Fifty years of service as a Protestant Minister in Sri Lanka:
Rev. Charles Jansz, a Minister and a former Head of Sri Lanka’s oldest Protestant Church goes down memory lane and reflects
by Prabhath de Silva
Rev. Jansz with Pope John Paul II (Now Saint.)
Rev. Jansz married Maxine Herft in 1977. He has held key positions in Christian organizations in Sri Lanka and abroad. These include, Chairperson of National Christian Council, Chairperson of Christian Evangelical Alliance, Chairperson of Religious Work Committee Colombo YMCA, Acting pastor in Christian Reform Church Ontario, Canada, Vice-President/Hon. Life Governor of Ceylon Bible Society, Member of Executive Committee of World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Chairperson of Asia Pacific Regional Board of United Bible Societies and Editor of “The Herald” – the official organ of the Christian Reformed Church of Sri Lanka.
On the eve of the Golden Jubilee of his ministry, I interviewed Rev. Jansz. These are the excerpts of the interview:
1. What are your childhood memories of Dehiwela and its surroundings in the 1950’s and 1960’s?
I grew up in Sri Wanaratana Road, off Quarry Rd in Dehiwela. This area was called “Pattiyamulla” and as far as I remember, that changed to “Galwala” and “Udyana”. These were the days when houses had large gardens, almost all homes were single storey and we children, irrespective or race,, religion or class, had great times, playing, visiting each other’s homes, enjoying meals, climbing trees and walking on the wall surrounding the Zoological Gardens! The memories include going to the Presbyterian Girls’ School with a carer, walking yards ahead of her, while she trudged behind carrying the school bag. Then there was attending Sunday School at the D/CRC Dehiwela almost every Sunday, followed by moving to Arethusa College where I completed my schooling.
It was a time when I was given 25 cents, which covered my bus fare, had 12 cents for a quarter loaf of bread and a ‘vadai’ from the School Canteen (Tuck Shop) and had a few cents left over! It was also a time when the area had loads of Burgher families…Nugara, Ludowyke, Neydorff, Woutersz, Kellart, Harris, De Kretser, Schokman, Van Ryke, Barrow, De Zilwa, Melder, Ferdinands, Heyn, Drieberg, Werksmister, Collom, Young, Van Rooyen, Van Sanden, Van Velzon, were all there and many of us met every spare moment for cricket, a little bit of rugby – with Cowboys and Crooks as a diversion. One other diversion was also catching “guppies” in the canal. Apart from Church, School and Cricket, from my childhood days I was passionate about politics…with a particular party bias. Was at almost every political meeting, was part of the processions, shouting the slogans mouthed by the adults, and even had “mock” elections together with the rest of my friends paying a 25 cent deposit! I vividly recall, on more than one occasion, my friends making a make-shift stage of Sunlight soap boxes and putting me on them, with what was supposed to be a mike and garlands as well, getting me to make political speeches – and in fluent Sinhala! (all of it picked up after listening to speakers at political meetings!).
There is much more of course…Dehiwela where I grew up was unspoiled to a great extent…there was a caring and sharing, much respect and understanding for one another, your ethnicity, religion and status did not matter…we lived in community… clean air and a pristine environment to a great extent….and if there was some discordance, it was someone shouting under the influence of some local brew.
What are the changes and strides that you have witnessed in the social, political and religious mileu in Sri Lanka and in the DRC and in the non Catholic Christendom in Sri Lanka and in the world at large?
Changes and strides have been many, some certainly for the better, some for the worse. Talking about the religious mileu, one can single out that inter-faith and intra-faith have made comparatively good strides during the last number of years…there has also been a definite attempt to be “church” outside of the confines of a building reaching out to the Community and certainly a concentrated effort to create and sustain spirituality beginning with the home. A greater emphasis on environmental stewardship has also been a pronounced plus. There has been also good attempts to address the needs with the “wholeness” of the Gospel message, and to be faithful to the primary vision, not forgetting the strides made towards worship that is creative and meaningful with more participation. In the social and political sphere changes have not all been for the better. We have witnessed the resurgence and growth of bigotry, racism, fundamentalism, terrorism, violence, division, nepotism, political victimization, intolerance, corruption, lack of law and order, drug abuse, child abuse, destruction of the environment and a receding of the good family values….and certainly some, if not all of this would also be part and parcel of the International milieu as well.
