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Not all students come from an English-speaking background | (AFP)

We often come across people who comment on Sri Lanka’s education system. Some of their suggestions stand to reason. Others don’t. Very few stand up-to reality. For the most part, though, these people have little to no understanding of how education in this country works. More often than not, they’re privileged. And when that’s the case, most of what they suggest is so impractical they seem to come from “Cloud Cuckoo Land”. This writer means no offence, by the way.

There has been much talk about doing away with ethno-religious education here. Many will agree. Rooting a school in identity doesn’t do much good. All it does is to create the notion that education is a factor of identity and identity depends on what you’re born into. We didn’t choose the way we came to this world, after all. Why should we be segregated in schools based on something we never chose, then?

This line of thinking is reasonable. But in a country where all major faiths are celebrated and sensitivity to background is a must, where must we draw the line? This is where problems begin. Some, trying to think up of solutions, but in reality grappling to get at one, think that reverting to what things were like before 1956 is a solution. Others don’t. That is where the debate begins.

In a country where all major faiths are celebrated and sensitivity to background is a must, where must we draw the line? This is where problems begin. Some, trying to think up of solutions, but in reality grappling to get at one, think that reverting to what things were like before 1956 is a solution. Others don’t. That is where the debate begins.

Here’s their reasoning. If English is made an official language in schools, then any “rift” disappears. In other words, the solution isn’t as much doing away with the mother tongue as it is with imposing a foreign language most of us aren’t very literate in. This begs the question; how? Or, to be more frank, why?

Do they really think English is a be-all and end-all to this problem? Well, yes. And it’s not hard to see why. Most of them came from that background. They intermingled with every race and religion, and they learnt to respect every identity. Indeed, they learnt to coexist within a “melting pot” that did away with any kind of ethno-religious segregation.

But what’s the bigger picture? The truth is that they all studied in English. Not everyone in these schools came from an English-speaking background. Not everyone can or indeed could speak that language the way those who idealise how racial amity existed in their classes (or schools) did. And if you think this wasn’t a problem before 1956, consider this; around the 1940s, those who spoke English made up about 12% of the entire student population. Here’s the pincer: for every kid who spoke English, there were about seven others who did not and could not.

The segregation back then wasn’t racial. It was linguistic. Based on class.Then there are those who resent certain schools segregating or rather excluding certain faiths, but who go dumb over how their own schools do the same. This piece is not meant to point fingers at them, but states facts. Those who resent one thing and ignore another are selectively myopic. Same thing goes for schools that divide on one basis and others that do so on another.

What’s the solution?
“Go West,” some tell me. They point at how successfully other countries have done away with education-anomalies. True, but this isn’t the whole picture. I was told however that no other solution could exist. Which is why I ordered a book.

Archbishop John Michael Miller was the Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education. His book “The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools” pretty much sums up how the Church should be involved with education. The book’s an eye-opener. Certainly impressive. Recommendable too. It’s divided into three chapters. I’m concerned about the last of these. “Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools”.

For starters, the chapter not only endorses an education system run on faith, but indeed recommends selection of teachers and curriculum based on Catholicism. Nothing wrong there. Having identified five marks that differentiate Catholic schools (1. Inspired by a supernatural vision; 2. Founded on Christian anthropology; 3. Animated by communion and community; 4. Imbued with a Catholic worldview throughout its curriculum; and 5. Sustained by the Gospel within), Archbishop Miller then goes on to conclude that a Catholic education must, obviously, be Catholic.

Here’s the deal. If an American Archbishop whose word holds sway over how schools run by his Church the world over can condone faith-based education, why are we howling? It is true that I am against ethno-religious education. But look closer. The alternative to it, at least until we’ve developed to a point where nearly everyone in this country is bilingual, is to replace swabasha with English. This, as William Blake would readily have said, is like “One Law for the Lion and Ox”. It’s one size fits all. Doesn’t work. Not all the time.
Segregation is bad. Education based on segregation is worse. I am against it. So is everyone I know. Some who are more practical than I think the system’s hard to change. They too oppose it. But with reservation.

Regi Siriwardena, in his essay “National Identity: Content of Education and Ethnic Perceptions” makes a case against ethnicising education. The essay is perceptive and probably stands out in the way he deals with the issue of English. It was written in 1992, long before schools began instituting English as a medium of instruction. But its take on promoting that language stands valid even today. Here’s a quote:

“It should be apparent that when writers in the English-language press idealised the happy ethnic harmony of their schooldays, they were unwarrantedly assuming that what was true for them was true for the entire nation. Moreover, they failed to recognise the ‘common identity’ which they remember sharing was less a common national identity than a class identity, which transcended their ethnic identity as Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, or Burghers. Fluency in the English language and their Western-style dress were
distinguishing marks of that class identity, which was in many ways defined through differentiation from the rest of the nation, the majority of whom, who spoke in Sinhala or Tamil, went barefoot and wore sarong, verti, or cloth and jacket.”

Significantly, many of those I’ve talked with and who dream of pre-1956 echo this. They all came from a background that continues to privilege English and rubbish Sinhala and Tamil. I may be a little rude here but some of their suggestions made in this regard sound Cloud Cuckoo Land-ish to me. It’s like Siriwardena wrote, after all: “unwarrantedly assuming that what was true for them was true for the entire nation.”

Let me explain. English is a link language. That this should mean the vernacular (a word which in itself connotes a rubbishing of both national languages) should be thrown out is ridiculous. All too often, those I’ve come across who champion racial amity through English rubbish not just the vernacular but almost everything associated with it. These are people who grew up thinking West was best, that those who come from “afar” (outstation) and hence don’t hobnob with haute couture and what-not are dumb, and that those who go to the “best” schools which taught in English are best qualified to shed differences and unite.Sorry. It doesn’t work that way. Ever.