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Midweek Review

A Bigger Picture: how the Humanities can widen our perspectives



A scene from the movie, ‘Perfume- The story of a murderer’

by Liyanage Amarakeerthi

 (Lecture given at the 18th annual academic sessions of the Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists

On 16 December 2021 at Grand Kandyan Hotel, Kandy)

In order to understand life as a whole, one needs to focus on the bigger picture of human affairs- perhaps of forces larger than humans. Our lives are increasingly determined by much larger forces that we might not even perceive in our everyday lives. Within our education system, we have developed numerous subject areas that help us uncover those behind- the scene-forces. As a scholar in the humanities, I have no knowledge in many of those subjects. Even within the humanities, I only have some expertise in literary studies. Since literary studies have always been a richly interdisciplinary field, I may be able to touch on some adjacent fields such as history, philosophy, sociology, and so on. My topic should ideally be ‘how liberal arts can widen our perspectives’ because liberal arts includes humanities, social sciences and some natural sciences, but I decided to stick to the humanities primarily for two reasons: I will be making my points mostly with literary examples, and the term, ‘humanities’ is the term often used in Sri Lanka.

Professor Joseph B. Cuseo and Aaron Thompson in Humanity, Diversity and Liberal Arts Education (2015) describe seven socio-spatial perspectives typically developed in liberal arts teaching: Perspective of family, perspective of community, perspective of society, national perspective, international perspective, global perspective, and perspective of the universe (cosmos).

It is extremely difficult to elaborate on all these perspectives with different examples in short speech. Therefore, I decide to focus on one novel. Its film version might be quite familiar to the psychiatrists and psychologists in the audience. I use the novel and the film in my teaching at University of Peradeniya but not necessarily the same way that I am going to use it today. The novel is Perfume, the the film has the same name.

It is the story of Grenouille, illegitimate son of a female fish seller in the 18th century France. Even when he is born, his mother is selling fish. The new born is left on a heap of fish guts, – perhaps most disgusting and unhealth environment for a child to be born in. His mother does not want to raise him, and she could not afford to. He is left alone to die there on the heap of fish waste so that garbage collectors will put away the dead child fish guts in the evening.

The author of the novel, Patrick Suskind, explains the situation in a beautifully-crafted paragraph:

Here, then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on the 17th July, 1738. It was one of the hottest days of the year. The heat lay leaden upon the graveyard, squeezing its putrefying vapour, a blend of rotting melon and the fetid odor of burnt animal horn, out in to the nearby alleys. When the labour pains began, Grenouille’s mother was standing at a fish stall in the rue aux Fers, scaling whiting that she had just gutted. The fish, ostensibly, taken that very morning from the Seine, already stank so vilely that the smell masked the odour of corpses. Grenouille’s mother, however, perceived the odour neither of the fish nor of the corpses, for her sense of smell had been utterly dulled, besides which her belly hurt and the pain deadened all susceptibility to sensate impressions. She only wanted to put this revolting birth behind her as quickly as possible. It was her fifth (p.5)”

She expects the new born to die there in the heap of fish guts. In the evening, a carter would come and pick up the garbage and drop them on the grave yard or to the river. Then, all her responsibilities will be over. She is still in her twenties.

Dangers of limitless love

But her fifth child does not bring her good luck; Grenouille does not die there. The mother is taken into custody and is accused of killing her previous babies and of attempting to kill the new born. She is decapitated in public. Grenouille grows up in orphanages to become one of the gruesome serial killers in history. But he is not a killer. He becomes one of the most skilled perfumers; he has an acute sense of smell; in some beautiful virgins he finds magically captivating fragrance. He develops the arts and science of extracting that fragrance from those young women’s hair, pubic hair, skin, and so on. By the time he was done perfecting the most fragrant perfume in history, he had killed twenty-five young women. The perfume is so captivating that it can enable people to engaged in acts of limitless love. Limitless love is so dangerous that a group of people madly intoxicated by the smell of the magical perfume, kills Grenouille alive. He literally vanishes from the earth.

None of us has extreme lives of this kind: But the point of narrative art is to intensify human experience and get us to reflect on. Story of this young man is illustrative of many of the perspectives I want to speak of during this speech.

Family determines who we eventually become. Familial impact on us takes place at many levels. Perfume demonstrates that Grenouille’s search for this magical fragrant emanating from some beautiful women, is in a way his desire to regain the warmth of his own mother – a pleasurable warmth he never experienced. His desire for those young women is a sublimated form of hating them. As the fantastic perfume he creates is capable making people engaged in mythical acts of love turns into extreme form of violence, his love for those young women leads to the most gruesome murder of them. Unimaginably violent acts on those bodies such as peeling their skins, are performed in a clinically scientific detachment.

