After the Easter Sunday attacks, there has been a reinvigorated interest in education reform. Yet disappointingly, the sway of this discourse is too clouded by political gaffe for it to catapult towards any meaningful change. First, the controversial Sharia-law university came under fire in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Amidst the subsequent Islamophobic blather, oscillated a new camp of objective academics and activists calling to secularise education, highlighting it as a prerequisite to universal education and democracy. Secondly, it was uncovered that the bombers involved in the attacks were in fact ‘well-educated’, had gone to prominent schools and had even been educated in overseas universities in cosmopolitan cities. While this briefly rerouted the conversation to the social and humanistic roles of education, it was soon drowned by bitter arguments on hijab and niqab, fear of Islamisation of the nation state and threats to the sacrosanctity of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, in an attempt to feed whatever delusions he may have of his own inculpability, pieced together a few democratic-sounding, ambiguous ideas about ‘common public schools’, void of language and ethnic distinction, to conjure up pseudo-political will on education policy, for what can only be imagined as window dressing to whatever political future he’s envisioning for himself next. What’s more, he draws opaque parallels between Singapore and post-Independence D.S. Senanayake policy, only to conclude that the proposed ‘common school system’ will be based on a Sri Lankan identity, which is to miraculously spring into existence, despite relentless postcolonial identity politics and conflict, and perform democracy-gymnastics, appeasing all ethnic groups, representing all cultures, while also somehow, preserving the supremacy of Sinhala Buddhism.
The latest installment of this political-expediency-on-the-back-of-education, comes courtesy of Dhammika Perera, who taps into neoliberal ideologies of economic liberation via education and calls for ‘structural changes in the education system’ to help Sri Lanka ascend to ‘high-income country’ status. He unashamedly recycles all the fatigued and overworked taglines, from social transfers to school drop-out statistics, the need to boost STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects and English language. These promises however tired, are at least favourable in displaying his political attitude in reforming education, except they are all still pinned on blind faith in the economy and the ‘market’. This paradox, where the Prime Minister seems to unwittingly propose blurry ideas aligned with the democratic mission of public education, which are at odds with simultaneously tossed around neoliberal ideologies, that inherently beat-down the democratic purpose of common people, leaving education to be determined by the constitution of the economy and market, frames the on-going impasse of both education and economic reform.
Education in its own right, devoid of economic externalities, is something all humans continuously and involuntarily engage in throughout their lives, regardless of financial returns or an economy’s capacity to capitalise on it. Education is fuelled by a humanistic curiosity of one’s self and one’s immediate surroundings at a very primitive level to facilitate survival. The point of an education system in a heterogenous society, is to go beyond the individual level autonomous everyday education focused on survival, and accoutre citizens with the necessary socio-political and cultural knowledge and understanding of one another, to assist communal living in a civil society. Therefore, society and education are intrinsically less separable than economy and education. The failure of an education system to provide economic returns is relatively an external one that lies, for the most part, on the shortfalls of economic structures to successfully transfer knowledge and skill into human capital. Expecting educational ‘structural changes’ alone to deliver economic mobility without the corresponding economic structures and frameworks to successfully transfer the educated into a labour force is impractical.
Yet, the orbital political hogwash has meant that whenever there’s outcries on poverty, unemployment, inflation and economic collapse, politicians routinely deflect attention away from critical defects of economic structures, and disingenuously pin emphasis on education, washing down bubbling public dissatisfaction with fantasies of educational restructuring, promising to deliver individual economic emancipation and macro-economic progress. It is not till there’s sparks of racial unrest, growing intolerance and blatant inequalities that the conversation on education is picked up again- this time in support of its democratic mission, social and humanistic roles, in inculcating understanding of ‘others’ and tolerance.
The dwindling nature of the popular discourse is futile to any meaningful progress to education and indeed masks the true faults in the system. In my opinion, the failure of the postcolonial education system is deep-rooted in the coloniality of knowledge production. While readers of decoloniality theory may be familiar with the concepts of coloniality of power and knowledge, for the purpose of this short writing, let’s at least address the most outwardly implication of the larger colonial matrix of power, which is education’s incapacity and hostility to emancipating and democratising knowledge production.
