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Midweek Review

Are we now moving towards a new Sri Lankan political culture?

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Rev. Fr. Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR

The general election of 2020 has become historical for many reasons. The Sri Lankan voters have overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP for the second time in just nine months, knowing well that in the process, they were freely approving the holding of the two most important public offices in Sri Lanka – the posts of President and Prime Minister – by two Rajapaksa brothers. Not only have they given an unprecedented mandate to them, but they have also decisively voted to send the oldest active political party in Sri Lanka – the UNP – into political oblivion. This particular election has many other salient features. To begin with, it is the election that was declared in April and took some four months before it could be really held. This was partly due to the Covid-19 threat and partly due to the alleged Constitutional blocks to holding an election (propelled by the understandable election phobia of most of the Opposition political parties). It’s also reported to be the most expensive Sri Lankan election thus far. It also will go down in history as the one that had so much of medical precautions surrounding the process of voting and counting the votes in view of the Covid-19 threat at a time when thousands of people are killed daily all over the world by the deadly virus. But one also needs to note that this was the election with least amount of violence in recent history in our country, a fact which is corroborated by all the election monitoring groups. As a matter of fact, no killing linked to elections was reported which is surely a major positive development. By conducting a peaceful general election under very strict health precautions (even though this cost so much of money) Sri Lanka has become a model to the entire world under the present trying conditions of health and economy all over the world. To those pessimist Sri Lankans (both within the country and outside of it) who always tend to see only what is negative in Sri Lankan ethos, the 2020 General Election is a clear indication that even with regard to local politics, there are quite a number of positive points that should never be ignored. As a matter of fact, this election could well be the moment of transition which marks the beginning of a new political culture in the country.

The massive mandate

No reasonable political pundit could ever imagine the ultimate result of this election, especially the margin of victory with which the SLPP won. Ever since J. R. Jayewardene master-minded the present proportionate system of electing members to parliament, and that too, under the preferential system of voting, at every General Election (except in 2010 when Mahinda Rajapaksa’s UPFA won immediately after the historical military defeat of the LTTE) it was hard for a single political party to muster even a workable majority to rule the country. Consequently, after each General Election, the winning political parties had to dilute their own manifestos and agendas to please those of the other parties with whom they were forced to form coalition governments. The fact that it was within such a crippling system of elections (which rarely reflected the overall will of the voters) that the SLPP won not just a simple majority but a nearly two-thirds majority, is surely a record. Only a massive wave of popularity could do this. Of course, during the election campaign, the SLPP clearly appealed to the voters to grant them a two-thirds mandate to right the wrongs and to untie the legal knots of the haphazardly formulated 19th amendment by the previous “Yahapalana” government. However, one wonders whether even the SLPP itself ever dreamt of coming closer to that target, realistically speaking. The fact that a vast majority of the voters as one block (so to say) have responded collectively to this call single-mindedly is itself a sign that they themselves freely chose to give a workable mandate to realize the agenda which the SLPP placed before them. This overwhelming voter response is also a flat refutation of the fears and phobias expressed continuously in the media and the Opposition political stages that granting such a two thirds majority would be unhealthy to democracy. It appears as if, a vast majority of voters en bloc had instead concluded that they rather need to give such a majority to the SLPP to correct those constitutional clauses of the 19th amendment which held the country at ransom during the last couple of years. As a matter of fact, the Sri Lankan masses were first hand witnesses to the glaring reality as to how the hands of the Executive President they elected with such a thumping majority hardly nine months ago were tied, thanks to the notorious 19th amendment. In short, this massive mandate is not only the Sri Lankan polity’s reaffirmation of the benevolent, well-intentioned policies of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa but it is also their clearing all potential obstacles for him to realize his dreams for the country. Now the President and his SLPP government will surely have no excuses not to realize the agenda they themselves had put before the voters.

