Advocacy, Colombo

Education, Citizenship and Development

Siri Hettige
Professor of Sociology
University of Colombo

Education is recognized the world over as a means of achieving wider social and economic objectives. Modern education systems are designed in such a way as to facilitate the achievement of such wider objectives.  On the one hand, we provide  youngsters with a basic education that enables them to fit into a society that is based on modern ideas and values so that they eventually become active citizens of a modern state. It is also in the context of general education that some of the traditional divisions in society are relegated to the background making it possible for young members of society to forge bonds that transcend their primordial identities.

On the other hand, education is also widely accepted in modern societies as a means of imparting knowledge and skills that are vital for social and economic development. Such knowledge and skills can range from very basic social skills to sophisticated scientific knowledge needed to address complex problems at different levels in diverse spheres.

In order for the education system to play the two vital functions mentioned above, education planners and policy makers have to develop and manage educational institutions on a rational basis. In other words, they have to ask the question whether our institutions are operating in such a way as to help us to achieve these objectives. This question pertains to both the education system as a whole as well as to its constituent parts at different levels.

When the education system does not function in a desirable manner it gives rise to various problems that have implications beyond the education system. This does not mean that the problems emanating from the education system can be dealt within the confines of the education system itself. 

When we examine the country’s education system today, it is doubtful whether it fulfills the expectations in many of the areas mentioned earlier. The dominant tendency within the system continues to be to provide educational certificates to youth. Overwhelming pre-occupation is with examinations at the expense of skill development and citizenship education.

The result is that many students continue to move up the educational ladder without necessarily acquiring the diverse skills mentioned above. For instance, the ability to use a language in an effective manner is not always found among those who have reached higher levels of educational attainment.

It is also common knowledge that many educated youth do not have much needed social skills. These skills are required in our daily lives whether at a work place or in a community setting or even in a household.  Inter-personal communication, leadership and negotiating skills, public relations, decision making skills etc. come to our mind in this regard. There are also more specific skills that are needed in many work situations.

Even a manual labourer working in the construction sector can benefit from the kind of training he or she has received from a general education, provided that the school system is equipped with the resources needed to provide the desired skills.  

As regard citizenship, general education system should provide opportunities for children and youth to interact, exchange ideas and learn about each other across primordial divisions of caste, religion and ethnicity. On the other hand, this could happen only when there is a common language of communication. Many people used English as a link language in the past. Those who were upwardly mobile then had to learn English in order to get into newly established bureaucracies and modern professions such as law and medicine.

The repeal of English as the official language and the introduction of swabhasha education in schools and universities after independence resulted in a gradual abandoning of English as a second language. As a result, most of the educated youth in the country became monolingual. This was particularly so at lower levels of the social hierarchy where children had no opportunities to learn English outside the education system. The general education system became segregated on ethno-linguistic lines. This situation prevented children and youth belonging to different ethno-linguistic communities from interacting across community boundaries. While they continued to form their own separate identities, little or no opportunities were available for inter-cultural learning and the formation of a broader national identity, a pre-condition for national integration. The country’s ethnic problem has become almost intractable at least partly due to the wide gap between ethnic communities created by the language barrier.

Swabasha education was introduced with good intentions. Learning in the mother tongue was widely accepted as the most desirable option for children in the formative years. Learning in a foreign language can lead to alienation of children from their own culture, society and history. Yet, the educationists at the time felt that it was necessary to translate material available in other languages into local languages. Hence, the decision to establish the Educational Publications Department under the Ministry of Education.

Though some important publications were translated into local languages in the initial years, not more than a fraction of the vast body of literature became available in local languages. The situation has become worse in recent years due to the fact that the translation of books into Sinhala and Tamil became almost impossible for want of competent translators and financial resources. Today, most of the books available in our university libraries are in English but most of our students can hardly read them!

If the students cannot read the books available in the libraries, how can they acquire new knowledge? The inability to use a second language is a major handicap for most students in schools as well as in the universities. The knowledge of a second language among the country’s youth is so low that even many English teachers are not competent to teach the language. Unable to read original texts, most students are almost totally dependent on rote learning and a few publications available in local languages. How can such students excel in their studies and reach a high level of academic achievement?

We are living at a time when economic and social development in the country demands highly competent professionals and skilled human resources. The fast expanding service industries and technology based production requires people with the ability to learn new skills rapidly. Access to information and knowledge available on the internet depends largely on language skills. Have we been able to equip our younger generation with such language skills? In spite of repeated appeals, I made to authorities, to address this issue without further delay, our leaders and educational authorities continue to be silent on the issue. While it is urgent to develop and implement an effective national action plan with the support of donors and others, the authorities seem to be preoccupied with trivial procedural issues like school admissions and distribution of computers to schools, both of which can he easily delegated to officials in the ministry.  

People in this country remember some of the past leaders who had a vision and the capacity to address critical issues. Others have just come and gone. The country’s education system is beset with a number of serious structural problems. The language issue is one. Another is the ‘persisting diploma disease’ that prevents children from acquiring much needed skills and basic competencies.

These problems have far reaching consequences beyond the education system. It is unfortunate that we do not have leaders in the country who are capable of comprehending the complexity of the issues and the need to resolve them in a reasonable manner, within a reasonable period of time.  

This submission is from Groundview, an independent publication by CHA on humanitarian issues and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka.