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Decolonising education and critical thinking

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IN BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS (1952), FRANTZ FANON, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination.

By Darshi Thoradeniya

I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.

Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.

As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.

Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.

This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.

History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.

When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.

Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.

The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.

If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.

(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.



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Responding to our energy addiction

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by Ranil Senanayake

Sri Lanka today is in the throes of addiction withdrawal. Reliant on fossil fuels to maintain the economy and basic living comforts, the sudden withdrawal of oil, coal and gas deliveries has exposed the weakness and the danger of this path of ‘development’ driven by fossil energy. This was a result of some poorly educated aspirants to political power who became dazzled by the advancement of western industrial technology and equated it with ‘Development’. They continue with this blind faith even today.

Thus, on December 20th 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the Government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. This defined with clarity what was to be considered development by the policy-makers of that time. This fateful decision cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil-based. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. Everything, from electricity to cooking fuel, was based on fossil energy.

The economics of development, allows externalizing all the negative effects of ‘development’ into the environment, this being justified because, “industrialisation alleviates poverty”. The argument, is that economies need to industrialise in order to reduce poverty; but industrialisation leads to ‘unavoidable emissions. Statements like, ‘reduction in poverty leads to an increase in emissions’ is often trotted out as dogma. Tragically, these views preclude a vision of development based on high tech, non-fossil fuel driven, low consumptive lifestyles. Indeed, one indicator of current ‘development’ is the per capita consumption of power, without addressing the source of that power.

A nation dependent on fossil fuel is very much like an addict dependent on drugs. The demand is small, at first, but grows swiftly, until all available resources are given. In the end, when there is nothing else left to pawn, even the future of their children will be pawned and finally the children themselves! Today, with power cuts and fuel shortages, the pain of addiction begins to manifest.

The creation of desire

This perspective of ‘development’, the extension of so-called ‘civilised living’ is not new to us in Sri Lanka, Farrer, writing in 1920, had this to say when visiting Colombo:

“Modern, indeed, is all this, civilised and refined to a notable degree. All the resources of modern culture are thick about you, and you feel that the world was only born yesterday, so far as right-thinking people are concerned.

And, up and down in the shade of glare, runs furiously the unresting tide of life. The main street is walled in by high, barrack like structures, fiercely western in the heart of the holy East, and the big hotels upon its frontage extend their uncompromising European facades. Within them there is a perpetual twilight, and meek puss-faced Sinhalese take perpetually the drink orders of prosperous planters and white-whiskered old fat gentlemen in sun hats lined with green. At night these places are visible realisation of earthly pleasure to the poor toiling souls from the farthest lonely heights of the mountains and the jungle.” The process goes on still …

Develop we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of each process. Development must be determined by empowering the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights. Any process that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental rights.

One problem has been that, the movement of a country with traditional non-consumptive values, into a consumerist society based on fossil energy tends to erode these values rapidly. Often, we are told that this is a necessary prerequisite to become a ‘developed country’, but this need not be so. We need to address that fundamental flaw stated in 1979. We need to wean ourselves away from the hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. Which means moving from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy.

Fossil Fuels or fossil hydrocarbons are the repository of excess carbon dioxide that is constantly being injected into the atmosphere by volcanic action for over the last 200 million years. Hydrocarbons are substances that were created to lock up that excess Carbon Dioxide, sustaining the stable, Oxygen rich atmosphere we enjoy today. Burning this fossil stock of hydrocarbons is the principal driver of modern society as well as climate change. It is now very clear that the stability of planetary climate cycles is in jeopardy and a very large contributory factor to this crisis are the profligate activities of modern human society.

As a response to the growing public concern that fossil fuels are destroying our future, the fossil industry developed a ‘placating’ strategy. Plant a tree, they say, the tree will absorb the carbon we emit and take it out of the atmosphere, through this action we become Carbon neutral. When one considers that the Carbon which lay dormant for 200 million years was put into the atmosphere today, can never be locked up for an equal amount of time by planting a tree. A tree can hold the Carbon for 500 years at best and when it dies its Carbon will be released into the atmosphere again as Carbon Dioxide.

Carbon Dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere by plants and converted into a solid form through the action of photosynthesis. Photosynthetic biomass performs the act of primary production, the initial step in the manifestation of life. This material has the ability to increase in mass by the absorption of solar or other electromagnetic radiation, while releasing oxygen and water vapor into the atmosphere. It is only photosynthetic biomass that powers carbon sequestration, carbohydrate production, oxygen generation and water transformation, i.e., all actions essential for the sustainability of the life support system of the planet.