The high voter turnout

True to its firm belief in democracy, the Sri Lankan citizenry also kept to its usual high percentage of voter-turn-out, thanks this time to the Election Commission and the Health authorities who defied all prophets of doom with regard to the threat of Covid-19, and assured the voters of their safety and that of the others. Sure, as usual in Sri Lanka, at this general election too, there has been a noticeable drop in the percentage of voters using their right to vote, compared to the Presidential elections (except the one in 1988 under the JVP insurrection when it dropped to less than 30%). Yet a 71% of overall voter-turn-out at this election is something very commendable, especially when one considers the trying conditions under which the recent election was held. Not even in those so-called “Western democracies” (some of whom habitually try to give lectures on democracy to nations such as Sri Lanka) does one notice such a high percentage of voting even under normal conditions. Thus, in the USA, the voter turn-out at Presidential Elections remains around 60% while in Britain it has been less than 68% at all the recent General Elections. Perhaps, this high voter turn-out in Sri Lanka could be attributed to the important value our voters assign to elections based on the long tradition of exercising the franchise in Sri Lanka which goes back to 1930’s. However, as already mentioned, since 1978 Sri Lanka has had one of the complicated voting systems in the world. Yet thanks to the high literacy rate, as well as the experience in democratic traditions, the vast majority of voters seem to have not got lost in the polling booth in choosing their candidates so far.

The massive mandate given at this election has demonstrated once again that a winning political party need not always depend on minority political parties even when it means sabotaging their own agenda for the country for which the people had voted them. The unjustified clout which the minority political parties in our country (most of which are based on ethnic or religious foundations) had been enjoying since 1994 (a clout that usually held at ransom the will of the majority of voters in the last parliaments for nearly 26 years), had been neutralized by the voters at this election just as they did in the November Presidential elections. The winning party now need not depend on the minority parties and dance according to their tunes. While there is no denying that keeping to the best of democratic traditions the voices of both majorities and minorities ought to be represented and heard in parliament, in no way should this mean that using the political clout (in the form of the number of seats they have in parliament) the minority parties should dictate terms to the whole country as it has often happened in Sri Lanka during the last few decades. Lest this writer be misunderstood or misinterpreted, it needs to be repeated that minority representation in parliament and their involvement in the country’s decision-making are non-negotiable but in no way should it mean that they can suffocate the legitimate collective aspirations of the Sri Lankan voters as expressed at an election.

Unrealistic election promises

Promises by political parties during election campaigning is normal in any democracy. As a matter of fact, the voters need to know what the respective political parties would do if they were to be elected. A positive point of the recent General Election that should not escape the attention of any political analyst is the way the ordinary Sri Lankan voter (however poor and miserable his/her socio-economic condition may had been) has flatly refused to be hoodwinked by the unrealistic election promises of various political parties. Gone are the days when they would vote for two measures of rice or eight kilos of grain, as promised by political leaders of the caliber of the late Sirimavo Bandaranaika and the late J.R. Jayawardena, respectively. Just as at the last Presidential elections, at this election too, the voters have refused to be taken for rides by such cheap promises. If not, they ought to have elected with a thumping majority the newly formed SJB of Sajith Premadasa who continued to make bizarre election promises which could not be realistically maintained with our weak economy. The promise to give each person 20,000 rupees is an example in this regard. There were also others who were trying to keep pace with him but to a lesser degree. The promise of the UNP leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe to give “money in the hand” of every citizen, was one such example. The very high cost of living and the dwindling of job opportunities due mainly to the Covid-19 epidemic did not tempt the voters (especially those in the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder who form the bulk of the voters in Sri Lanka) to be hoodwinked by such enticing promises. Rather, they seemed to have been more interested in long-term, realistic programs aimed at promoting the common good of the country, first of all, by eliminating corruption and poverty. This surely is a mature sign of a nation in transition towards a new political culture.

