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Cultural revival, education reform, and study of history

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(A part of this article was deleted due to a technical error, last week. It is reproduced in full today. We regret the error.)

 

By Uditha Devapriya
(with Uthpala Wijesuriya)

Most accounts of education reform in British Ceylon focus on officials and administrators, rather than the people on the ground and the historical forces they had to contend with. Very little effort, indeed next to no effort, is made to situate reforms in a broader historical context. Works like Ranjit Ruberu’s Education in Colonial Ceylon (1962) and the Education and Cultural Affairs Ministry’s Education in Ceylon: A Centenary Volume (1969) do explore these areas, but these remain more the exception than the norm.

Whether scholars have gone beyond a colonial-centric reading of education reforms in 19th century Ceylon is of course debatable. But the need to go beyond such a frame of reference is evident enough. By paying attention to official accounts, we tend to view those reforms through the lens of colonial administrators, whose intentions may not have been as clear-cut as what their biographers would have us assume. On the other hand, we also fail to note the socio-cultural forces that shaped these reforms, including nationalist agitation, religious revival, and progressive forces within the administration itself.

The truth is that, like the society in which they came to be enforced, these reforms were riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. Hence, while colonial officials could dismiss vernacular education at the beginning of the 19th century, events like the 1848 Rebellion resulted in their successors viewing it less unfavourably.

At the same time, the administration distinguished between elementary and secondary education, limiting vernacular schooling to the former. The government did endeavour to expand facilities, but these conformed to the imperatives of confining superior education to a Westernised bourgeoisie. As Swarna Jayaweera has observed, “British policy consistently stressed quality rather than quantity in secondary education.”

Perhaps more than anything else, colonial reforms bequeathed a set of elite secondary schools to the country. The Donoughmore Commission noted this when it stated that the island was fortunate “in possessing a remarkable number” of such institutions.

These schools were run by the State, Christian denominational bodies, and other private interests. Many of them had been set up between 1835 and 1860, while schools founded by Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim revivalists were set up in the latter part of the century. It was only in the Donoughmore period (1931-1947), when Ministers exercised more powers over their areas of specialisation and a radical Left entered the legislature, that facilities for which these institutions had gained a reputation were extended to the poorer masses.

It is from this standpoint that we need to assess the contribution of cultural and religious revivalists, progressive educationists, and historical forces to the education and curriculum reforms of late 19th British Ceylon. As the evidence makes it clear, these figures and forces played a part in reforming the face of education in colonial society, even if they did not bring about, much less promote, radical change within that society.

Preoccupied with the issue of the country’s finances, the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission recommended the establishment of a public school in Colombo, the reform of government schools, and the setting up of a Commission to administer education reforms. Established in 1834, the latter body collapsed seven years later due to various disagreements and clashes. It was followed by another Commission in 1841, which in turn gave way to a more successful institution, the Department of Public Instruction, 28 years later.

By this point in time, the colonial administration in Ceylon was being guided by two contrasting ideological impulses: utilitarianism and orientalism. On the one hand, colonial administrators gave priority to reforms that were practicable and in line with the objective of creating a class of Westernised elites. On the other, not a few of them found themselves drawn to the history of the country they were governing. These developments blended in with the tenor of education reforms and the Buddhist revival of the late 19th century. Their effects were to be felt more fully in the early part of the 20th century.

Probably the most crucial development at this time was the excavation of Anuradhapura. Coming in after centuries of neglect, the restoration of the former capital of the country left a deep impression on people, evoking memories of a lost civilisation and a lost grandeur. It awakened no less than a desire to reclaim a national heritage.

Fittingly, the publication of an Archaeological Commission of Inquiry in 1870 fed into a clamour to know more about the country’s past. Ceylon history, as it came to be called, soon preoccupied officials and elites, leading to the formation of groups like the Ceylon Reform League and provoking much debate among educationists.

These debates centred on a rather pressing problem. Since their establishment, secondary schools had exuded a literary bias, with curricula which placed emphasis on the classics at the cost of other subjects. Long noted as a weakness by officials attached to the Department of Public Instruction, there was very little done to change the situation.

The teaching of history, in particular, limited the child to Europe and India. At the Colombo Academy in the period under discussion, for instance, the two textbooks in use were John Murray’s Guide to India and John Marshman’s Brief Survey of Ancient History. The situation remained much the same elsewhere, with the exception of schools set up by the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS), where the revivalist objectives of the organisation mingled with a personal interest among foreign teachers and principals in local culture.