Perfume is a work of art not a scientific treatise on how family or the lack of it shapes one’s character. Thus, the novel does not claim that any illegitimate son, who is forced to grow up without his mother, will certainly end up being a serial killer. Works of art provide us with frameworks for further contemplation not exact mathematical formulas.

Let me move on to a ‘the perspective of the community.’ A catholic monk named Terrier arranges a wet nurse for the child. Grenouille spends a few months with this extremely religious wet nurse, who believes that the baby is possessed with the devil because he sucks her dry. Yes. The child drinks a lot of breast milk. With his insatiable thirst for breast milk, the wet nurse refuses to keep him at her house. She also believes that the child except for his excrement does not smell at all.

Within this community where Catholic and pagan beliefs shape people’s thinking, the child does not get to develop any motherly attachment to any women. The wet nurse brings the child back to father Terrier and leaves the baby with him. The priest thinks that when a mother breastfeeds a child regularly, the child develops a certain attachment to the mother’s body and gets used to the rhythm of the heartbeat of the mother. This child would never know a mother’s heartbeat. Thus, we can see Grenouille’s character is crucially shaped by his close community.

Then comes the perspective of the society, which invites us to perceive the question at hand within the framework of larger society. Let’s stick to the novel, Perfume. What was the kind of society in which Grenouille lived in? It was 18th century France, fifty years before the French revolution, and it was a country ruled by kings and their regional deputies. The dominant worldview was the religious one. Scientific thought and human reason were still to become the main source of wisdom. Thus, it is no accident that Grenouille’s last and the most precious victim was mythically beautiful Laure, the only daughter of a regional lord. In that sense, the young perfumer’s search for the perfect scent was an individualist attack on a social structure that made him a bastard and an orphan. After all, that is the very society that made his mother kill her babies because she was too poor to raise them. In addition, she was sexually exploited by men in the positions of power in the society. Still in her twenties, her beauty intact, she hoped to find a man to marry, perhaps, aged widower, and settle herself into a better life.

Thus, selling fish is a something temporary for her. But she keeps getting pregnant by men whose names are not revealed to us. Through them she picks up diseases like syphilis as well. What else a poor young woman, living in the most disgusting corner of the city, can do to her newborns other than to hope for their death? The author of the novel situates her character in a larger societal frame and invites us see the bigger picture of life. In teaching a novel like this, insights from history, political science, sociology can be brought in to enrich the discussion.

As Cuseo and Thompson (2015: 15) maintain,” human societies also consist of groups of people stratified into different social classes with unequal amounts of resources and material wealth; those groups occupying lower social strata have less economic resources and social privilege.”(Humanity, Diversity and the Liberal Arts). Grenouille’s birth and death occur in pre-revolution France where social stratification was so pronounced that, in there, many people of the lowest strata lived a subhuman life. It is not surprising that the French word “Grenouille” means ‘the frog.’

Though there are more to be said about the novel, let me leave it that by summarizing my argument so far: the extraordinary life of this young man, Grenouille, can be better understood when he is analyzed through different perspectives such as family, community, and society. In doing so, we not only understand the young man better we also get to look into larger contexts within which human life is shaped.

Other ways of seeing things

Let me now briefly touch on other perspectives the liberal arts education at its best attempts to develop in students. The national perspective is an angle of vision that helps us reflect on how the realities of nationhood, nation state, national boundaries influence our lives. We all are aware of certain realities, obligations, frustrations and so on exist for us just because of the nature of our nation state. We have to live with them by virtue of being citizens of our nation state.

This is the opening sentence of the novel, Perfume, “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.” We can immediately see that the writer wants to see the main character’s predicament in ‘France’ in the 18th century. This brings us to the international perspective.

One cannot understand France at the time without understanding how France was connected to a host of other countries even before the French Revolution. A central metaphor of the novel is perfume. Many of the ingredients used to make perfume came through in international naval routes in colonial ships. Phenomenal development of perfume industry in France cannot be understood without referring to colonialism and international trade relations that France had developed with other countries. In addition, some of the girls killed are from Italy. During those days, poor Italian peasants came to France as seasonal workers for harvesting. Moreover, the consumers of those extremely expensive perfume were not just French people. The aristocracy in neighboring countries, perhaps, even in far away countries bought French perfume. Thus, one cannot isolate gruesome murders of one unknown French man, whose name means frog after all, from France’s connections with other countries those days.

I must recall here that I am trying to briefly explain all the perspectives by using a single novel. Still, the novel can be used to explain what we mean by ‘global perspectives.’ It is a quite broader perspective than ‘international’ perspective because it takes into account nearly everything that might have contributed to making a phenomenon. Let’s return to the novel. Grenoulle’s life is connected with so many things other than human affairs such as trade and politics which were discussed earlier. “It extends beyond nations to embrace both human and nonhuman life inhabiting our planet and how these life forms interface with the earth’s natural resources (minerals, air, and water). Human’s share the earth with approximately 10 million animal species and more than 300,000 forms of vegetative life, all of whose needs must be met and balanced to ensure the health and sustainability of our planet” (Cuseo and Thompson, p. 18).