What motivated you to choose a pastoral ministry as your vocation in life?
The Church was very much part of my DNA…my family saw to it and encouraged me from my earliest of days to be part of it, beginning with the Sunday School; so much so that for many years running I carried away the attendance prize for attending every single Sunday of the Year. In addition, those who were part of my life in my childhood and teen years, were also very church oriented. Youth Conferences, Youth programmes were all part of my life – in short anything that happened in Church. It was also a time when the Pastors at that time – especially the foreign “Missionaries” spent much time challenging us to consider full time ministry. There were specific seminars for this purpose. It was one such seminar that made a deep impression on me…and even though I worked for a while (as a typist clerk) in the corporate world, I became restless enough to move out and make application for the Pastoral Ministry. At that time, if one joined the Ministry – it was primarily Pastoral. Today Christian Ministry is very much more diversified when it comes to full time service. Also, I think my gifts of public speaking and being a people person, added to the motivation to heed God’s call in this very specific way.
He percentage of Christians in Sri Lanka at the time of independence in 1948 was 9.1% but now it has decreased to 7.1%, and Hindus constituted 19% and now there are 11% Hindus
. What do you think are the factors that contributed to this decline? Only two religious communities namely Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims have increased since Independence, Buddhists from 60.6 to 70 percent and Muslims from 5% to 9.1% percent.
I must say that I was taken aback when you mentioned the statistic re: the decrease and more when you did mention the percentages of the increase. Talking about the decline – specifically thinking about the Christian Reformed Church since Independence, one major factor was emigration. Being at that time and for some years after, as primarily a “Burgher Community” Church, we did lose a large number of adherents through emigration. (Thankfully, the Church did have and does have the vision to reach out to all communities and we have seen much growth in terms of numbers and congregations) Of course “emigration” also has affected the wider Christian community and the country as well. The other main reason for a decline, if not non-growth, is the absence of a sustained missionary efforts, not so much in terms of “preaching” but more in term of “incarnational living” and an absence of addressing “felt needs” would also have perhaps made the Church irrelevant to many. So, if there is not to be further decline, I think we must ask the question – “Will we be genuinely missed in the Community if our Church were to close”?
You have completed 50 years in ministry. Looking back what do you think are the things or achievements that make you happy as a Clergyman
As I look back there are number of things that can make me glad…for one thing and this is primary, that the Lord who called me and kept me and sustained me through these many years…empowering me to avoid the many pitfalls that could be part of a ministry and blessing me with a great measure of good health. Then there is the joy of seeing people walking in faith and obedience…lives changed…becoming spiritually mature and having a place for God in their lives and especially in their families and children. I have always said that if people, respond and live by the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, which is very much part of the Reformed Confessions (What is your only comfort in life and death? – And “That I with body and soul both in life and death belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ”) … that would always be my greatest satisfaction. Of course, in a lesser way, I am also glad that I stayed with the Christian Reformed Church in Sri Lanka, when many were led especially to emigrate, so that in some measure I was able to put it further on the map both nationally and internationally and give back in some way what the CRC has given me – even to the extent of financially sustaining me and my family when I was growing up.
2. You have served in many positions in the ecumenical bodies here and abroad. You studied at Calvin Seminary in the US, one of the prestigious Protestant theological schools. What do you think are the changes that have taken place in Christendom in the Eastern world and in the western world since the 1960’s.
