21 May, 2024


Reforming Education: Target For Creative Capital & Not For Mere Human Capital

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Creative capital or just human capital?

One of the objectives of the National Education Policy Framework of Sri Lanka for 2023-33, released by the Ministry of Education, has been to ‘create citizens who are productive, innovative, and informed with a civic consciousness’[1]. To attain this goal, the method of delivery will be changed to an interactive process where teaching and learning will be combined in a digitally enabled environment facilitating a holistic engagement of students and teachers. The emphasis of the framework seems to be on the quality of education. This is a move in the correct direction in reforming the country’s education system. This article will provide some inputs to this move which the policymakers can consider when reform programs are suggested.

It argues that the relevant education should lead to the development of creative capital and not mere human capital viewed from an orthodox point of view. That creative capital will generate inventions and those inventions are used in practice for producing commercially viable goods and services by entrepreneurs through a process called ‘innovations’[2]. The article also argues that the responsibility for creating an environment conducive for innovators to operate is a responsibility devolving on governments.

Inventions and innovations

Thus, in today’s context, both inventions and innovations should go hand in hand. What it means is that without innovations, inventions become fruitless; without inventions, innovations could not take root. This is evident from several inventions made by scientific minds. The first Apple Macintosh desktop was invented by a creative engineer called Stephan Wozniak. It would remain just a prototype invention unless, an innovator by the name of Steve Jobs had assembled resources necessary for bringing it out as a commercially viable product[3]. Later in 2004 when the first iPhone was produced by Apple Incorporated, the scratch-free unbreakable gorilla glass for the screen came from Corning Incorporation which had invented it in 1960 for the US Airforce but remained unutilised until Steve Jobs chose to use it for the new iPhone[4].

Inventions are created by scientific minds that are produced by education, training and research activities undertaken in a society. Innovations are produced by entrepreneurs who are also trained by the educational system supported by a culture conducive for entrepreneurship. Hence, education is at the core of both invention and innovation. Since wisdom is global and not confined to a given geographical territory, the objective of education should be to develop a global citizen who would respect knowledge coming from any part of the world with no pre-biases or pre-prejudices[5]. The 4th century BCE Indian Guru, Chankaya, also known as Kautilya, too said so in Ethics of Chankaya when he said that “no land is foreign for a scholar”[6].

Wisdom of Rev. Weliwitiye Sri Soratha Maha Thero

The founding Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, the predecessor to the current University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Rev. Weliwitiye Sri Soratha Maha Thero, is reported to have stressed this point when the university was opened in 1959. The erudite Thero had advised the university students that they should be ‘probing, critical and rebellious’. Though all these three attributes stressed by him are interconnected and cannot be separated from each other, for ease of understanding, they could be analysed separately in their reverse order. ‘Being rebellious’ means that university students should be intellectually rebellious by questioning the existing and accepted wisdom. For that, they should be sceptical and should not accept anything as being presented to them.

Being critical requires them to evaluate both the good side and the bad side of an issue that demand their attention before deciding on their own stand on it. What he meant by probing was that university students should not accept anything presented to them without exploring them. He, therefore, advised students to get into a culture of ‘questioning, evaluating and exploring’ if they wanted to be learned men and women. These three attributes constitute the foundation of evidence-based decision making which leads to the creation of a creative society.

Emphasis on quality

Later, Soratha Maha Thero in an address made to undergraduates highlighted the quality of the university and the graduates who pass out from the university as follows: “It is our mission to present the society with intellectual and not merely to breed graduates. If one endeavours to transform this sacred abode to a place where degrees are sold, or to a place in which student are given degrees in a mere mechanical fashion that will only lead the university as well as the country to be dragged in disgrace. If our graduates are not proven with the expected intellectualism that their degree claims them to possess, people will indubitably arrive at the conclusion that our University is a ‘store’ where degrees are ‘sold’. Thus, everybody affiliated to the University should keep in mind not to engage in any act that will undermine the quality of our degree and the research work”[7].

The role of school system

Such a culture cannot be developed merely at the university level in Sri Lanka today. That is because, before entering the university, students spend nearly 12 years at schools and the culture at schools is not to question the existing knowledge but to accept it blindly. The culture of questioning, or in the words of Rev. Soratha Maha Thero, the culture of being rebellious, should be developed in the school system by teachers. But what is observed in the school system in Sri Lanka is, instead of encouraging students to question, they are trained to observe and uphold conformity.