In this novel, the central character is presented as someone much closer to nature than culture. Hence, the name ‘frog.’ He is born on a heap of fish guts, and in that sense too, he is nearly an amphibian. Later in his life, he spends seven years like an animal in a forest cave separated from human civilization. This is how the author explains the Grenouille’s life in that forest. “He also ate dry lichen and grass-berries. Such a diet, although totally unacceptable by bourgeoises standards, did not disgust him in the least. ” During those, seven years of hibernation or the forest-life, he is portrayed as a part of the larger nature of the planet earth. He is an insignificant and a seemingly innocent part of nature itself. But this very man, after being discovered again by the representatives of human civilization and taken into to the city, begins his adventure of murdering twenty odd young women and perfecting the most fragrant perfume in the world- in fact a perfume that can generate the perfect love.

Let me quickly jump into the last perspective, cosmos. This is a wonderful novel in establishing the fact that man, even the central character, Paris, France or the earth, are not entities that stand in themselves. Here, we are not alone. We are part of larger universe; solar systems, milky ways and so on. No wonder that in the middle ages, astronomy was included in liberal arts. Not only that different entities in the universe are inherently connected to one another, we humans keep looking into what is out there. Just last month, scientists claimed that the moon’s top layer of soil contained oxygen that could sustain 8 billion human lives for more than one hundred thousand years.

Here in the novel, Perfume, the unknown, the unseen, the extra-terrestrial, the cosmic, is always present; and every key incident in the novel seems mysterious connected to something else, and to long chain of ‘something-elses’, some of which might extend as far as the heavens. If it is not the heavens, it is the nature, the Nature with a big N. Let me quote a couple of sentences where a certain character’s disappearance is described: “…The last was seen of him was his silhouette: hands lifted ecstatically to heaven and voice raised in song, he disappeared into the blizzard… [They did not find any trace of him] “no clothes, no body parts, no bones…”(Pp. 187-8).

In this speech, I wanted to show that in order to get at some understanding of Grenouille’s life to one has to enter his story from multiple perspectives. Among other things, liberal arts education aspires to cultivate skills in creatively using these perspectives in students. The life of the young man in the novel is an extreme case and the lives of many of us are not nearly as dramatic, tragic or gruesome. Yet, the intellectual training that we develop by trying to understand his life from multiple perspectives can carry over into our real lives. Even the most insignificant lives or phenomenon exists in complex networks of relations. My speech today hopefully contained some insights that could motivate the psychiatrists here in the audience to reflect on the need of situating their ‘subjects’ in a bigger picture. I hope with much that you will never have to treat a serial killer, any killer for that matter. But the seven perspectives I explained above might suggest that you are more than likely to meet some versions of Grenouille- human beings trying to perfect formulas for producing perfect love in an extremely imperfect world.

(Amarakeerthi is professor of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya)

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Midweek Review

Amidst political turmoil Dullas takes a courageous stand



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Media Minister Dullas Alahapperuma over the last weekend quite clearly criticised the government’s much-touted Rs 229 bn relief package.

Matara District lawmaker Alahapperuma is the first SLPP Cabinet Minister to do so.

The journalist-turned-politician didn’t mince his words when he declared that the financial package failed to address the grievances of the population at large, though it provided relief to the public sector, pensioners and Samurdhi beneficiaries. Alahapperuma received the media portfolio in August 2020. Previously, he held the power portfolio but was shifted before the finalisation of the Yugadanavi deal, now challenged in the Supreme Court.

The Minister was addressing a gathering at the Thihagoda Divisional Secretariat.

The lawmaker emphasised the failure on the part of the government to take the public into confidence and the responsibility of the Cabinet members and the officials to speak the truth.

Emphasising the pathetic response of politicians, ministers and members of Parliament in the face of unprecedented and daunting challenges, lawmaker Alahapperuma issued a dire warning. Unless those who had been elected by the people made a genuine effort by making much needed sacrifices, the public would simply dismiss politicians as a set of crazy men.

Pointing out that public servants were a fraction of the population, lawmaker Alahapperuma questioned the suitability of the financial package announced by his Cabinet colleague Basil Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Finance Minister. MP Alahapperuma reminded that the vast majority of people struggling to make ends meet, wouldn’t receive any relief. Therefore, the whole purpose of the financial package announced at a time when the country was experiencing severe economic pressure didn’t address overall public concerns.