New faces in Parliament

In spite of the great trust the Sri Lankan citizens have consistently placed in democracy, especially in elections (of which the Opposition parties had a phobia), they have been continuously disappointed by the type of persons they themselves had elected. Not only did those members of parliament fail to keep what they had promised, but more so, their uncivilized, arrogant behaviour and highly corrupt practices in enriching themselves (such as the robbing of the Central Bank in broad day-light), and their other glaring abuses of power (such as letting free the real culprits of the Easter bomb attacks) had been disgusting to the majority of Sri Lankans, so much so that quite a number of them even opting never to vote again! Things in this regard had deteriorated so much that many citizens have come to believe

that the easiest way to enjoy power and status, and at the same time mint money at one’s will (and that too, often, without any professional qualification or hard work) is to become a member of parliament. In short, people had come to perceive that to be elected to parliament was the easiest way for ‘nobodies’ to become ‘somebodies’. It is in this sense that a vast number of Sri Lankans, both rural and urban, had been longing to see a new political culture, especially among their elected representatives. As is well-known, there has been a clamour in the country for some time now for new faces in our parliament, replacing the hackneyed corrupt and unruly political lot, and thank God, at this election a good number of new faces have been elected who hopefully will not disappoint their electors. At the same time, more than 70 members of the last parliament have been defeated. Another gratifying aspect is the amount of professionals that have been elected. Although the mere fact of being a new face or a professional is no guarantee of decent and ethically respectful politics, at least the voters have placed their trust in the new faces and professionals they had elected, hoping that they would not rob our national assets in aggrandizing themselves as it had been happening in recent decades, thanks to some hooligans and uneducated riff raff entering parliament. The new faces and the professionals, together with two newly formed political parties, the SLPP and the SJB as the main political parties (though both of them still have some corrupt and useless members of the bygone years) in this new parliament, we Sri Lankans now have a good opportunity to re-kindle our hopes for a new political culture in Sri Lanka.

A Mandate to change the 19th Amendment/ the Constitution

One of the main mandates asked by the winning SLPP from their General Election platforms had been the request to grant them a two-thirds mandate to change the Constitution, especially to change the disastrous 19th amendment which was hurriedly enacted immediately after the general election in 2015, mainly to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa from coming to office again.

It was so haphazardly drafted with this single intention that even the noble democratic elements that were used to camouflage it (such as the establishment of Independent Commissions) paled into an insignificant horizon. Moreover, the 19th amendment crippled the functioning of that very “yahaplana government” itself, especially in the latter part of that government. The many unprecedented legal knots and riddles with regard to the constitutional matters during the past few years sprang forth mainly from that notorious 19th amendment. Now that the people have given a resounding mandate to change it, the new government should not hesitate to do so as early as possible, but at the same time taking precautions to safeguard those positive aspects of it, such as the establishment of Independent Commissions, and making sure that under the new Constitution, the members appointed to those Commissions be really “independent”.

One of the main factors that paved the way towards the deterioration of the well-establisehd democratic political culture in our country was the introduction of the proportionate system of voting and electing members to parliament in 1978. The preferential system of voting which came along with it had been mainly responsible for the in-fighting even within the same political party, thus, paving the way to a violent political culture in our country since then. It is high time to put an end to this root cause of political violence at elections, which the country had suffered for more than four decades. Also it would be imperative for any new Constitution first of all to respect the will of the voters that is normally expressed through their franchise. As such, the recent phenomenon of MP’s getting elected from one political party and then crossing over to another after the elections should be stopped at any cost because this is a brutal betrayal of the voters, especially under the present system of elections. If this is not checked through some provisions to the Constitution, it could lead to a serious erosion of people’s confidence in democracy and in elections.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, a fact which no Constitution can afford to ignore. Fair representation for the ethnic and religious minorities in the country’s decision-making is a must. It is in this sense that the new Constitution should assure that those ethnic and religious minorities be given seats in parliament through what is now known as “the National List” or some other list similar to it, so that those minority ethnic and religious groups (who cannot get their representatives elected at the elections) would have their representation in parliament. Under the first Constitution of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) there was a list of reserved seats for this purpose under the title “Appointed MP’s”. The 1972 and the 1978 Constitutions also wished to continue this practice through what came to be known as the “National List”. But unfortunately, for the past four decades or so, instead of giving representation to those minorities of our country through that list, what we have witnessed is the shameless practice of filling this list with the cronies who are supporters of the respective political parties, or still worse, with those defeated candidates. We witnessed this shameless act at the last parliament, when the ruling UPFA appointed six of its defeated candidates to fill their National list, while the UNP and the JVP, too, did the same. This is nothing but a thundering slap on the face of the Sri Lankan voters (and eventually on democracy) – namely, to bring in the very persons whom they had rejected at elections! The new Constitution ought to prevent such shameless, undemocratic practices.