The pressure of examination too does not allow students to learn by questioning. All they are required to do is to learn by rote the matters that would be questioned at examination papers and get the highest marks possible so that they can ensure a place at a local state university. A student who does not get enough marks to enter a university is labelled as a failure by the system, including his or her family members. Then, why should one bother to learn by questioning when a safe journey to a university one can have simply by following the opposite.

Elimination of middlemen?

This is obvious when students celebrate commerce days in schools. Though they follow a stream that leads to a profession involving ‘buying and selling’ or functioning as middlemen, the short dramas they often perform on stage on school commerce days have a paradoxical theme: That is, labelling the middlemen as exploiters of both consumers and producers thereby suggesting that they should be eliminated. It is a paradox that they are suggesting that they themselves should be eliminated. This is because students learn not by exploring, evaluating, and questioning but by simply accepting the society’s views on traders.

But if the students explore by themselves, they will find that the middlemen serve both the consumer and producer by reducing the inconvenience to them – called transaction costs in economics – and facilitating the exchange of goods by buying from producers and selling to consumers. The aberration of the system occurs when the middlemen hold monopoly power over information which he uses to his advantage. Thus, instead of identifying the problem, students cry like parrots that middlemen should be eliminated from the system.

Vicious circle of ignorance

The pressure of the present examination system has forced students not to devote time for learning any other subject or engage in any other pastime. Hence, they do not read, discuss, debate or interact on matters other than what is needed for them to pass the examinations. Thus, the general knowledge, world outlook and aptitude of students become very narrow. When students do not question teachers, teachers too do not have incentive to learn anything other than what is needed for preparing students to sit for examinations. Hence, the education system in the country has got into a vicious circle of ignorance: teachers do not encourage students to question; students do not want to follow a path involving learning by questioning, evaluating and probing; since students do not question, teachers do not have incentive to have the capacity to answer the possible questions; since teachers are unable to answer the questions, they do not encourage students ask questions. Hence, the school education system in Sri Lanka moves around this vicious circle of ignorance.

Continuation of school education at universities

When these students enter the university, they expect the university lecturers too to function as schoolteachers who would do nothing but prepare them for examination papers. The prescribed readings for students are rarely read by them before lectures. With modern technology, most of the lectures are presented in the form of PowerPoint Presentations. Hence, students have given up even the habit of taking down notes of lectures. If a question is asked from the previous lecture, not many can answer it because they do not even practice the reflection of what was taught previously before the next lecture. All they do at the university is not going through a continuous learning system but collecting lecture printouts and other materials till the announcement of the examination and start learning by rote. But by that time, it is too late for them to have a critical knowledge of the subject being taught to them.

Chauffeur knowledge versus Planck knowledge

The Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli, in his 2013 book The Art of Thinking Clearly[8], has distinguished between two types of knowledge, the chauffeur knowledge and the Planck knowledge by referring to a story attributable to the 1918 Physics Nobel laureate Max Planck. In this story, Planck, after being awarded the Nobel Prize, had gone on a lecture tour across Germany where he had delivered the same lecture to every new audience he had met. After some time, it had become boring for him to do so. But his chauffeur who had been with him throughout had learned the lecture by heart and had proposed to his master that they could exchange positions in the next lecture just to kill the boredom: Chauffeur impersonating Planck and delivering the lecture while Planck enjoying it in the audience dressed in chauffeur’s uniform. Everything had gone on well until the question time when one academic in the audience had asked a question. The chauffeur had been taken completely unawares but instead of revealing his identity had played the smart card. He had ridiculed the questioner saying that it was such a simple question that even his chauffeur could answer it. So did the chauffeur who was in the audience.

Deep learning

Based on this story, Dobelli makes a distinction between the chauffeur knowledge and Planck knowledge. Planck knowledge is the real knowledge acquired in the hard way learning all facts and depths of a subject. Chauffeur knowledge is, on the other hand, learning simply to put on a show by imitating someone or just presenting what someone has said. Though it is difficult to distinguish between the two, Dobelli gives a clue to do so. Those who have the real knowledge know the limit of their competence and if a question is asked beyond it, they would simply apologetically respond that they do not know it. Chauffeur knowledge holders on the other hand would continue to play the game by pretending that there is no limit to what they know.

Rolf Dobelli: Be a sceptic

In another chapter, Dobelli has advised those intending to think clearly to be sceptic of everything they see as patterns or revelations because it may be due to an illusion in the brain. For instance, he advises that if someone sees Jesus Christ in a pancake, he should immediately ask the question why Jesus wanted to reveal himself in that manner. This scepticism he says should be extended to every authority on issues because authorities are not correct always. His advice has been simple: when one encounters an authority, challenge him. What Dobelli has said here is simply an echoing of what the Buddha said in the Kalama Sutra some 2600 years ago. He told those from the Kalama clan: ‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher”[9].