The Media Minister also referred to Power Minister Gamini Lokuge’s declaration that there wouldn’t be power cuts whereas the General Manager, CEB, quite clearly indicated the real situation. Referring to social media, Alahapperuma, who had held important portfolios in the cabinets of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa underscored the responsibility on their part to tell the truth as the media couldn’t be suppressed.

Alahappeuma’s criticism of the Rs 229 bn relief package indicated that it hadn’t been properly discussed at the Cabinet level. Had it been deliberated at Cabinet level, perhaps MP Alahapperuma and some other ministers would have expressed their concerns. Perhaps, the media should raise this issue at the next post-Cabinet media briefing, chaired by Minister Alahapperuma, in his capacity as the Cabinet Spokesperson.

In addition to Minister Alahapperuma, Ministers Dr. Ramesh Pathirana and Udaya Gammanpila function as co-Cabinet spokespersons, though the latter had missed quite a number of briefings over the past few months. Mohan Samaranayake attends the briefing, in his capacity as the Director General, Government Information Department.

This week’s post-Cabinet briefing is scheduled for today (19) in view of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa opening the new session of Parliament yesterday.

It would be pertinent to mention that lawmaker Alahapperuma questioned the worthiness of the Rs 229 bn package at Thihagoda, Matara, while Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who is also the Chairman of the ruling SLPP presided over meetings in Galle, Matara and Hambantota, also on the same day to discuss ways and means of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formulated by the United Nations.

At the Matara event, chaired by Prof. Peiris, Minister Alahapperuma and State Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, too, addressed the gathering. But, Alahapperuma took up the Rs 229 bn package at a separate event at Thihagoda. Since Ministers, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila declared war against the highly questionable Yugadanavi deal in Sept last year, Prof. Peiris repeatedly attacked those who criticised the government policies in the open. The former law professor is of the view that whatever the disagreements, such issues should be taken up at Cabinet, parliamentary group or the party leaders level. Obviously, with the gradual deterioration of the national economy, as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic, unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement, dissenting views are growing within the ruling coalition.

The SDG goals such as education, gainful employment, clean water, safe environment, access to healthcare and protection of women and children are discussed at a time the government is struggling to meet the basic requirements of the public.

Lawmaker Alahapperuma should use the post-Cabinet media briefing today to tell the truth. Take the public into confidence. The country is in such a desperate situation, the SLPP can no longer play politics with the issues at hand.

The forthright stand taken by Minister Alahapperuma against the backdrop of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stripping Susil Premjayantha of his portfolios for being strongly critical of the SLPP’s agriculture policy, foreign currency crisis and runaway cost-of-living, should be applauded.

USD crisis

Three major groupings, namely the joint trade Chambers, Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) recently warned the government of a rapidly deteriorating financial situation. The organisations contradicted the government’s claim of having the situation under control. All primarily blamed the growing foreign currency crisis for the current predicament.

In spite of some difficulties the Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry, the apex pharmaceutical body responsible for the import of more than 80% of the medicines, contradicted the recent Health Ministry denial of medicine shortage. The Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry pointed out that the import of medicine is allowed only if the importer had foreign currency and certainly not taking into consideration the requirement. The powerful grouping warned soon there would be serious shortages as the foreign exchange crisis deepens.

Declaring that at the moment, medicines are the only commodity coming under price control, the Chamber urged the government: “There is no solution to this dilemma than removing the price control of medicines and implement a fair and equitable pricing mechanism which will link the price of medicines to the USD, inflation and direct costs such as raw material, fuel and freight charges, which will make the importing and marketing of medicines viable. As difficult as it may sound, the authorities will have to choose between having medicines at a cost and not having medicines at all.”

Overall, the joint trade Chambers, Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) painted a bleak picture. The government owed an explanation as to why the Finance Ministry announced a Rs 229 bn relief package at a time the current dispensation was struggling to cope up with an extremely weak financial status.

The country hasn’t been in such a desperate situation even at the height of the war though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) made determined efforts to cripple sea supply routes. Over 12 years after the successful conclusion of the war, the national economy is on the brink. Debilitated Sri Lanka has been compelled to continuously seek assistance from both China and India regardless of consequences. Having lived beyond our means over the past couple of decades, the country now finds itself bogged down in an economic quagmire. Recent deliberations with China and India as regards multiple financial assistance underscored the crisis the country is in.

The government should consult the Opposition regarding Sri Lanka’s response to the crisis. In fact, the government shouldn’t work on the issue at hand alone but initiate a dialogue with the Opposition. Those represented in Parliament should seek a consensus on a rescue operation regardless of whatever differences they have on other matters.

The proposed new Constitution, inclusive of electoral reforms, postponed Local Government polls and law reforms based on the controversial ‘One Country, One Law’ concept seemed irrelevant as the basic supplies are interrupted in the absence of sufficient foreign currency.