The Need for a Benevolent “Dictator”

To get out of the messy political culture we had been in, we, the Sri Lankan citizens need a political leadership with a firm and resolute will. This is what most of the citizens in ordinary parlance intend when they say “We need a benevolent dictator”. Of course, we need a “dictator” in Sri Lanka, but not a dictator with the true literal sense of the word, but someone who acts like a dictator using his/her legitimate authority but always well within the Constitution. Such qualifications may sound as a tautology, but what is meant is that we need someone who can take decisions for the common good of the country, with firm and resolute will, ignoring all political party affiliations and favouritisms. He/she ought to be someone who upholds law and order, irrespective of the status or political affiliations of persons. Ever since his election in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown many signs of such resolute and impartial leadership for the good of the country. His commendable way of coordinating the available persons and resources in our country in the fight against the world-wide threat of Covid-19 is a case in point. The unprecedented mandate given to him at this General election is a clear endorsement of the style of leadership he has been exercising during the past nine months. Now that he is given what he wanted, namely – a parliament that would cooperate with him in implementing his programs for the common good – one hopes that he would continue this style in exercising his role as President of our country (as the head of State) in the coming years too so that at last we as a nation could now begin our journey realistically towards a new political culture in our beloved motherland. We as a nation that believes in democracy and elections cannot afford to be disappointed again!

 

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Midweek Review

The Uphill Trudge

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By Lynn Ockersz

You are on a painful trudge,

Collecting bric-a-brac,

To make your hearth’s flames rise,

But for the ‘nation-builders’ on high,

Eyeing the GDP growth track,

You count for nought,

But the warmth in your run-down hut,

Kindles joyousness all around,

In the margins of the land,

While walled citadels,

In the shimmery metropole,

Take the sun out of simple lives.

 

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Midweek Review

Research for people’s benefit

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Culture shift

By Prof Athula Sumathipala and Dr Buddhika Fernando

Peaceful elections, without posters, cut-outs or violence, came and went without too much of a fuss, unlike in the past. The new cabinet and state ministers have now been sworn in and the parliament is in session. Is it going to be ‘business as usual’ in the research community anymore? We think not.

In the very first hour after assuming duties in November 2019, His Excellency the President ordered the display of the state emblem in government offices, instead of personal photographs, earning the respect of even those who did not vote for him. Through that simple act, he displayed how norms can be challenged through setting an example at a personal level. The response to such change was reflected in the election that followed: floating votes ensured the two-thirds mandate the President requested, paving the way for a new political culture.

People sent a powerful message via a two-thirds mandate not only to politicians but also to government officials, and importantly, to intellectuals, academics and scientists – they want to see a culture shift in all these arenas. ‘Vistas of prosperity and splendour’ has now been transformed from a presidential candidate’s election manifesto into state policy and therefore any planned activities including research should be aligned with it for policy impact. For researchers, it is no longer merely ‘publish or perish’, it is not business as usual and the entire research ecosphere needs to see a culture shift towards research for people’s benefit.

Research and Development, Innovation and Technology Transfer

The post-industrial knowledge economy of today clearly displays the close correlation among economic growth, innovation and indigenous research capacity. University-based research has been the most effective driver of such economically-relevant innovation. Furthermore, there is a clear association between a country’s health and research and development (R&D) investment.

As a result, leveraging the public investment in universities to stimulate innovative R&D is now a critical need for a country to remain competitive in the global arena. Most high-ranking universities in the world are no longer just teaching universities but have transformed into to research universities. In the same vein, Sri Lanka needs a paradigm shift to make research and innovation core components of tertiary education. Research and innovation need to be incorporated not only into postgraduate education, but also into undergraduate education in order to produce individuals with both a creative vision for innovation as well as the sufficient intellectual breadth and depth to realise that vision.

What is a strategy?