I must say at the outset that it was a great privilege for me to serve in these Ecumenical bodies and study at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids is known as the “Jerusalem” of the Reformed World and it added to my prestige by being there Most of the changes in Christendom in the East and West, I think, have been fairly common…Theologically, it would involve the principles of the Interpretation of the Scriptures, the Ordination of Women to Ecclesiastical Office, the changed stance re issues of homosexuality, gay rights and same sex marriages….more inter-faith and intra-faith action, dialogue and involvement, greater emphasis on caring for the environment and social and ethical issues …more pronounced division between Conservatives and Liberals, and the Church striving to be a truly prophetic voice, for transformation, in spite of pronounced oppression.
There is a decline of Christianity in the west since the 1960’s and this has affected the Christian family values. How do you explain this with your international exposure for 50 years since 1960?
It is certainly sad to see the decline you mention – especially in Europe where Churches and Cathedrals have become more or less museum pieces and sometimes converted to restaurants and entertainment centers. I have heard it often said, whilst at one time the West sent missionaries to us, now it is time to send Missionaries to them! I have heard that in many countries in the West, the Church is no longer relevant to people. So children are not baptized. And there are no weddings or funerals in which the Church is involved. Religion and faith are not part of life anymore and it is only the elderly, if at all, who make up a congregation. I believe that the overall reason has to do with a materialistic and very secularistic life style and culture that has become part of the DNA of many. They are, to use a Bible phrase, more interested in building treasures on earth than in Heaven. On the other hand, I must quickly add that the Church must also strive to be relevant to the people of today. We must be, to use the motto of “Youth for Christ.” – “geared to the times and anchored to the Rock” If the Church does not meet the felt needs of people, and be relevant, the Church and Christianity per se will become irrelevant to people. And that would not be only in the West.
There is a discussion on “born again” phenomenon in the social media these days particularly after
one particular Pentecostal church published a video on the miraculous healing of a veteran musician. Can you explain the history and origins of “born again” phenomenon in the Western world and in Sri Lanka? Many people in SL think that it is a new cult or a sect.
May I say that the “Born again” phenomenon, as you call it, is as old as the St. John Chapter 3. If people in Sri Lanka think that it is another cult or a sect, I think it is because of the way this wonderful Biblical concept has been marketed by certain people in keeping with their own ecclesiastical agendas in addition to the poor understanding of what it biblically entails by the laity. I remember someone asking me a few years ago, whether the Christian Reformed Church at Dehiwela is a “Born Again” Church. I had to make it clear that the Bible emphasizes the truth that all Christians must be “born again” (“born from above”) in the sense that we must be “regenerated” by God’s Spirit and blessed with this “new birth and new life,” if we are to be saved from our sins and live Christianly. In fact the term “regenerated” comes from two Greek words, that can literally translated as “born again.” But not too many people think of regeneration, when they hear the term “born again”. That is made possible, when we are led to make a faith commitment and believe in Jesus as our Saviour. It is very clear that our “old nature” will not pursue the things of God, only our “new nature” would make that possible and that becomes a reality when we are “born again”. It is primarily a reference to our spiritual birth. That is the starting line of the Christian life. If we have not stood at the starting line, running the race, to use another Biblical metaphor, would not be possible.
The Peace, tranquility and tolerance in the Sri Lankan society have been disturbed by religious and racist extremism of some groups in recent times. Can you comment?
I would agree with you that until recently there was a great degree of tolerance, but that has changed as you mentioned. Of course, this is not a phenomenon only involving particular religion or race. Society generally has become intolerant and this is not only in terms of other faiths, but also In many other or all areas of life. Take a journey on our roads – you will definitely be met by intolerance at its best!! The growth of bigotry and fundamentalism, a false sense of nationalism and patriotism, selfishness, egotism etc, some of it fanned by political and even religious leadership in different ways, to fulfill their own pursuits, would be a primary cause. Whilst not living out the principles of the respective religions would be another. On the other hand, talking of the Church, we must be careful that our actions and strategies do not give room to further intolerance. And we must strive not to give offence.
