critical listeners. The interpretive frames they use to evaluate knowledge are what they have inherited from the previous generation, which they use without subjecting them to critical inquiry.

With the banking system, the goal of education is preparing students to serve the interests of the economy and society, not offering a critical awareness of or preparing students to challenge those interests. The compartmentalization of education into specialized disciplines does not create opportunities for most to develop a critical consciousness of racism, sexism, and homophobia, either. Only a minority of those in the social sciences (certainly not those in hard science) have the privilege of such a critical pedagogical experience.

Critical dialogue in the classroom is also hamstrung by the students’ culture of fear tainted with sexism and racism and the hierarchical relationship between students and teachers. Often, the same holds true for teachers who have bravely created a culture of critical pedagogy. Perhaps, this could be a reason why some educators in universities were forced to work with NGOs or foreign agencies, as the traditional academy did not provide a space for alternative thinking. Those who work with these external agencies also run the risk of being marginalized by their own colleagues who brand them as foreign agents acting against national interests.

The prevailing culture of education normalizes and breeds prejudice that students take from the classroom into the real world. This is also the reason that highly educated professionals join racist organizations and have voiced powerful resistance to a political solution to the ethnic crisis. Even left wing political parties have failed to start a dialogue on racism and sexism. We must not forget that one of most brutal attacks against Tamil students happened at the Peradeniya campus in 1983, which contributed to the exodus of students and them joining various militant groups. While there was a Commission to investigate the incident, the there was no University-wide sustained effort to create a dialogue on the role that education plays in ethnic issues. Instead, academic responses were polarized along the lines of ethnicity and mainstream political parties’ views on the ethnic issue. The word ‘racism’ (with certain exceptions) was not an important part of the vocabulary of the academic discourse on ethnic violence.

Furthermore, educational establishments are known to impose unwritten discriminatory standards of regulations on women’s behavior and dress. Administrators have swept many university sexual harassment cases under the carpet as they are not considered a priority. Building an awareness of and accountability to gender and sexuality based discrimination is not a part of overall curriculum and administration. No specific code of conduct on racism, sexism, and homophobia exists in the educational establishment. As much as politicians the educators can easily get away from many discriminatory utterances and practices.

In order to change this ethically debased and intellectually bankrupt culture of learning, Ministry of Inclusion and Diversity (MID) must develop a curriculum on multiculturalism with a focus on the systemic roots of racism, sexism, and homophobia are in the education system and in that society, and that every student regardless of the subject they pursue, must learn. Perhaps, the most important emphasis of curriculum should be to develop a critical awareness of the country’s history and its role in the issues we face in the present, as well as outlining how that understanding informs the future. I think critical consciousness of the past and its uses and abuses in the present is a foundation for building a truly multicultural society, and a course in critical history should be mandatory at levels and specializations of education.

History as Foundation of Multiculturalism

The highly distorted and revisionist history that most Sri Lankans learn at the moment does not do justice to its complexities and nuances. Public does not learn history from professional historians, but from popular actors and monks without professional training. History lessons are mostly about selective memorization of past facts, dates and events, rather developing a critical awareness about how the past is connected with religion and used to legitimize prejudices, discrimination and violence in the present.

Take for example public knowledge of the history of the country, in which the war between Sinhala king Dutugamunu and Tamil King Elara that informs the meaning of citizenship, national identity and functions as a model for country’s rulers since Independence. That history also provides the ideological basis for ethnic relations and communal politics: the entire state was formed on the basis of that history. The narrative of the conflict between King Dutugemunu and King Elara differ in the different chronicles (i.e. Dipawamsa, Mahawamsa, and Saddalamkara), written centuries apart. Yet, in the public mind, the chronicles form a singular and highly racialized narrative that informs their national imagery and historical consciousness of, and relationship to, the Tamils.

The Dutugamunu-Elara war narrative places undue emphasis on the compulsive religiosity and merit-making acts of the kings after they annihilated their enemies. Gananath Obeyesekere refers to such acts as “frantic construction of religious edifices and engaging in displays of conspicuous piety” (1984). To this day, such religiosity absolves politicians of all demeritorious acts, not only during the war, but also in all affairs of governance, and it is a way of avoiding paying restitution for unjust acts and addressing those acts’ root causes. If (mistakenly) read from the perspective of the Western notion of a “just war,” the Dutugemunu-Elara narrative provides legitimacy to the war by making it a just war. The war was a righteous act (Dharma-yuddhaya) and necessary for a just cause (i.e., to protect Dhamma).

The war is justified as a response to “belligerent acts of Tamils” against the Sinhalese and their religion. Today the same argument is extended to justify the war between the government and the LTTE, oppose the devolution of power and meaningful reconciliation of justice. This is work of culture/politics that use history and religion to serve opportunistic political interests. Obeyesekere asserts that “as such, no history, not even modern historical writings with all its pretensions to objectivity and value of evidence, can escape its terrible embrace.” It distorts the history and teachings of Theravada Buddhists on conflict and justice, and it has made religion a slave of the past, rather than allowing it to play a critical voice against how the past is abused to serve the parochial interests of the present.