We believe strategy is about capturing opportunities arising in a dynamic world, as scientific opportunities cannot always be foreseen. The flexibility to respond to novel ideas with solid potential is therefore crucial for success. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented window of opportunity for research in as-yet fully unexplored subject matters. Sri Lanka requires innovative R&D contributions to re-stabilise the economy, to ensure national security and for sustainable development in strategically important areas.

Culture shift – what does it entail?

Any culture shift demands change in the triad of thinking, feelings and behaviours. According to cognitive theory, thoughts are central to any feelings or behaviour. The way people think determine how they feel and behave. Therefore, ‘attitudes’ which are a significant component of thinking, need to change for any modification in thinking or behaviour to happen.

What is success?

At the end of the day what we all want, either as individuals or as a society is ‘success’; but how do you define success?

The definition of ‘success’ is determined by one’s attitude towards ‘success’. It could mean personal success or material gains for one’s own benefit or it could mean the public good arising from one’s efforts. The attitude towards success is the driving force for the vision, strategy and focus and a wrong attitude can lead to a ‘success’, which could even be destructive. The classic example for such a harmful attitude and focus is the LTTE separatist war, the war that brought destruction to every one irrespective of the language spoken. Similarly, where knowledge is power, that too can lead to a destructive end.

Success in research

For a researcher, the institution he is affiliated to may have a proud history, it may be a place of research excellence with a reputation for cutting edge research, an institution supporting future research leaders. However, what does it mean to an ordinary citizen? What could such an institution offer them? This is the standard ‘so what’ question, as it is applicable to the ordinary citizen.

For whose benefit is research carried out? It is high time to reflect on this question.

An academic or research institution can be a place that can offer a degree, a job, a better life, a promotion, a good marriage, a patent, the opportunity to see the world through academic travel, publications, a thesis to gather dust in a library. However, we need to question ourselves regarding the purpose of research – aiming for public good and benefit beyond personal gain.

Serious reflection on achieving something beyond personal gain is an urgent need; that is what the culture shift – research for people’s benefit demands. A paradigm shift is necessary in the way we look at the benefits and the impact of our research. In the simplest terms, impact means making a difference to people’s lives.

Why is such a change necessary? We are products of free public education, we use public funds for research, and even public knowledge; knowledge is also on most occasions something others have left behind and we are merely enhancing such past knowledge through our current research. We therefore have a moral and ethical obligation to think beyond personal gain. It is not only politicians who should be transparent and accountable. We academics too are answerable to the public. This is a salient feature not usually recognised by academics, and a part of the necessary culture shift.

In the journey towards such a ‘culture shift’, the ethos and attitudes are crucial. Bad attitude is like a flat tire, you cannot go anywhere without changing it. We also need to remember that change is generally resisted and challenging the ‘norm’ may be faced with significant animosity, especially from ego centric, self-centred, insecure personalities and power brokers.

Achieving an attitude change starts from within oneself. Such an internal change will ignite the change externally. It’s a synergistic process. That is why we started this article by noting the President’s attitude of not having his photograph at state institutions. It was a small step which had an impact and we saw a leap that will have an incremental journey. Who would have believed that an election could be run without posters at every wall and culvert? That is where agents of change are needed, as a prerequisite for a culture shift.

Agents of change for this culture shift to research for people’s benefit, should be scientists and researchers themselves. We need far sighted future research leaders to be role models, genuine and committed research leaders. Such leadership attributes will count much more than academic brilliance.

We need to realise that action without a vision is drudgery and vision without action is only dreaming. Never dream, because dreams are easily forgotten, have targets instead. A vision coupled with action can change the world.

 

 

We should remember that any change, especially a culture shift towards research for people’s benefit needs good teams and the ethos to ignite transferable and sustainable changes. In such teams we need visionaries, theoreticians, but also pragmatists and activists. All these attributes will be rare in one person, and that is why we need teams. A true leader in a team is different from a manager or a boss. Leaders manage the future and managers manage the day to day ‘mess’. However, a ‘boss’ is also different to a manager. A true leader is a coach, a mentor, relies on goodwill, generates enthusiasm among the team members, say ‘we’, develops people, gives credit to others and shares benefits while accepting the blame and defeat. They bind team members together. However a ‘Boss’, demands and relies on authority only, says I, uses people, takes credit for success but blames others for failures, and thinks only about ‘ my way’. Such ego centric and self-centred attributes could be the worst enemy within any professional and will hinder team work and progress. Therefore, self-reflection becomes an essential component of the culture shift we discuss.

