By Uditha Devapriya –
Reading through Senake Bandaranayake’s last published work, Continuities and Transformations, I was a little perturbed by the point that we no longer produce exceptional sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists, as we once did.
This is something Dr Bandaranayake himself observed earlier in his book, The University of the Future and the Culture of Learning. As he observes there, our education system has been so debased that it is no longer capable of producing original thinkers: a point even Nalin de Silva highlights, belabours, and bitterly laments in his essays. That a Marxist scholar and a Sinhala nationalist intellectual could reflect on the same point, of course, says much about how structural issues cut through ideological divisions.
The problem is more pronounced in the domains of history and archaeology than in that of science. The latter faces much better prospects as a subject and a profession; after all, if the country’s experience with COVID-19 reveals anything at all, it’s the fact that our healthcare system is highly efficient, yet badly underfunded. This is linked to how we teach science at schools and universities, and more importantly, how it is learnt.
Sri Lankans in general give pride of place to medicine and engineering, and rate a higher education in these fields positively in terms of employment and prestige. It thus comes as no surprise that, regardless of how underdeveloped the state of scientific research may be, our public healthcare system is manned by personnel who respond efficiently to emergencies, even on the scale of a pandemic. That strengthens the case, not so much for the privatisation of education and healthcare, as for much greater investment in government hospitals and research labs.
It’s a different story with history and archaeology, for that matter with the humanities and social sciences in general. Due on the one hand to a lack of prestige associated with them, and on the other to the relative ease with which one can engage with a university education in them, these fields remain both overcrowded and underused.
The problems with such subjects have much to do with, firstly, how we teach them, and secondly, how we learn them. Any discussion of these issues must start with an analysis of three problems: the way such subjects are taught at schools; the deficiencies in our teaching methods; and the vacuum caused by a lack of public funding.
The first problem is the easiest to diagnose, because we encounter it from an early age. In spite of possessing a recorded history going back some 2,500 years, plus a literary tradition that ranks among the best in the region, possibly the world, we do little to preserve or even take forward our past within the classroom. Put in another way, we teach history very badly.
By this I don’t mean so much how we are taught history as what history we are taught in the first place. Occupied more with rulers and nobles than with people and structures, the historiography we learn amounts to a series of dates and events, of kings and battles. This, of course, is the great man thesis: the notion that the past is the work of a ruling class.
Senake Bandaranayake was among many intellectuals, including R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, Kumari Jayawardena, S. B. D. de Silva and G. V. S. de Silva, and Newton Gunasinghe, who challenged that view of history. Posing as an alternative to the then dominant empiricist tradition in our universities, these scholars came up with a radically different conception of local history. It is not coincidental that their scholarly forays into the past coincided with the most ambitious set of education reforms to be enacted in post-independence Sri Lanka.
These reforms sought to replace a rote-based colonial education system with a model that placed emphasis on the relationship between a child and his or her community. In recent times such reforms have come under attack for, inter alia, reducing the prominence given to kings and rulers by even colonial historiographers, and occupying the student with “social studies” rather than the history of civilisations. Such foggy notions of history, focused less on structures of society than on lists of rulers, ignores certain facets of our past, such as how the feats of architecture for which Sri Lanka has gained a reputation were as much the work of kings as they were of people.
In any case, whatever their perceived limitations, the collapse of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government in 1977 gradually led to the abandonment of these reforms. That, in turn, lead to a reversion to a rote-based learning culture, whereby students were made to shift from a study of social structures to a curriculum oriented towards civilisations. The French historian Fernand Braudel made his dissatisfaction with such an approach to the subject clear with his rejection of “the traditional history of politics”, in favour of “a deeper analysis of social and economic forces.” Yet it is to the former that our children have turned today.
This brings us to the second of our problems: how history is taught, and how that reflects more generic deficiencies in our teaching methods. It seems little short of astonishing that a subject requiring critical scrutiny, extensive research, and continuous revaluation should be taught in terms of memorising, and recalling, dates and names.