Acquisition of deep learning

Sri Lankan education system, both at school level and at the university level, produces people with chauffeur knowledge and not those with real or Planck knowledge. Accordingly, students go through the education machinery but come out not as really learned men and women but those who are unable to think clearly. This must be changed if the country wants to align its education system to the innovation economy to be set up with the implementation of the social market economy policy being pursued at present. Until and unless this target is met, spending money on education is a waste of resources.

That is why it is necessary that Sri Lanka should provide relevant education to its students enabling them to think clearly and creatively. It will build up a creative capital and not just a human capital. Israel, a leading innovation economy in the modern world, built its creative capital by allowing students to be sceptic all throughout and thinking out of the box when it comes to providing solutions to issues, they have faced, according to Dan Senor and Saul Singer who documented the story of Israel’s economic miracle in their 2009 book ‘Start-up Nation’.


The purpose of education should be to develop creative capital and not mere human capital as has been traditionally emphasised. Such creative capital should be global in outlook rather than national or territorial. They are today known as global citizens. The foundation for creating such global citizens should be laid from the very beginning of a student starting his education at the school level and continued through his tertiary education at universities. The role of the government is to create the necessary environment conducive for citizens to become such creative people.


[1] https://moe.gov.lk/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/09/NEPF_English_final.pdf

[2] It was Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter who made the distinction between invention and innovation in his 1912 book, The Theory of Economic Development (in German and later in 1934, translated into English).

[3] Isaacson, Walter, (2011) Steve Jobs, Simon and Schustor, New York, Chapter 3

[4] Vogelstein, Fred, (2013), Dog Fight: How Apple and Google went to war and started a revolution, William Collins, London, p 37.

[5] This was the message delivered by Dr P J Lavakare in a lecture delivered at the Asian Institute of Technology recently. Visit: http://www.ait.ac.th/news-and-events/2015/news/creating-global-citizens-through-internationalization-of-education/view#.VkQjEnruGrW

[6] Ethics of Chanakya, (Translated by Tantrik Yogi Ramesh), (1998), Sahni Publications, New Delhi, p 31

[7] http://www.sjp.ac.lk/news/commemoration-speech-on-rev-weliwitiye-sri-soratha-thero/

[8] Dobelli, Rolf, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Visit: http://www.dobelli.com

[9] http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 1

    may our voters be blessed with brains.

  • 0

    Hello W A Wijewardena,
    Back in the 1970s I worked in Electronics/IT for NCR in Scotland. I worked on the first ATM’s and used a DEC PDP 8 for fault finding. Our main product at that time was large Banking Mainframe Computers. IBM was the largest in the Business. I later visited DEC in Reading (around 1975) on a course and watched the Engineers playing Moon Lander games on their Mainframes (Green Screen).
    All of us at that time could see the possibilities for Gaming on Home Computers using newly invented Microprocessors.
    But the Technology didn’t exist yet. We had Green Screens and Teletypes as interfaces. However at Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) they had invented the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse and Pointers) environment which later on revolutionised not just Home Computers but also Business Computers.
    I used and repaired Apple II Business computers around 1979 and later (around 1983) fitted an IBM-PC Emulator board so that I could run Microsoft Software. There didn’t seem to be any good reason as to which products succeeded or failed around these times. Apple seems to have succeeded with their iPhones due to snobbishness and Cliques in the Media Business

    • 0

      Although Jobs, Wozniak, Gates and others had good products, Microsoft and IBM stole the lead (with the IBM PC) by not Copy-righting any of the Hardware. IBM failed miserably with their own PS2 computers for just that reason. Spreadsheet and Word Processing Software led the field for small Businesses followed by Databases and Graphic Programs.
      The rest is history. Apple restricted their Computers – you could not upgrade a Graphics card (unlike any IBM Clone). All of the IBM PC clones like HP, Dell, Compaq and others were easily networked unlike Macs. Alan Sugar in the UK introduced a cheap IBM Clone Amstrad 1512 and 1640 that sold millions. He also produced one of the early Home Computers the Amstrad CPC 464 in 1984.
      Neither Alan Sugar nor Bill Gates had degrees. So although the Scientists and Engineers were well qualified and designed/produced innovative products, there success or failure depended on many factors including Business Acumen.
      And finally I wouldn’t take my ethics from Chanakya “He openly advises the development of an elaborate spy system reaching into all levels of society and encourages political and secret assassination”. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Chanakya
      Best regards

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