The art of science is very different from science. Most scientists are generally good at science, but lack the art of science – the art of delivering scientific benefits by communicating the research findings to policy planners and converting the research findings into products and services. Ironically this conceptual framework is mostly non-existent in our part of the world.

That is why there is plenty of research describing the problem (descriptive research) but no intervention research to rectify the problem. For example, there is extensive descriptive research on CKDU (Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin) but people continue to suffer from kidney failure. Similarly, although there is a wide body of research on the human – elephant conflict, people continue to die from elephant attacks.

 

A culture shift towards research for people’s benefit is therefore critical. We need to next consider the process of achieving such a shift.

The new government has a State Ministry of Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research and Innovation which is led by a dynamic and able professional with the suitable background. However, is it only the duty of the Minister, the Ministry officials and the scientist and the far-sighted research leaders.

The public has an equal responsibility as they should not be expected to be passive recipients of the benefits. The criticism that the general public does not have any insight into the word research is a serious misperception that needs to change if one expects a tangible culture shift.

Patient and public involvement and engagement (PPIE) or community engagement in medical research is firmly established in the West. It is now extending as a fundamental element of health research in low and middle income countries (LMIC). It places public contributors at the centre of research and its outcomes, and helps ensure that its scope, processes, and evaluation are more relevant, appropriate and beneficial to the end users of research. There is overwhelming research evidence that the public frequently prioritise themes and topics for research that are different to those of academics and health professionals. Research evidence also demonstrates that the quality and appropriateness of research is enhanced and the likelihood of successful recruitment to studies increased, and implementation of the findings is improved when the public are involved and engaged in research.

It is a process of active partnership between researchers, professionals, and members of the public in prioritising, designing and delivering research. It is defined as “research being carried out ‘with’ or ‘by’ members of the public rather than ‘to’, ‘about’ or ‘for’ them”. This change is absolutely essential if one is serious about making this culture shift towards research for people’s benefit.

We have brilliant researchers who are world-leading in terms of the conventional indicators of ‘success’ and from an academic point of view. This is however fragmented and patchy. An overarching research culture is the necessity of the day, but even that will not deliver effective results if it is ‘business as usual’.

Finally, a culture shift also demands working within truly respectful and mutually beneficial partnerships rather than in separate silos. In such an ethos, plagiarism (taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own) should be thoroughly condemned as it is a moral violation of research ethics. Patents will never be the sole protection against plagiarism. The silent good majority researchers should also be educated and empowered to strictly adhere to broader research ethics principles. Such a collective effort with public engagement and involvement will pave the way for the culture shift towards research for people’s benefit which is the slogan of only a minority right now. But it can be made ‘infectious’.

We therefore once again reiterate that we need a culture shift towards research for people’s benefit.

Let’s work collectively not just to make Sri Lanka the granary of Asia, but also the intelligence warehouse/hub of Asia.

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Midweek Review

The purpose of education and educational reforms

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By Kirthi Tennakone

Education offers two categories of benefits to people — an avenue for acquiring necessary skills for occupation to earn material wealth and an intellectual enlightenment. These two virtues of education are interlinked, inseparable and equally important. Yet, most individuals and societies blindly overemphasise the former hoping to reap quick economic returns. Educational reforms planned to be introduced in Sri Lanka and generally elsewhere in the developing world seems to prioritise the first category of benefits, believing the second leads to unemployment and poverty. Nevertheless, the quality that paves way towards rational thinking, innovation and empathetic social cooperation is the second intension. In the long run its neglect curtails the material advancement as well.

The technological weakness in developing nations and misbeliefs detrimental to social progress prevalent in deprived as well as affluent regions of the world originate largely from deficiency in intellectual aspects of education. The both the components of education, occupational and intellectual are absolutely essential – cutting down the second to accommodate the first would be counterproductive and disastrous.