Yet currently, it is only one product of this photosynthetic biomass, sequestered carbon, usually represented by wood/timber, that is recognized as having commercial value in the market for mitigating climate change. The ephemeral part, the leaves, are generally ignored, yet the photosynthetic biomass in terrestrial ecosystems are largely composed of leaves, this component needs a value placed on it for its critical ‘environmental services’

With growth in photosynthetic biomass, we will see more Oxygen, Carbon sequestering and water cleansing, throughout the planet. As much of the biomass to be gained is in degraded ecosystems around the planet and as these areas are also home to the world’s rural poor, these degraded ecosystems have great growth potential for generating photosynthetic biomass of high value. If the restoration of these degraded ecosystems to achieve optimal photosynthetic biomass cover becomes a global goal, the amazing magic of photosynthesis could indeed help change our current dire course, create a new paradigm of growth and make the planet more benign for our children.

Instead of flogging the dead horse of fossil energy-based growth as ‘Economic Development’, instead of getting the population addicted to fossil energy, will we have the commonsense to appreciate the value of photosynthetic biomass and encourage businesses that obtain value for the nations Primary Ecosystem Services (PES)? The realization of which, will enrich not only our rural population but rural people the world over!

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Australia-Sri Lanka project in the news…Down Under

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The McNaMarr Project is the collaboration between Australian vocalist and blues guitarist, John McNamara, and Andrea Marr, who is a Sri Lankan-born blues and soul singer, songwriter and vocal coach.

Her family migrated to Australia when she was 14 and, today, Andrea is big news, Down Under.

For the record, Andrea has represented Australia, at the International Blues Challenge, in Memphis, Tennessee, three times, while John McNamara has also been there twice, representing Australia.

Between them, they have 10 albums and multiple Australian Blues awards.

Their second album, ‘Run With Me,’ as The McNaMarr Project, now available on all platforms, worldwide, has gone to No. 1 on the Australian Blues and Roots Sirplay charts, and No. 12 on the UK Blues charts.

Their debut album, ‘Holla And Moan,’ released in 2019, charted in Australia and the US Blues and Soul charts and received rave reviews from around the world.

Many referred to their style as “the true sound of soulful blues.”

= The Rocker (UK): “They’ve made a glorious album of blues-based soul. And when I say glorious, I really mean it. I’ve tried to pick out highlights, but as it’s one of the records of this year – 2019 – (or any other for that matter) it’s tricky. You have to own this.”

= Reflections in Blue (USA): “Ten original tunes that absolutely nail the sound and spirit of Memphis soul. Marr has been compared to Betty Lavette and Tina Turner and with good reason. She delivers vocals with power and soul and has a compelling stage presence. McNamara’s vocals are reminiscent of the likes of Sam & Dave or even Otis Redding. This is quality work that would be every bit as well received, in the late 1950s, as it is today. It is truly timeless.”

= La Hora Del Blues (Spain): “Andrea Marr’s voice gives us the same feeling as artistes, like Betty Lavette, Tina Turner or Sharon Jones, perfectly supported by John McNamara’s work, on vocals and guitar…in short words, GREAT!”

Yes, John McNamara has been described as an exceptional vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, whose voice has been compared to the late great Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, while Andrea Marr often gets compared to the likes of Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and Sharon Jones.

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Manju Robinson’s scene…

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Entertainer and frontline singer, Manju Robinson, is back, after performing at a leading tourist resort, in the Maldives, entertaining guests from many parts of the world, especially from Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, Poland…and Maldivians, as well.

His playlist is made up of the golden oldies and the modern sounds, but done in different styles and versions.

While preparing for his next foreign assignment…in the Maldives again, and also Dubai, Manju says he has plans to do his thing in Colombo.

Manju has performed with several local bands, including 3Sixty, Shiksha (Derena Dreamstar band), Naaada, Eminents, Yaathra, Robinson Brothers, Odyssey, Hard Black and Mark.

He was the winner – Best Vocalist and the Best Duo performer – at the Battle of the Bands competition, in 2014, held at the Galadari Hotel.

In 2012, he won the LION’s International Best Vocalist 2012 award.

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