How do you see the future of Christians in Sri Lanka? And what do you think are most important and urgent reforms that are necessary in churches and in society.
Certainly, from a human point of view and from the present context there would be many challenges ahead as far as Christians are concerned. And the call would always be to be creatively faithful to our mission, claiming again the Lord’s good promise that “even the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church.” In terms of reforms involving the church, we must move away from worship that is merely a spectacle and a gospel that is being distorted. We have more Pastors who follow the Master! As far as society goes, religious belief must play a more significant role in daily life. In all areas of life we do not need more preachers, but we do urgently need more of those who practice. I must quickly add that in terms of urgent reforms in society there must be some good and meaningful work to reform some of our existing laws to deal more relevantly and specifically with issues that are part and parcel of life today, that it turns would make justice what it really should be. Two areas that come to mind which are being debated more recently are the Election laws and the Law involving contempt of court….not forgetting Constitutional reforms in general, Institutional reforms for the protection of fundamental rights and economic reforms which would result, as someone said, with an economy with a “human face”.
Do you have any message to the Christians in Sri Lanka and to the wider society?
Basically to the Christians it would be a message to sincerely live out their Christian faith. As someone said, “Name Christian live Christian,” or as the Bible says, to live as the “salt, light and leaven”. To the wider society it would be a message to live out the precepts of their respective religious faiths that call for love, acceptance, compassion, justice and peace, striving for a greater measure of ethnic and religious harmony. Right living divinely empowered can make it happen for ultimately, as the Bible says, “Righteousness (and only Righteousness) will exalt a nation.”
SUSTAINING ECONOMIC PROGRESS AND OBTAINING ‘SYSTEM CHANGE’
by Jehan Perera
A year after the protest movement took off into a mammoth public display of the popular desire for change, it appears to be no more. What appears on the streets on and off is a pale imitation of the mighty force of people rich and poor, from north and south, who occupied the main roads of downtown Colombo for more than three months. The government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe is leaving no room for the people to get on the streets again. This has been through a combination of both efficient and repressive policies that exceed those of the predecessor government.
The government has addressed the immediate causes that brought the people out on to the streets. The crippling shortages of vehicle fuel and cooking gas that caused long lines stretching for kilometers are not to be seen. There is enough to go around now as the demand for these basic commodities has dropped considerably following the tripling of their prices. There is an outward appearance of normalcy that belies the economic difficulties that the masses of people are facing. The three-wheel driver lamented that his monthly electricity bill of Rs 700 was now Rs 3200 which made keeping his refrigerator unaffordable. Government officers on fixed incomes are struggling to survive having pawned their jewellery and mortgaged their lands for survival. Those who can leave the country seem to be leaving.
The government has also shown it is prepared to use the security system to its maximum. This has won some supporters especially among the upper social classes and ethnic minorities who are always worried whether mobs of the under classes will invade their neighborhoods and subject them to looting and violence. After becoming president, President Wickremesinghe showed his resolve in bringing the protest movement to heel by sending the police to break it up and arrest the leaders. Protestors have been warned that their protests should not inconvenience the general public.
Those who do not heed the police guidelines have found themselves being tear-gassed, baton-charged and arrested. In contrast to the heyday of the protest movement a year ago, any voice of public dissent is liable to be quickly suppressed. A case in point would be that of the unfortunate hooter. As reported extensively in the media, a government minister who was laying a foundation stone for a religious shrine was hooted by a businessman who was travelling in his vehicle. The media reported that “the police acted swiftly, pursuing and apprehending the suspect. He will now be produced before the court for obstructing a religious ceremony.”
The contrast with what happened a year ago could not be more stark. The main slogans of the Aragalaya protests was to arrest the rogues who had bankrupted the country and compel them to bring back to the country their ill-gotten gains. The draft Anti-Terrorist law that has been approved by the Cabinet to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act is, in many ways, a more repressive law that will encompass a much wider swathe of social and political life. Clause 105 in it defines a “person” who can be taken into custody under this law to mean an individual, an association, organisation or body of persons.” Readers of George Orwell’s classic novel of authoritarian government, “1984” would feel a chill if that new law is passed when they think of protesting against the government.