What is education?

The term ‘education’ evades precise definition. If definable there would be clear-cut methods of achieving it and assessing the level of competence. Exams, degrees and skills mastered are not real measures of education. The meaning of education goes beyond the common dictionary definition – gaining knowledge and acquisition of skills.

The quotes of persons of eminence reflects the essence and purpose of education. Socrates argued education amounts to drawing out the already existing potential of students. Rabindranath Tagore said the widest road leading to solution of all our problems is education. Nelson Mandela valued his education, declaring education as the most peaceful weapon which can change the world. According to a shloka in ‘Bhagavad Gita’, intelligence enables perceiving the essential and education instill this capacity. Albert Einstein was controversial in his remarks about education, saying “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learnt in school” and “The only thing that interfere with my learning is my education”. Obviously he was commenting about pitfalls of formal education-closing open-mindedness and fixing tradition irrevocably.

Education excessively biased towards vocational needs, lessening the intellectual aspect, tends to fix traditional orthodoxy against open mindedness in understanding issues and resolving problems. Contrarily all creative works in art, literature, science and technical innovations are products of out-of-the box-thinking. An open mind bends more flexibly towards unconventionality, reason, justice and ethical responsibility.

There are social influences that hinder open-mindedness, creativity, innovations, rationality and ideals of fair play. Educational reforms and social development strategies should take these factors into consideration.

 

Introduction and education

Indoctrination is imposition of beliefs and ideas without providing credible supportive evidence for their validity. Unlike in education, indoctrination discourages questioning and critical analysis. Often doctrines are justified as tradition or faith or something enunciated in scripture or enforcement by an ideology. In earliest days, education and indoctrination were largely indistinguishable. The literate men of antiquity adhered to established doctrines, subjecting them to repetitive discussion and interpretation.

In recent times authoritarian regimes had introduced political indoctrination revising textbooks and school curricula. Communist politics thereby indoctrinated masses promoting vocational education tinted with Marxist ideology.

Greeks were first to deviate from indoctrination and initiate questioning on basis of rational argument. According to recorded history, Thales of Mellitus (626-545 BCE) was the first philosopher who sought answers to natural phenomena by reasoning and evidence. The ideas of Thales were greatly expounded by Aristotle. However, his teachings were continued for nearly 2000 years unquestioned. Without resorting to experiment Aristotle said, if two unequal weights are dropped from a height, the heavier one hits ground first. Galileo, dropping two weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, proved Aristotle is wrong – both weights hit ground at the same time.

Breaking away from indoctrination had been an arduous task. The rational conclusions of the wise were opposed – sometimes threatened with imprisonment or death. Socrates died in Athens for free speech and disbelieving gods. The Italian astronomer and mathematician Giordano Bruno (1548-1600 CE) who hypothesized that stars are objects similar to the sun surrounded by planets was declared an impenitent by the Roman Catholic Church and punished by burning alive. Prosecutions for blasphemy continues to date.

The diffusion of the Greek philosophy of seeking rational explanations was the main cause of European scientific and technological advancement and realization of democratic values. The resistance to liberation from indoctrination is greater in the East – perhaps accounting for the comparative weakness. Indoctrination in different forms continue to exist everywhere to a greater or lesser extent. Freeing of society of such brain washings will vitalize human potential, promote innovations and help to eliminate dangerous fundamentalism and ideologies contrasting democracy.

Education in its true spirit begins in early childhood. Parental care and interaction with the environment induce inquisitiveness. Little later parents and elders introduce indoctrination voluntarily or involuntarily. If the child does something considered inappropriate, instead of explaining why what he or she did is bad, an elder would say such acts carry people to hell. They are also told that deeds of charity will reward them similarly in future – inculcating a selfish motive rather than a humanitarian concern.

Exposure to irrational beliefs happens in schools, public discussions and in casual conversation. An environment of such influences is not conducive to creativity, innovation and infusing truly ethical values to a society.