Knowledge as we are ‘taught’, is by default an interpretation- which is not necessarily to say is a misinterpretation. It is only when critically analysed, contested and iteratively modified, based on personal, social experiences and empirical understandings, that it takes its most effective and operative form. Yet this knowledge, eternally and at any given time, remains to be ‘a knowledge’, continuously evolving, and the iterative process never-ending within all persons and cells of society. As such, knowledge is inherently neither universal nor static.
The fundamental issue in many education systems in the world and indeed also in Sri Lanka, lies predominantly within the miscalculated act of ‘to teach’- when its requisite might be better defined to mean disseminating ‘a knowledge’, that is then to be put through the above iterative process at varied cellular and generational levels.
The present education condition in Sri Lanka and its failure is as such: the act of disseminating knowledge is not in any way a dissemination, rather an outright dictation, that is to be swallowed blind and digested unquestioned; knowledge is not ‘a knowledge’ open to probing, unpacking, discussion, challenging, alteration or progression, but an absolute, that is incontestable, therefore universal and static. Worst of all, the process is forcefully and abruptly halted here, disrupting any allowance for even reticent critical analysis and debate, cutting-off cumulative development of knowledge, to make way for perfunctory examinations, designed only to measure who most obediently and passively consumes prescribed amounts of quasi-verity. There is no doubt that this system not only churns out generations of docile citizens, eager for commands, ready to vacuously move through unchallenged systems and structures, but also curbs development of knowledge and stagnate socio-political progress.
The great dangers with such a system, that promotes the universality of one knowledge, and in turn guarantees the sacrosanctity of existing systems and structures, are too vast and staggering to get into now. In any case, they should be all too apparent in the current political climate, as devises that enable demagogue, centralisation of political power and corruption. This sort of education, that outright rejects the innate subjectivity of knowledge, existence of parallel knowledge and fights its constant need of renewal, certainly helps create a controlled and manageable audience to govern and dominate. This is well, as long as the existing systems work. As soon as these structures break down, buckle under internal pressures, run their course or simply transmute, batches and batches of docile citizens, with infinite appetite for orders and a passive consumption of information, find themselves easily manipulated, consumed with confusion, misplaced rage and resentment. Not having inherited the practice and ritual of critically analysing issues and their root causes, incapable or rejecting to relate to other people’s truths and only considering one’s own knowledge to be the absolute and therefore universal, the public unwittingly begin to lash-out at each other. This continues to be on display in the aftermath of the Easter attacks and has been on show throughout history, with regards to regular ethno-religious conflict. At this point, no one has much understanding/ interest of the initial breakdown of the system, nor patience or cognitive skills to address the root causes, let alone repair or reform them.
In such an educational system, where a teacher simply proclaims and spews out a set of claims and theories at a classroom full of dormant students, where neither teacher nor students have breathing space to qualitatively consider what’s been taught, is systematically problematic regardless of the actual subjects been taught. Within this, to simply say, that the answer lies in re-directing emphasis on STEM subjects, as these are least subjective to ‘misinterpretations’, when compared with, for an example, history, is an equally grave mistake. This response still fails to detect the fundamental errors in pedagogy, and still continues to reject to acknowledge the non-static, subjective and evolutionary nature of knowledge and education.
Any nascent notions that science, maths and engineering are decidedly pure and orderly, is perhaps the biggest delusion of all. They may present as the easiest to be processed unquestioned and unchallenged. STEM subjects are one of the most ubiquitous displays of the evolving nature of knowledge and the universal need for analytical cognisance in education. Arguably, in the context of Sri Lanka, imbalanced emphasis generationally placed on science and maths as the sole agents of social and economic mobility, fed off of neoliberal ideologies, has also meant that what some academics, activists and even opportunistic politicians are now (in the aftermath of attacks) advocating, to refocus attention on STEM subjects, is and has been at play for quite some time. Yet, there remains nothing other than generations of passive knowledge and information consumers and skill imbalances in the workforce, to show for it.
