By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
“Critical thinking must play a big role in educational instruction and assessment… the public education of science is vital”
Despite decades of free education in Sri Lanka after the Kannangara reforms the island people at large remain backward and tied to feudal thinking and the black arts. Kattadiyas, Hooniyam specialists, astrologers and ‘divine’agents abound. Disaffected persons still go to places like the Senigama Devale to unleash divine -assisted revenge. Kattadiyas are specialists in intervening between a troubled person and a divinity.
Whereas the Buddha invoked his followers to be lamps unto themselves and not log into any deity, many of our Buddhist temples have devales as part of the establishment.
Our television channels have a substantial portion of time allocated to astrologers. This is Sri Lanka in the 21st century, which is reputed to have one of highest rates of literacy in the South Asian region.
Ministers and Legislators Propagating Unreason
Is there a worser thing that can happened when cabinet ministers and MPs propagate unreason? These days Minister of Health, Mrs Pavithra Wanniarachchy is being dealt with by island-wide protest posters after her miserable role in encouraging the mythical interpretation of Covid-19 that has since engulfed the island?
One poster says: ‘විද්යාව වෙනුවට මිත්යාව ජනගත කෙරූ පැණි මිට්ටි දේවී.’ [‘peni mutti goddess who socialised myth instead of science’] Pavithra initially focused on the marketing efforts of Dhammika Peni or syrup. An ignorant and cunning fellow created a syrup, which he claimed would see an end to Covid-19. Mind you, this was during the early phase of the dreadful conatgion that should have been diverted to finding vaccinations, respirators and an overall strategic plan to meet the escalation of the virus.etc. Pavitra next released charmed pots into the river in order to save the country from the vicious viral disease. She also did some other queer things. The irony is that she herself caught the disease!
But don’t leave Pavitra alone. Other ministers and parliamentarians had joined her while His Excellency the President and the Prime Minister implicitly backed Pavitra’s magic. One could observe how ministers Wimal Weerawanse, Gammanpilla, Channa Jayasumane (supposed to be a Professor somewhere), Prasanna Ranatunge, Sisira Jayakody etc joined in the Pavitra cheer squad.
Derana media boss Jayaweera and the ITN guy also gave ample support to making Lanka go backward and probably catch up retrogressively with the 18th century.
One may argue that it is advantageous for politicians in the Pohottuwa to let the population retrograde this way. The more ignorant a voter population remains the easier to fool voters and cover up a government’s myriad misdemeanours and incompetencies.
Education and Democracy
The ancient Greeks invented democracy but Socrates had been very critical that democracy can work against uneducated surrounds. In Book Six of The Republic, Plato describes Socrates’ thinking about democracy. “….why then, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country? Socrates’s point is that voting is a skill, not a random intuition. “And like any skill. it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the people vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.”
Over the last 72 years history has shown how Sri Lankan governments have been at low productivity level and even dysfunctional. This can be largely attributed to poor education levels. Literacy isn’t necessarily education. Learning how the social and political environment works and learning to think critically about that is education.
Schools Curriculum Revision
Where are such areas touched in our schools?
In countries like where I live (Australia) critical thinking is embedded into every subject. Individuals who come out of such a system become savvy about the doings in the country. Hence, in this part of the world it is harder for politicians to fool the public or even to misbehave. Media, too, follows suite according to peoples’ expectations. We wouldn’t have a Derana or ITN propagating myth and covering rotten politicians for their advantage. This is a shame
I urge our learned minister of education, Professor GL Peiris, to systematically look into the school syllabi and seek its continual revision year by year. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything about that. There must be a national school curriculum commission run independently who will research and assist the minister. That cannot be left to officials working alone. Critical thinking must play a big role in educational instruction and assessment.
Religion Out. Comparative Religion In
Furthermore, subjects like religion should be out of the curricula because a religion isn’t a source of knowledge but a mere faith and prayer. There is no objection to schools having a practice session in religious prayer. In the case of Buddhism, its conceptual thinking can be taught as part of a subject like comparative religion, leaving Buddhism’s religious mode and gaathas out of syllabus. Individuals can be made good and skilled citizens without religion. In Australia state schools leave out religion although comparative religion is a subject. Comparative religion constitutes a social and conceptual study of a universal section of social behaviour.
Public Education of Science
It should be the task of the ministry in charge of education to steer the rest of government and media to pursue the goal of modernisation and critical thinking, which is the core of modernisation. The public education of science must be part of the ministry’s gamut of responsibilities.
Oxford University was one of the first to focus on the public education of science as a speciality. Bill Gates has funded the chair since its inception two decades or so ago under the chairmanship of the esteemed Professor Richard Dawkins.
The Oxford model should be replicated in Sri Lanka by getting the universities to have a department in charge of the public education of science. If Sri Lanka is to move ahead and join the scientists that drive education and technology forward such steps within an overall culture of modernity must be taken courageously.
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