A new phase in foreign relations

Sri Lanka recently appealed for further Chinese and Indian assistance. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa requested China to help restructure debt repayments as part of the efforts to help Sri Lanka weather the deepening financial crisis.

The request was made during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Presidential Secretariat on January 09, 2021. In spite of repeated assurances given by Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal that foreign financial obligations would be met, the Opposition and some financial experts are on record as having said the country is on the verge of default, according to analysts.

“The President pointed out that it would be a great relief to the country if attention could be paid to restructuring the debt repayments as a solution to the economic crisis that has arisen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the President’s office said in the statement.

China is Sri Lanka’s fourth biggest lender, behind international financial markets, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan.

Sri Lanka has to repay about $4.5 billion in debt this year starting with a $500 million International Sovereign Bonds (ISB) which matured on Jan. 18 (yesterday). Central Bank announced that it was settled.

Although the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo Qi Zhenhong refrained from revealing China’s stand on Sri Lanka request when he met a selected group of journalists at Galle Face Hotel soon after Minister Wang departed, Beijing is very much likely to provide further assistance. Having invested in Sri Lanka in line with the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and its flagship project Colombo Port City gaining momentum, China will surely throw its weight behind Sri Lanka.

In spite of Western and Indian objections over the years, China has sustained its high profile project in Sri Lanka. The latest development is in the China Harbour Engineering Company’s (CHEC) spearheading the construction role in the second phase of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port. Politically influential Access Engineering PLC has teamed up with China Harbour Engineering Company of China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC). According to the Colombo Port City website, CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd through China CHEC is part of CCCC. The Chinese enterprise that has been active here since 1998, executed the Southern Highway, Outer Circular Highway, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, Colombo South Container Terminal et al.

An Indian High Commission press release based on a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi on 15 January 2022 underscored the unfolding crisis. The press release dealt with a virtual meeting External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr. S. Jaishankar had with Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa on January 15, 2022, consequent to Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi last month.

Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant sections of the Indian statement: *Dr. Jaishankar conveyed that India has always stood with Sri Lanka, and will continue to support Sri Lanka in all possible ways for overcoming the economic and other challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic. As close friends and maritime neighbours, both India and Sri Lanka stand to gain from closer economic inter-linkages.

*Both Ministers positively noted that extension of US$ 400 million to Sri Lanka under the SAARC currency swap arrangement and deferral of A.C.U (Asian Clearing Union) settlement of USD 515.2 million by two months, would assist Sri Lanka.

*The two Ministers reviewed the progress in extending the Indian credit facility of USD 1 billion for importing food, essential items and medicine and USD 500 mn for importing fuel from India.

*Mr. Rajapaksa recalled India’s long standing cooperation with Sri Lanka and deeply appreciated the gestures of support. He welcomed Indian investments in Sri Lanka in a number of important spheres, including ports, infrastructure, energy, renewable energy, power and manufacturing and assured that a conducive environment will be provided to encourage such investments. In this context, both Ministers noted that the recent steps taken by the Government of Sri Lanka for jointly modernising the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm will boost confidence of investors, apart from enhancing Sri Lanka’s energy security.

*EAM brought up the issue of Indian fishermen detained in Sri Lanka. He urged the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure early release of the detained fishermen on humanitarian considerations.

* The two Ministers agreed to remain in close touch for guiding mutually beneficial bilateral economic cooperation towards long-term economic partnership for shared progress and prosperity.

Dependence on foreign powers

As FM Basil Rajapaksa promised, a ‘conducive environment’ has to be ensured for the speedy implementation of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm project. The FM cannot be unaware of Ven. Wakamulle Uditha Thera, on behalf of the JVP, moved the Supreme Court against the Trincomalee project. In addition to that petition, prominent Buddhist monks Ven Elle Gunawansa Thera and Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera, too, have moved the Supreme Court against the Trincomalee deal. Whether we like it or not, Sri Lanka’s position on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm as well as large scale poaching by Indian fishermen will be influenced by the growing dependence on India. The proposed agreement on USD 1 bn Indian credit facility to import food, essential items and medicine as well as USD 500 mn for importing fuel from India underscores Sri Lanka’s plight.

Shouldn’t the public be duly informed of the actual situation? In spite of repeated warnings over the impending crisis, the government took an arrogant stand. The SLPP ruled out an arrangement with relevant parties with the intervention of the IMF to restructure loans. Having presented a lacklustre Budget in Dec 2021 for 2022, the SLPP caused a debilitating setback by declaring Rs 229 bn relief package. As former minister D.E.W. Gunasekera recently pointed out in an interview with the Communist Party organ Aththa the entire amount required for the controversial relief package had to be printed at the expense of financial stability. The outspoken former General Secretary of the CP warned of dire consequences due to excessive money printing to finance such political projects. However, Gunasekera had no objection if that vast sum went to increase production in the country. Minister Alahapperuma’s Thihagoda statement is nothing but a clear evidence of growing concerns among those who fear the path the government is treading. Such criticism shouldn’t be ignored.