What’s more astonishing is how certain periods are emphasised and others hardly touched at all: hence, while we learn much about the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms from the perspective of the triad of Pandukabaya, Dutugemunu, and Parakramabahu, an emphasis which to me is justifiable, hardly anything is spoken of, much less taught about, other rulers. Yet such selectivity is not surprising: a historiography which gives more importance to certain rulers must of necessity exclude certain others who, in popular opinion, are not great enough.
Even less surprising is the selectivity embedded in the teaching of recent history. With regard to the latter, the issue is of valorising, not certain rulers, but rather a ruling class. The results can be disconcerting: when textbooks recast those who opposed free education, disenfranchised minority communities, and sanctioned crackdowns on political critics and opponents, as national heroes, while sidelining those who campaigned for free education, universal suffrage, and national independence, you realise how one-sided the teaching of post-20th century history can be and in fact is. Yet this is a state of affairs that has never bothered relevant authorities.
The third problem is felt more acutely at university level, and has to do with funding. Historical scholarship in Sri Lanka suffers from an absence of financial patronage. This is felt in certain areas more than in others: for instance, in pre-historical research, an area that has never got the kind of attention it deserves since Siran Deraniyagala and Raj Somadeva published their pioneering studies. On the other hand, the never-ending clamour for research, or more correctly speculation, in areas such as the Ravana story reveals how an absence of patronage, at the institutional level, can divert our attention from history to mythology.
The longer we wait without addressing this issue, the more out-of-focus our interest in our own history will be. Yet what is required are not more rupees; a clearly defined programme, identifying which areas need to be researched in-depth, needs to be in place as well. Such a programme requires a critical frame of mind, of the sort that 40 years of debasement in our education system has, all but completely, made extinct.
Given these problems, what are the solutions? A complete overhaul of the system in terms of historiography and teaching methods, plus greater allocations of money and resources to research, seem to be in order. But more reform, and more money, has been the mantra for the last three or so decades. That authorities have not heeded the call yet is symptomatic of two issues: academics no longer place as much hope on education reforms as they once did, and the prejudice against the social sciences has become so embedded that we no longer care.
However, the importance of these fields cannot be underestimated. The humanities and the social sciences, far from being peripheral domains, are in fact vital to any country, because as much as the natural sciences can help us understand the material underpinnings of our society, the social sciences can help us rediscover our past, and thus exert control over our future.
This is a point Senake Bandaranayake raised many years ago, when he observed that research in fields like archaeology and art history being conducted more by foreign than by local specialists indicated “an impoverishment of our internal intellectual environment” and a loss of control over “our hold over intellectual and scientific resources.” To regain control over these areas, hence, is to regain control over our very destiny.
Here an assumption, or rather misassumption, needs to be debunked: that a lack of fluency and engagement with English has crippled scholarship. The solution suggested to this issue is the allocation of more money and resources to English language teaching.
Yet apart from the problems in raising enough funds for such programmes, the question to be raised is whether fluency in English is a litmus test for critical scholarship. If it were so, the English speaking crowd – still a minority in Sri Lanka – would have produced enough innovative thinkers to compensate for the failures of the system. That this crowd has so far not produced another Siran Deraniyagala – I exclude exceptions like Asha de Vos, who remain regrettably rare – is hence a sign that this has not been the case for three decades. This reveals a fundamental problem in Sri Lanka: while the majority remain cut off from English, those who are fluent in it are not modernised enough, as a class, to achieve an intellectual synthesis.
Indeed, much scholarship on social science since the 1980s and 1990s has been in Sinhala or Tamil. Logically, such a state of affairs calls not for more English language programmes, but rather for more translations of European and American texts in areas such as anthropology. Doing so would democratise scholarship and research in these domains considerably, in a country where the majority have not yet mastered the language of the colonial oppressor. The road ahead thus seems clear enough: devote funds, not (only) to teaching English, but to research on the one hand, and to translations of texts and theories, from elsewhere, on the other.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org