If education’s primary purpose is to develop understanding of one’s self, knowledge of fellow man, society, ‘other’ socio-political conditions and cultural-religious contexts outside of one’s own- then the present system is failing beyond hyperbole. The camps advocating for secularising education as a single fix (though it has plenty of merits in moving along the quest of democratising education) also neglects to understand that, this too may prove to be a superficial plaster to a much deep-rooted issue. If we do not address the need to develop education on humanity and human condition, then in the absence of religion, surely other dissimilarities may surface and prove divisive, whether, linguistic, economic or gender. For that, we must look to humanities and critical studies, not as an isolated, self-important strand of education, that only the economically privileged can afford to study, nor as a peripheral stream of education, but as a salient and core fibre of education, amounting to real and tangible job prospects.
The historical impotence of humanities, in deploying large and loud enough groups of willful critical thinkers, with no appetite for demagogue, potentially boils down to the fact that critical studies and social sciences have never been efficiently integrated into the system from primary education through to tertiary. Nor has its pedagogy ever been successful in perpetuating a reciprocal educational culture of critique and debate, that propagates original ideas, devoid of political influence and strangulation. How can it, when it continues to be measured and examined using the same clinical, timed examination approach, as opposed to their natural dais of debate and critical writing? If nothing else, this is the pedagogical reform that is imminently required- to form a platform that encourages and enables discussion and space for questioning, to decolonise knowledge.
This is near impossible to put in motion as long as the education system remains throttled in political ideology. In that case, depoliticising education above all else is paramount. Politicians now jumping on the bandwagon of education reforms and belching-out cursory policy, must be listened to carefully and cautiously. It is more than self-evident that the political machine of Sri Lanka has more to gain from the continuation of the present system, that impedes democracy of knowledge production and churns-out docile citizens.
In the present education system, knowledge is static, made absolute, non-breathing, therefore not engaging or communal. Knowledge is as such, abstracted out of lived experience and deliberately frozen, so that everyday human experience cannot challenge, modify or add to it. As it continues to be external to everyday life, it ceases to affect and be affected by the human experience. This is how text books are able to last decades- unaltered and unaltering the lives of the recipients. Children cannot dispute knowledge so long as that knowledge remains unconnected to their everyday truths. Slowly but surely the human experience becomes obsolete and subordinate to the abstract external theories, passed down as absolute and universal. This sort of education, where knowledge production is not reciprocal and putrid, is incapable of hosting other truths, parallel knowledge and only houses one history, one science and one human experience. It is systemically designed to suppress the natural curiosity, cognisance, opinion and, as such, struggles to produce free-thinkers and transferable knowledge. This issue is often misunderstood to need major curricula restructuring to suit the job market. In actuality what is more crucially needed is to promote a living and breathing pedagogy, where the recipients are encouraged to actively think, analyse, critique and contest accepted concepts and device original thought- so they are not simple consumers of information, that need to be re-taught every time information or industry changes, but active searchers and creators of knowledge- that they are the very filament of knowledge production and industry.
When one knowledge is held absolute, it automatically takes precedence over others and negates all parallel knowledge/truths, fuels ignorance creates animosity and intolerance. This often surfaces in the form of racial, gender and economic conflicts. Solutions to both of these social and economic challenges do lie in education, but not where the popular political emphasis is placed. Reforms are necessary to re-wire the pedagogy to be more engaging, reciprocal and democratic in its access to knowledge production and dissemination. Secularising education alone would not resolve ethno-religious conflict. Acceptance of other parallel truths, lifestyles, faiths, language and interpretation of history, through the knowledge of others, is the only knowledge that will launch real social change and enable collaboration and co- existence. To achieve this, rather than uncoupling religion and education, various and diverse human conditions- religions, languages and experiences must be equally and wholly learned and discussed- which is precisely the thematic importance of humanities subjects. At such a powerful moment, where momentum could be used for positive change, let’s not get side tracked by quick, binary fixes, empty political promises and rabble-rousing. Instead let’s listen to each other- listen patiently. Let’s not dismiss the ‘other’, the unfamiliar, so abruptly and hastily. Learn to debate and discuss openly without conceit and practice embracing our own ignorance with humility. Starting from the classroom, we should encourage students to put their hands up if they don’t understand or agree with something.