The bottom line is economically weaker Sri Lanka can be far easily influenced by foreign powers. The Yugadanavi deal with US energy firm promoted by the US Embassy in Colombo as well as the recently signed agreement on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farms or the growing Chinese role here have to be considered against the backdrop of the confrontation between China and Quad alliance the (US, India, Japan and Australia).

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Midweek Review

Let ethics precede religion



Image courtesy Minds Journal (

By Susantha Hewa

Conditioning is persuading people to believe something by repeated exposure to it and preventing them, as much as possible, from being acquainted with any conflicting views. No matter what it is meant to serve, it is an unwelcome process, which goes against all norms of education and civilisation. However, religious conditioning, for centuries, has been viewed as innocuous because it has acquired a semblance of sanctity by being associated with religion. This is a pity because, conditioning, no matter where it happens, produces the adverse result of making the learners mechanically accept what is drilled. No matter how great a religion may be, we are not making full advantage of it, if we continue to use indoctrination as the primary method of teaching it. Specially, it targets children who have no escape from or defence against this apparently edifying imposition.

There may be some who feel that religion and conditioning are inseparable and the former would lose all its meaning without the latter. However, this view begs the question of what constitutes religiosity. Of course, programming of children will continue to be the best method, if its objective is to make them devoted to the teachings of the respective religion as they grow up, regardless of the possibility of such programming unwittingly driving some of them to fanaticism as history would bear witness, sadly. So long as we use conditioning as the primary method of teaching religion, it is unrealistic to expect a different outcome.

Since all the religions in the world intend to guide people to become better individuals, there should be a concerted effort to prevent the diversity of religion from being a serious cause of division in society. After all, the ultimate purpose of religion should be to help people rise above their narrow religious identities and become unbiased, sensible and intelligently ethical. If religion, instead, push people more towards clinging on to dogma drilled in childhood than making them cultivate qualities that make the world a happier place for all, the whole enterprise becomes meaningless and, worse, counterproductive. As such the hoary method of premature conditioning of children merits a rethink.

If we are ready to view religion as something not necessarily connected to or reliant on conditioning, it would allow us to look for an alternative method of instruction that will enable the forming of ethical people without making room for them to be segregated on the basis of their acquired faiths. In fact, religion would be doing its best for humans if it gradually helped everyone to shed their religious scales and look for similarities rather than differences in others, which all religions advocate. After all, religions should be a liberating influence; not one which restricts.

To own that our long accustomed method of teaching religion has room for improvement is not being derogatory of religion at all. Religion and its mode of instruction are not tied by a sacred knot. Changing the method which tends to create separation is not to change the content enshrined in any religion. On the contrary, it is the first step towards preventing religion from inadvertently being divisive and insular. Unfortunately, in a world which admires and advocate innovativeness and creativity in every imaginable field, we seem to be complacent about the routine and unproductive method of drilling young minds by way of teaching religion.

Let’s think of education, which is one of the best civilising agents in any society. Education, over the years, has slowly and steadily progressed in terms of teaching methods. We have come a long way from using rote learning, drilling and all sorts of intimidation and punishment; instead, today we encourage group learning rather than individual learning, comprehension rather than memorising, questioning rather than passive reception, discussion rather than lecturing or doling out notes. As for the teacher, today, he or she acts as a facilitator rather than an all-knowing dispenser of knowledge. In other words, we have shifted from the parochial teacher-centred education to a more productive learner-centred education. Why should religious instruction remain in a rut? After all, religious tutoring, of all things, need not have even the remotest associations of stagnancy. It’s time we found alternative methods of religious instruction without making the mistake of thinking that shifting to a more fruitful method of teaching religion amounts to being disrespectful of religion in any way. Such dormancy defies every notion of progress. One’s regard for religion had better not prevent one from seeing the shortcomings of the ineffective method of conditioning.

Even if we had the ideal situation of a single-religion world, indoctrination of the unformed minds is hardly the best method of imparting religion. It is far more productive to replace conditioning with discussion, where the participants can fine-tune and broaden their knowledge. It had better be aimed at expanding horizons rather than mugging up content. Of course, the prerequisite for such a dynamic method is the avoidance of premature conditioning and let children develop their general learning faculties through normal education till they can deal with religious content.