A key demand of the protest movement last year was the demand for “system change.” At its core this was a desperate call for a change of government that had bankrupted the country and accountability and punishment for those who had impoverished the people by their mis-governance, corruption and indifference to the people’s plight. Another terminology for “systems change” would be to say that the people called for a new “social contract.” The notion of a social contract between rulers and ruled was developed over four centuries ago in Europe by Enlightenment era thinkers such as by John Locke in England and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France who gave the name “The Social Contract” to his 1762 book.
The social contract theorists argued that people left the state of nature where without government life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (as described by their predecessor Thomas Hobbes). People entered into a social contract with those who would govern them. In terms of the social contract, the people would give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for protection and order by the government. In modern democracies, people elect their representatives who form the government of the day and look after the best interests of the people. But in March 2022, the people of Sri Lanka felt hat their government had not lived up to the social contract and demanded they leave office and return their ill-gotten gains.
Those who continue to come out on the streets in protest demand elections and also demand to know why the government has not made efforts to bring back the money that was stolen. What is visible at the present time is that most of the government members who were responsible leaders of the previous government continue to remain in positions of power, either frontally or behind the scenes. There continue to be allegations of corruption and abuse of power. In one appalling instance, two government ministers resigned from a watchdog committee they were appointed to. They complained that they were not getting the information they required to play their assigned roles.
Sri Lanka has yet to address the monumental failure of government that took place in the early part of 2022 that plunged the country from a middle income level to a low income level. When the people went out on to the streets to protest and call for a “systems change” they were demanding that the government should step down and go. But it did not go and instead re-arranged itself and continues to be in power. Much to the chagrin of the protest movement, the government they wanted to go has grown stronger under the leadership of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and is ignoring the demand for “system change” and those who call for local government elections which are overdue.
Speaking to students at Harvard University last week through the internet, President Wickremesinghe made it known that the government would abide by the Supreme Court’s decision with regard to the elections. A confrontation involving the three branches of government would signify a “systems breakdown” in place of the “systems change” that people fought for a year ago. The president has also taken pride in announcing that the government will soon be passing into law the best anti-corruption legislation in South Asia in parliament soon. If the president’s vision of sustainable political stability and economic recovery is not to be a re-enactment of the Orwellian dystopia of 1984, there needs to indeed be a “systems change”, a plan for the future prepared in consultation with the opposition and civil society and a new “social contract” in which elections would be the first step.
Free Education, Social Welfare and the IMF Programme
by Ahilan Kadirgamar
Sri Lanka’s seventeenth IMF agreement sealed last week may well prove to be the most devastating one of them all. The reason is that the agreement comes along with Sri Lanka having defaulted on its external debt for the first time in its history. The IMF amounts to being the arbiter of the debt restructuring process with Sri Lanka’s external creditors, which will provide considerable leverage for Sri Lanka to be held accountable to IMF conditionalities.
The fallout of the IMF package will be wide and deep, greater than the Structural Adjustment Programm e with the IMF in the late 1970s, when our cherished social welfare system came under attack. In this Kuppi column, I address some of the dangers facing our education system. Education is inextricably linked to welfare and democracy, and in the years ahead the nexus of the IMF and the current avatar of the neoliberal state are likely to impose an authoritarian regime of dispossession. The future of Free Education in our country now depends on tremendous resistance by our students and teachers along with solidarity from all quarters of the working people.
Welfare and democracy
Social welfare in Sri Lanka reaches back to the 1940s. It included food subsides, free education and free healthcare, which were all universal schemes. The IMF packages and the World Bank programmes since the neoliberal turn in the late 1970s have consistently attempted to weaken such universal social welfare programs in the interest of creating a market economy, including through the commercialisation of education and healthcare. Neoliberal ideology privileges the individual, and by the same token places the entire burden of wellbeing on the individual. As the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—who, along with US President Ronald Reagan, initiated the neoliberal age on a global scale—famously said, “there is no such thing as society”.
