We should treat education as a means of empowerment, not simply as a tool for equipping youngsters with the capacity in join the workforce.

Sri Lanka has recently emerged from a long struggle against terrorism, and is deeply conscious that measures must be taken to prevent terrorism being revived. Given what all our people suffered, we must ensure security for them, and we therefore make no apologies for maintaining the security apparatus at the appropriate levels. This is especially vital in a context in which external threats continue, supported sadly by politicians in foreign countries who are concerned about winning votes and therefore continue to pander to those who funded terrorism in the past.

At the same time, we know that prevention is much better than cure, and that the terrorism that troubled us for so long might have been avoided had successive governments not been insensitive to the problems of those who turned against the state and even took up arms against it. After all, the principal proponents of conflict in the problems many societies have faced in recent years are those who feel alienated from the state because of deprivation. Measures to alleviate such deprivation are therefore not only a moral compulsion for governments that derive their authority from the people, they are also essential from a practical point of view.

Based on this obvious truth, I believe education has to focus on two distinct priorities. The first is to promote equity, by ensuring that quality education is available to all, and in particular to those who are, or who feel themselves, deprived. The second is to ensure that the privileged are aware of the advantages of an equitable society in which opportunities are available to all.

The first objective should in theory be easy, but the history of all our nations indicates that great difficulties lie in its way. If I might dwell for a moment on Sri Lanka, the inequities of our education system have caused much resentment, but this has played itself out in different ways. Ironically, efforts to overcome inequities have led to other problems, in a pattern that I have found all too common. Simplistic solutions that are implemented because of great problems all too often cause other problems.

In Sri Lanka, we had an education system which provided English medium education to just a few. Politicians way back in the forties proposed therefore that education should be compulsorily in Sinhala, the language of the majority. When it was pointed out that that would be unfair to Tamils, they readily agreed and instead made Sinhala or Tamil compulsorily the medium of instruction. This was meant to be fair to Tamils, but it resulted in generations of Sinhalese and Tamils growing up unable to communicate with each other. With Sinhalese the language of administration, Tamils were left out when it came to government jobs. And, even when Tamil was made an official language, for people straitjacketed in monolingualism, providing and obtaining services to and from their fellow citizens was nigh impossible.

Secondly, with English being a world language, the privileged continued to obtain English education through their own resources. Thus rural children of both communities fell further behind in the race for lucrative jobs. This led to two Sinhalese youth insurrections, one in the early seventies, the other in the late eighties. During this period, English was known as the sword that cut people down.

Indeed, so deep was the resentment against it, that there were those who suggested it be abolished altogether. That would have led to deprivation for everybody, given increasing globalization and the need for new technologies most readily available in English. Fortunately in the nineties we realized our folly and changed language policies, to encourage the learning of all three languages in schools, and to permit English medium education again in government schools too. Needless to say, from the time when English medium was finally abolished in government schools, the private sector began something called International Schools – politicians who would not change the straitjacket in which the deprived were confined blithely sent their children to such international schools, thus perpetuating both the fact and the perception of continuing privilege, continuing deprivation.

This absurd dichotomy was abolished about a decade ago, but though in theory now all schools can provide education on lines that were earlier available only to those who could afford to pay for it, we have not gone ahead with the reforms that would make this practically possible. Most strikingly, we have not taken steps to ensure that there will be sufficient teachers. We continue to say that we will do better in the future, and when there are sufficient teachers we will make all things available to all children, but we fail to register that after decades of trying, the situation has only got worse.

One fundamental problem is that we are still stuck in the idea that teachers can only be produced by the state, even though the state simply does not have the resources to produce enough good teachers for all sectors of society. Given the demand for them, teachers of important subjects gravitate to towns, and once again it is the rural children who are deprived.

This is obviously true not only with regard to English, but also with regard to mathematics and science, both of which are increasingly important in the modern world. We must therefore develop imaginative methods of creating more teachers of such subjects, and ensuring their deployment in the right places. Sadly we have ignored an obvious mechanism for this, which is a focus on potential teachers from deprived areas, who could then be deployed in precisely those areas where the more privileged will not serve.

The argument against this is that such persons are comparatively ill educated, and therefore would not make good teachers. I find such an argument both false and insensitive. If such persons are comparatively ill educated, it is not their fault, and remedial action should be taken, perhaps through special schools that concentrate on the areas that need improvement. And then, surely, having some teachers in place, even if they are not perfect, would be better than the present situation, which is one where there are no teachers at all in poorer areas. I cannot indeed understand why we have not moved to teacher based recruitment to schools, which would prevent the current situation in which teachers posted to deprived schools spend much time and deploy much influence to get themselves transferred.

Instead, present practices mean that those from areas which have historically been deprived continue to be deprived of the knowledge they need to advance. In addition, we are lagging behind in the soft skills that a good education should also provide, which would enable one to compete on equal terms in the job market. When the state imposes rigid curricula on all education, it naturally stresses subjects that can be measured in the traditional examination system. Other skills are not valued, and the result is that students have paper qualifications that are of little use in the job market.

In that regard, if I might introduce a commercial break, as it were, I would like to emphasize the importance of the model followed by Aide et Action, which has arranged this Round Table Discussion. In training youngsters for vocations, they also include other skills, of communication, of management, of cooperation. They encourage discussions that develop personality, they foster understanding of society as well as of technical capacity. Above all, they foster a spirit of entrepreneurship. This is vital, for we must make sure that as many people as want to will have the skills to start their own businesses, so that they can work where they want to, and provide opportunities for others. At the same time, a spirit of initiative will also be a plus point for those who work for others, and in particular for those who join the ranks of migrant labour in other countries.