If those who are anxious that stopping the religious moulding of the young would make them immoral, then, surely, moral philosophers, educationists and other concerned scholars may help develop a common subject of “ethics” without any religious tones. It would be introduced to students at a suitable grade tailoring the content to suit their level of cognition. Such a method would be much better than drilling immature minds, even if the world had only one religion. The benefits of it would be manifold in the present multi-religious world where conditioning has significantly contributed towards religion based alienation. Wouldn’t an unconditioned mind be better equipped to understand religion or religions without being obsessed with one of them?

Conditioning, for one thing, flouts all the sound principles of education. For another, it denies children the right to select their religion when they are mature enough to do so; it’s not different to partnering babies to their future spouses at the discretion of the parents. In fact, tradition has denied all of us the right of choosing our religion. Had we been left to choose our religion at the right time, our choice may have been different. More importantly, such a refined form of freedom would prevent us from being fanatics who would be ready to die or kill for our preferred religion. Choosing your religion as a mature person would put you on a completely different relationship with it than when it gets foisted on you when you were a toddler who could not say, “No please, not now. Don’t I have a choice in this matter?”

The word “religion” usually evokes feelings of serenity, brotherhood and peace in many people. However, this is not the case with its plural form “religions”, which connotes disquiet, division and strife. Unfortunately, we hardly find societies with a single religion. As far as religions are confined to textbooks they have no rivalry, but they do when unformed minds are programmed by them for want of a better method. Turning a blind eye on this and continuing to exploit children’s helplessness will not ensure the ushering of a peaceful and enlightened society. Can we, of all things, expect a method, which violates a basic right of children to produce good results?

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Midweek Review

Liberal Arts Perspectives



University of Bologna: ‘Medieval universities had five faculties: arts, philosophy, law, medicine and theology. Of these, the faculty of arts had the largest number of students and theology dominatedthem all in authority as clerics often were the teachers and the officials of universities.’

by Usvatte-aratchi

Professor Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s address before the College of Psychiatry raised two questions in my mind: liberal arts education and the appreciation of a novel. I will write some notes on liberal arts education. I have not read the novel he analysed.

What is liberal about liberal arts education? To understand that you must ask the further question what was education liberated from? It was liberated from theology, from the Roman Catholic Church, from scholasticism, from Aristotle and from the dominance of Latin. People turned from the study of God to the study of humans and his environment, hence humanism and the humanities. Protagora’s line came back to life: ‘Man is the measure of all things ….’ Mathematics became ‘the language in which the book of nature was written’ rather an aid to astrology. Knowledge was freed from the supremacy of sacerdotum, the church. In France that dominance continued till the Revolution. That dominance was something that we now can only imagine. The Pope, claiming that he was either the Vicar of Christ or successor to St Peter, exercised enormous power over believers. He anointed kings, excommunicated them, kept repentant kings kneeling before his closed door in winter cold, contracted peace among feuding kings and chartered universities. On occasion, bishops exercised some of these powers. Henry VIII’s breach with the Pope, the dissolution of monasteries in England and the use of some of that wealth to set up Trinity College in Cambridge (and its eventual contribution to the advance of knowledge, especially in mathematics and physics from Newton to Hawkins) was a seminal to the spread of liberal arts education. The revolution in 1688 in England was, in part, a rejection of James II to attempts to re-establish the dominance of Catholicism, following his cousin in Paris. The first amendment to the constitution of US reads ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. The French Revolution threw out the privileges of not only kings and the aristocracy but also of the Catholic church. The thinkers of pre-revolutionary Paris Montesquieu, Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire, Quesnay, say (Say’s first name was Jean-Baptiste which Grenouille, which the protagonist in the novel Amarakirthi analysed, also bore) and many others contributed mightily to the outcome.

Knowledge was freed from scholasticism and Aristotle. Aritotle’s Organon was replaced with Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. Latin was replaced with vernaculars after Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and after a committee of clerics similarly translated the Bible into English to form the Authorised Version. The content of that liberal arts education kept on growing and growing until sometime in the late 19th century, universities began to award the B.Sc. Degree, although Harvard College had appointed a professor of science as early as 1756. In 1700, in Paris there was the Academie des sciences. A few centuries after education was freed, as the guild system dissolved itself, apprentices were liberated to choose a craft of their choice and employment wherever they wished. So arose the individual as the centre from which society was composed.