Two developments conspired to extend the teaching of these subjects to the island’s elite schools. Firstly, the Governors in charge at this point, in particular William Gregory, took an interest in studying the country’s past and setting up institutions for that purpose. Indeed, the likes of Gregory did not just direct funds to digging up ancient sites, they also financed the establishment of institutions like the Colombo Museum despite the misgivings of their more fiscally conservative colleagues. Under Gregory, moreover, science and art education was prioritised, though progress remained frustratingly slow.

Secondly, while Buddhist schools saw their share of teachers dedicated to the study of local history, at the turn of the century other schools also began employing such figures. The most prominent among them was W. G. Fraser, Principal of Trinity College for 20 years. Described as “the finest colonial headmaster of his day”, Fraser oversaw the teaching of Sinhala at Trinity and abandoned subjects imported from England.

Less well heard of than Fraser, but no less significant, was Charles Hartley. A classics and language master who had taught at a number of English public schools, Hartley served as Principal of the Colombo Academy, now renamed as Royal College, for 16 years. During his tenure he oversaw several reforms, including starting Sinhala and Tamil classes on Saturday mornings at “a fee of Rs. 2 per month.” Anne Blackburn notes that the school employed the brother of Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera as its first Sinhala teacher.

Hartley’s experiments became successful, and in 1908 “vernacular teaching was instituted in the time table of the lower forms.” Despite his classical training, he also took an interest in science education, commencing physics classes for Technical College students in 1907. That same year, he introduced Ceylon History “to the three upper forms.”

Such reforms continued to influence students even after Hartley’s term ended. In 1913 at the College, for instance, two prizes were offered for Ceylon History, pointing to a growing enthusiasm for the subject. Whereas oriental studies had been neglected in the early 19th century, in the early 20th century such subjects were being taught with much interest. More pertinently, towards the end of the 1920s the results of the Cambridge Examination began to record impressive improvements in history.

Noting these achievements, in 1930 a group of students and teachers conferred with each other and presented a proposal to the principal that led to the establishment of a Historical Association. For its inaugural meeting the Association invited G. C. Mendis to speak on “The study of history with special reference to Ceylon”, underscoring the interest in local history that had led to the founding of the society. Predictably, other public schools followed suit: S. Thomas’ College, for instance, formed such an association in March 1936.

These years and decades saw the publication of a number of history books. They included Paul E. Pieris’s Ceylon and the Portuguese (1913) and The Kingdom of Jaffnapatam (1920), H. W. Codrington’s A Short History of Ceylon (1929), L. E. Blaze’s History of Ceylon (1933), and G. C. Mendis’s The Early History of Ceylon (1940). Needless to say, they had a profound influence on the local curriculum, even at the elite secondary schools.

To say that is not to overrate these works. For the most, the early historians favoured a chronology that divided the past into a series of dynastic periods. It was much later, in the 1960s, that a new generation of historians departed from such frameworks and delved into the material base of society. In its own way, however, it is a testament to the influence of the early historians that our schools still adopt their chronology, with the syllabus focusing on ruling dynasties and clans. Whatever the limitations of such an approach are, there’s no denying that it has penetrated the classroom today, as it did in their time.

These developments were a product of the political, cultural, and social forces that came together in colonial society in the late 19th century. While the work of colonial officials and commissioners, who had their own peculiar motives in the field of education reform, have been noted and can’t be denied, the work of other individuals, including educationists and revivalists, is more significant than what they are given credit for.

What needs to be noted in conclusion is that the reforms overseen by these individuals reflected the ideological impulses of British colonialism. So long as they did not contradict the broader aims of the colonial project, these reforms by and large gained official support, begrudgingly though it was often given. This is not as astounding as it may seem: not even in the 1930s, on the eve of the Donoughmore Reforms, did the most ardent revivalist imagine a Ceylon falling outside the British orbit. It is this, essentially, that guided education reforms, within the framework, and the limits, of a plantation colony in Asia.

(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations scholar and columnist, who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. Uthpala Wijesuriya is a student and the outgoing Chairman of the Royal College History Club, who can be reached at wijesuriyau6@gmail.com)

 



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Features

Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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