In short, we should treat education as a means of empowerment, not simply as a tool for equipping youngsters with the capacity to join the workforce. Providing universal education has for too long meant that governments are content to ensure that basic literacy is provided at primary level. In the modern world, literacy is not enough, we have to work towards productive education for all, which means continuing training for job markets of increasing sophistication.

The second area which peace education should encompass is that of promoting positive attitudes. This often takes the form of encouraging what is termed multiculturalism. That in itself is a good idea, and certainly the need to promote tolerance of others is vital. But I believe for too long we in the East have accepted as gospel what I see as a Western ‘othering’ approach that sometimes suggests conflicts are endemic in society.

What I mean was expressed graphically by the distinguished Hindi writer Nirmal Verma who wrote in ‘India and Europe: some reflections on the Self and the Other’, in 1993, that ‘Sartre’s famous statement, “hell is the other”, carries a strong echo of Hegel, who always defined one’s identity as “identity against the other”, either to be appropriated or to be destroyed. By defining the identity of the self in this manner, however, a European finds himself entrapped in his own contradiction; if he succeeds in completely subjugating the other, the identity of his own self becomes dubious. He wants to become whole by destroying the other, but without the other, he becomes nothing.’

On the world view that Verma characterizes as Western then, we recognize differences and exacerbate them. This is of course a better approach than one that either denies differences exist, or else recognizes them and tries to suppress them. That approach has led to much suffering, much resentment, much violence. But, as Verma indicates, there is another world view, which is much more tolerant and which I believe should govern our concept of pluralism. His argument was that, in the East, ‘The self was always accepted as self-referential; the “other” was neither a threat to their identity, nor a source of confirmation of their uniqueness. This was very different from the European notion of the “other”, an inalienable entity external to oneself, which was both a source of terror and an object of desire.’

On such a world view, we can recognize that differences exist, but these are less important than what makes us kin, namely our common humanity. We respect differences not because they mark us out as different from each other, but because they are part of what makes us human. There is no mould into which each of us fits, in terms of being part of a particular group. However we define the various groups to which we belong, we must recognize that there are overlaps, that characteristics can be shared, that we have much in common with those of what we consider other groups, as well as differences. We are unique as individuals, and do not need confirmation of the validity of our identity through association with a group or dissociation from other groups.

In short, I think in any education that we inculcate to promote peace, we should emphasise an Asian approach that works in terms of concentric and overlapping circles in establishing identities. This means that the promotion of identity can contribute to more widely spread benefits, and will encourage synergy rather than the entrenchment of hostility and suspicion in the face of promotional initiatives.

We should promote cooperation then not in terms of concessions, but rather because it advances the interests of everyone. I suspect that this is difficult to apprehend in terms of the goal oriented thinking we tend to inculcate. We need more attention to lateral thinking skills, and need to incorporate this as well as problem solving into materials used in schools. Analysis and innovation should be encouraged, in the context of cooperative learning and experimentation. This will I hope contribute to lessening of the sense that privileges need to be guarded, that life is a zero sum situation in which we have always to be on the lookout for those who would limit our own success.

Sri Lanka, I should mention, has comprehensively destroyed the idea of learning through cooperation. We keep our peoples distinct, not only by straitjacketing them in different mediums of instruction, but also by religion. Thus we have Sinhala medium schools and Tamils medium schools for Tamils, and also Tamil medium schools for Muslims. It is no surprise then that the three communities grow up conscious of the differences between them rather than the fact that they are all Sri Lankan.

It is difficult now to imagine how stratified American society was then, with prejudice rampant everywhere ...

In this regard we should remember how dramatically American society has changed because of the determination of the state in the sixties to desegregate schools. It is difficult now to imagine how stratified American society was then, with prejudice rampant everywhere, services refused to the blacks with no second thought. The segregation contributed to a deep cultural divide, as was apparent for instance in the fact that through the seventies hardly any blacks ventured into a place like Disneyland. Of course it could be argued that if the values a society shares are only those of Disneyland, one has not achieved much. But the fact that overlaps have begun, that people are aware of common feelings and ideas, has much to do with the fact that people of different communities learn together, and register the commonalities as much as the differences.

Let me conclude then with a plea from the principals of different communities I met in a war torn area of Sri Lanka. It was an area of multicultural habitation, of Sinhalese and Tamils and Muslims, who had been torn apart when the Tiger terrorists invaded the place and seemed to privilege the Tamils against the others, though as we know the Tigers were as ruthless to Tamils who did not follow their dictates as to others.

A year after the conflict there had ended, I visited the place and found the Sinhala and the Tamil and the Muslim principals all without sufficient staff. What they suggested was one English medium school, since then the number of teachers required – given that the numbers of students in each of the three schools was so small – would not increase and they could make do with what they had. The students would learn together, they said, and they would learn in a language that would assure them all of a brighter future.

Training the teachers required would be a saving, I reflected, in the long run given that fewer teachers would need to be deployed. But even if English medium was not adopted, bringing the children together in one school, even with two mediums for most subjects, would still be helpful. But this was not something our hidebound system could conceive of. So the seeds of possible conflict will continue to be sown, and the deprived will once more feel alienated from the state if a catalyzing moment occurs again. We must pray that it will not, but it would make sense also to plan our education better to help our people to learn and work and live together companionably.

Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP at a Round Table Discussion organized by Aide et Action International at Kathmandu, September 29th 2011

Daily News 3 October 2011http://www.dailynews.lk/2011/10/03/fea18.asp