The modern threat to liberal arts education comes from the all-powerful state, the Leviathan that saved men and women from the state of nature, which with full blown power threatens to gobble up everything in society. It is paradoxical but the true, that the state simultaneously espouses, nourishes and promotes liberal arts education. Most liberal arts colleges and universities are owned by and operated under governments. But the threat is real mostly in states which have totalitarian governments. In others, the governance and management of institutions are pretty much in the hands of the education institutions. There are two German terms that define the freedoms that educational institutions in non-totalitarian societies wish to enjoy: lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) and lehrenfreiheit (freedom to teach). Students are free to learn what they wish to where they wish to, and teachers are free to teach what they wish where they wish. There is a varied and vast literature on these themes and academics here are far more informed of these than I. I will cite two well-known instances of gross violation of these freedoms, one from the US and the other from India. In the early 1950s, there was the McCarthy witch hunt for communists in higher educational institutions which seriously interfered with their freedom of inquiry. In India a few years ago, a minister intervened to insist that a book written by a teacher in Delhi University be removed from the reading lists for MA students. However, there are many ways in which governments and large corporations interfere with the direction of research and teaching in universities. By funding research and teaching programmes, the funding institutions decide the directions in which universities move. My knowledge of academic institutions in China and Russia is very scant and I refrain commenting on them.

Liberalism grew to free people and people became free when governments intervened to end societies that were ‘nasty, brutish and short’. The neo-liberalist view belies this history. That process contained two streams. One fed the growth of personal freedom, now espoused in extreme forms by libertarians. The other was the main political programme of liberals, best illustrated by the activities of the Liberal Party in Britain in the 19th century and of the Labour Party in the 20th. The expansion of government in society including the regulation of markets was a part of that programme.

Failure to be fed by either of these streams causes starvation of one aspect of society and the emergence of malformations. At one extreme is the insurgence of Donald Trump in US and the pursuit of neo-liberal polices in Chile, both of which threaten democracy in the respective countries. At the other extreme is China which, it has been reported to have raised millions of people from poverty in about 30 years, giving them opportunities for a better life but denied people the freedom to choose. Again, at the expense of a democratic society.

Back to the campus. Medieval universities had five faculties: arts, philosophy, law, medicine and theology. Of these the faculty of arts had the largest number of students and theology dominated them all in authority as clerics often were the teachers and the officials of universities. (The president of Princeton University, until Woodrow Wilson in 1902, was always a clergyman, a presbyterian.) The statutes of Oxford referred to the arts faculty as the fons et origo ceteris– the source and origin of others. It was necessary to obtain B.A. and M.A. degrees to proceed to the higher faculties, except in the case of laws. Much of present-day conventions can be explained in those terms. In US, one cannot proceed to study law, medicine, management or philosophy unless one has completed an M.A/M.Sc. As the teaching content in science became comparable to those in arts, B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees came to be their equivalents.

Right up to the middle of the 19th century, even small colleges from medieval times could teach all the subjects that were necessary for the award of university degrees. That changed rapidly after a decade or two from then. Few colleges, if any, could teach the whole range of subjects undergraduates undertook to study. When Conant Bryant at Harvard in 1926, introduced the ‘smorgasbord’ of subjects for undergraduates, he announced to the world the expansion of knowledge that had begun about 1850. University faculties asserted themselves and appointed teachers in science to teach in labs, which were expensive to set up. Similarly, social sciences came to be taught in university faculties. The subject matter taught in these faculties became strange to those in others and the problems of ‘two cultures’ emerged and multiplied.

Given the large volume of material now taught in both schools and universities (colleges), it is necessary to think out where do we teach best all students a common curriculum to enable students in each stream talk to others. After all, a Samskrit scholar must be able to read a railway timetable and a theoretical physicist must not put on ear plugs when Bhimsen Joshi sings Meghamalhar. Two characters in C. P. Snow’s (of ‘Two Cultures’ fame) novels Walter Luke in The New Men, a physicist, and Roy Calvert, an orientalist, in The Light and the Dark) exemplify what Snow had in mind. My understanding of the situation is that it cannot be done productively in college or university. In societies like ours where a miniscule fraction of all school children enters universities, it is far more productive to introduce a larger number of students to the world of learning in school. In Britain it, was tried in several newer universities. Columbia had the Great Books course. In France the Baccalaureate examination (Bac) seems a successful attempt to do this.

In our schools now, students enter a stream at age 16. By 18 they are non-returners, either in arts or in science. Children in C schools have one stream to choose from. Students in 1AB schools have the luxury of choice. Students in C schools have a tougher time to enter the other stream.

I was in school a long time ago. It was possible then for a student to learn one or two languages to a good level of proficiency and literature in one of them, learn mathematics (including elementary calculus, coordinate geometry and series in algebra), one science subject (often botany in the absence of a lab and teachers to supervise experimental work) and the three social studies subjects. Of course, those conditions required good teachers. I imagine good schools in urban areas then had facilities for all this and more and now most schools have them. But even a small government central school in some hick town, when under a good principal provided that education. With two years preparatory work in the sixth form, the quality of which varied enormously among schools, a young man or woman entered university, where if he/she were diligent, he/she would come out not altogether a stranger in other faculties. My impression, no more, is that it all depended on teachers and systems matter much less.

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