An indoctrinated mind fails to utilize knowledge he or she has gained in real situations, but inadvertently resort to the customary tradition. A teacher after discussing heat loss mechanisms in the class room returns home and boil potatoes in an open pan. An engineer ignores bad weather in laying the foundation for his house in favor of a so-called auspicious time. The teacher and the engineer uses scientific knowledge in their professions, but in domestic affairs it is the tradition or occultism! These two hypothetical examples point to a social psychosis adversely affecting progress. Recently, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien said, “we cannot afford to have people who are fearful and distrust science, or who are held captive by groundless anti-scientific beliefs.

 

Education to nuture creativity and innovation

Creativity is conceiving an entirely new concept often preceded by imagination. Innovation means implementation of a new idea. Education is a prerequisite for reaping of outputs from above qualities, but the process of education can either boost or kill them.

Children are born creative and innovative. Initially they interact with parents and animate or inanimate objects displaying the ability to create and innovate – dismantling a toy is an act of curiosity. They need to be persuaded to imagine, telling stories, inspiring words and allowed to play. Instructing the kid how to assemble the toy so that he or she could qualify as a robotic engineer is a mistake.

Today, most parents burden their children with instructions to prepare for a job of their choice which they aspire their sons and daughters to assume decades later – the preference is a profession that allows earning the most money in the shortest time. Private tutors avoid teaching fundamentals and historical development of a subject, coaching students to answer questions without uttering words of inspiration – as their aim is to enable students to pass exams with minimum intellectual effort in the shortest time. The above attitudes almost completely destroy the creative talent, producing persons without capacity to move beyond the routine.

 

Uninspiring and un-pedagogical ways of introducing ideas are also prevalent in schools and universities. In teaching mechanics, Newton’s laws are introduced as if they have come from a disciple in the heavens. These laws are clever abstractions by a mortal – the only validity being the agreement of the derivations from laws with observation. Most teachers fail to emphasize this point. The former approach scares students to attempt things of the caliber of Newton. Whereas the latter motivates students to realize that the subject falls within their reach.

 

Education reforms: Counterproductive approaches

Free education in Sri Lanka is a success – exemplary to the region. The benefits of the national education effort have gone beyond elimination of illiteracy. It has delivered a work force that can do all routine things and ones that require special skills. Citizens are well informed and accommodated in fair living standards cost effectively. Achievements in the health sector owes much to education. People following recommended safeguards against COVID is prime example. Despite all the above positives, the Sri Lankan education system is blamed for not rendering innovations to drive the economy. A proposed remedy has been to revise curricula to make them more relevant. A prevalent erroneous consensus floating around classifies art, literature, humanities and fundamental science as useless and advocate replacing them with vocationally oriented technical themes and business studies. In fact former are the disciplines that motivates students to imagine, think, fathom ideas and learn the art of writing, all students need to be exposed to these themes of learning at least in the school and preferably at the university and vocational training institutions.

The core areas of fundamental science are physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. The purpose of the faculties of science in universities should be to teach basics of these subjects rigorously and comprehensively. Diluting the curricula with so-called relevant applied themes would be counterproductive, not conducive to nurturing persons of outstanding creative talent.

In countries all over the world universities and few research institutions are mandated to engage in fundamentals studies, generally funded by the government, as such endeavors are an absolute necessity to foster intellectual advancement of the society. Furthermore all major innovation have resulted from such research. Again original findings in fundamental science greatly escalate the scientific standing of a nation. If these institutions indulge heavily in less challenging applied research themes, sometimes trivialities on the pretext of relevance, the consequence of the neglect of fundamental component will be a second class status for science technology. Countries that have attained major economic advances in recent times via technological innovations, have also invested in education and research in basic science and related activities to promote creativity.

The purpose of education is broad and diverse, a preparation for facing untold circumstances and exploring new avenues. One must keep in mind that narrow and rigid education reforms may turn out to be counterproductive. It is essential to keep a balance between disciplines, those expected to deliver short-term economic returns and ones that stimulate the intellect.

Kirthi Tennakone Adjunct Professor at the National Institute of Fundamental Studies can be reached via ktenna@yahoo.co.uk

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