While the historical consciousness of minorities is not free of the charges that I made about the historical consciousness of the majority, the former cannot be fully evaluated outside the context of the latter, implicated as it is in the state’s ethno-nationalist project. Various forms of racism are evident their respective narratives of history in all communities, and in their respective politics, and sit is passed on from one generation to another, and provided legitimacy for LTTE attacks on the places of worship of the majority community and expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna. These attacks cannot be condoned, nor there is any justification for the use of protest against these attacks legitimizes the exclusionary ethno-nationalist policies. Within the education system, there is no critical discourse on how this official historical narrative shapes the identity and practices of the state and it’s citizens, and how it provides legitimacy for institutionalized prejudice and discriminatory practices that impact beyond the relationship between different ethnic groups, to all affairs of governance and everyday societal practices.

In the absence of a critical consciousness of the country’s official history, the society is unable to recognize the fundamental differences of the implications of racism for different communities, and the responsibility that the state bears in the institutionalization of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Without a critical understanding of abuses history, society cannot reexamine the current notion of citizenship, which remains ill-defined and contested; the reasons for the ethnic conflict; the obstruction of meaningful sharing of political power between Tamil and Sinhala communities; and the reasons for increased inter-ethnic tensions. Arguably, the defensive ethno-religious nationalism derived from this official historical narrative is also responsible for reinforcing ideologies and practices that are prejudicial and discriminatory toward women and non-heterosexual minorities, which is present in every profession (education, medicine, law, governance, etc.). The way society thinks about gender, sexuality, and national identity are deeply interconnected in terms of how it draws on its consciousness and moral judgments of social identities and practices of the past.

Academic institutions and public media do not make the citizenry critical learners of history, but rather its prisoners and passive consumers. Consequently, they are unable to “dream of a future better than the history of the past” (Thomas Jefferson). Tolerance of racism, sexism, and xenophobia will prevail until every community develops a critical consciousness of history by liberating itself from the manipulation of historical cultural and political distortions. Yet people “are not prisoners of fate or history, but only prisoners of their own minds” (Franklin D Roosevelt). Without changing the current mindset of the country’s sense of history with its symbiotic relationship with religion and the political geography of the country, no one can expect the education to play a positive role to change the current political culture, inter-ethnic relations, and economic and environmental policies.

The primary aim of critical historical consciousness that multiculturalism hopes to facilitate is not necessarily to establish absolute truth about, or settling historical paradoxes and puzzles, or make moral judgments about the past. Rather, it is about preventing the past from becoming a source of prejudice and discrimination in the present and the future. In other words, the task of multiculturalism’ is to liberate the society’s understanding of the past from the racism, xenophobia, and political exploits in the present and the future.

A multicultural approach to the study of history is a way of thinking beyond the present, projected beyond the immediate confines of one’s immediate experiences and needs, and entering into a self-reflexive critical dialogue with history and creating the capacity to imagine a future that will not reproduce the ills of the past. Similarly, multicultural education that emphasizes diversity and inclusion, combined with a critical consciousness of history, is not about combining diverse groups, attempting to develop a homogeneous culture, imposing integration of different communities against their will or simply tolerating each other’s culture. It is about maintaining a democratic cultural mosaic by creating the space for people to come to terms with discrimination and prejudices inside and between cultures and developing mechanisms to address them.


Multicultural education as critical pedagogy creates the space for teachers and students to act with “self-conscious consideration that can lead people to a deepened understanding of themselves and others, not in the abstract, but in relation to specific social environments…and foster a more profound awareness of how social contexts influence who people are and how they behave” (Danielewicz 2001). Thus multicultural pedagogy “challenges us to recognize, engage, and critique (so as to transform) any existing undemocratic social practices and institutional structures that produce and sustain inequalities and oppressive social identities and relations” (Giroux, 1983).

Critical pedagogy in multicultural societies, then, addresses the root causes of prejudice and discrimination that springs up in multicultural settings, which Paulo Freire referred to as an oppressive form of cultural invasion. “Cultural invasion, which like divisive tactics and manipulation also serves the ends of conquest. In this phenomenon, the invaders penetrate the cultural context of another group, in disrespect of the latter’s potentialities; they impose their own view of the world upon those they invade and inhibit the creativity of the invaded by curbing their expression (Freire, 1984). I must emphasize that such cultural invasion, which plays a critical role in shaping individual and collective identities and relations, occur in all communities: those that considered perceived as oppressed as well as oppressors. Hence, multicultural education applies to all of them in order to liberate both oppressors and oppressed from prejudice and discrimination. Such change is unlikely to happen without making the education a free public space for learners to pursue knowledge and empower and equip them with imaginative ways to challenge the oppressive power relations of the society.

*To be Continued: Archeology, History and Racism: ( MID objective # 4)


[1] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Higher-Education.pdf

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Jude Fernando,
    I am not sure how to respond to your article. It seem to wander everywhere on a Multicultural Education wheel.

    If you wish to know what is happening in education in the North you may wish to read the Northern Education Review that was completed in July 2014. 70% of what is said applies to most of the Nine Provinces.


  • 0

    Yes you are correct. I tried to cover too many points in the article. Anyway, my question to you is have there been any changes in the curriculum after the war? Is there an attempt to produce learners with sound critical thinking, not simply with good credentials?


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