This rejection of society is at the heart of the attack on social welfare, as the IMF and World Bank are now in the process of changing the very idea of social welfare itself into a narrow concept of targeted cash transfer programmes. This attack on the social aspect of welfare entails both granting enormous discretionary power to those in power to determine which individuals can obtain minimal support, in addition to the monetisation of such entitlements, which over time would likely be reduced or inflated away.
Historically, universal social welfare came after the policy of universal adult franchise in 1931. Furthermore, universal free education policies, as they emerged in the mid-1940s, were framed in terms of strengthening the ability of Sri Lanka’s citizens to exercise power through their democracy. In this context, today’s attack on universal social welfare is a key part of the agenda of an illegitimate and undemocratic regime in power. Moreover, the regime’s vision of the education system derives from the IMF’s technocratic assumption that the goal should be to create subservient employees for a market economy, rather than democratic-minded people who can become agents of social, economic and political change.
Austerity, dispossession, and resistance
The attack on education is not only ideological, in terms of the neoliberal emphasis on individualism. The austerity measures that are inherent to the current IMF programme are also material. They are bound to reduce the allocations for education. The Government is being forced to find avenues to create a primary budget surplus by next year. This will further lead to initiatives for the commercialisation of education; for example, the expansion of fee-levying programs in the state university system, loan schemes for education, and the initiation of private educational institutions, including private universities.
The logic of the IMF programme and the unfolding developments will dispossess people of one of their most important social welfare entitlements: education. There is already evidence of rising school dropouts, of children not being sent regularly to school, children fainting at school due to the lack of food, and children having to labour for their existence. University students are finding transport costs unaffordable and even lunch packets are becoming out of their reach. These are the consequences of a contracting economy due to the austerity measures that have been imposed. Indeed, our economy has contracted by as much as a fifth over the last few years. The critical gains of social welfare made after the Great Depression of the 1930s in our country are now in danger of being completely rolled back because of the ongoing economic depression along with the IMF programme making it worse.
The dismal prospects for our country can only be addressed by solidarity and resistance. We need to regain our sense of social belonging, which was undone through the very attack by neoliberalism on the idea of society, while taking forward the struggle for democracy. The great struggles last year that dislodged an authoritarian populist president provide hope that despite decades of neoliberal policies, working people’s capacity to envision society, solidarity, and resistance are very much alive.
We are going through the most painful period of our postcolonial history. It is a moment in which, even as our economy is collapsing, our elite are working in cahoots with the IMF and global finance capital, which have achieved a stranglehold on us by leveraging the default and the bankrupt state of our country. In the context of this existential danger, for those of us concerned about safeguarding free education and, for that matter, any meaningful system of education, this time around that struggle must begin from a broader defence of social welfare and democracy.
The author is attached to the Department of Sociology at the University of Jaffna
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
The Box of Delights – II
Seeing through testing times and future
Text of the keynote address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences,
University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.
Sadly, too, the GELT materials we produced are now forgotten, though in the end they were taken up by Cambridge University Press in India and prescribed too at some Indian universities. But in this country producing materials is a way of making money and so, though three years ago the UGC asked about using our materials again, they were prevented from making use of these, and individual universities demanded autonomy and nothing went forward as swiftly as our poor youngsters needed.
Delay also affected the curriculum reform I initiated when I chaired the NIE AAB [Academic Affairs Board]. I had told the then Education Secretary Tara de Mel that we should move immediately, but for once that normally efficient lady was diffident, and said we should wait. Six months later she told me to go ahead, and we did, swiftly, but then Chandrika Kumaratunga lost a year of her Presidency through carelessness and the new President and his Minister simply did not understand the need for continuity, and the vital changes we had embarked on were forgotten.
But Mahinda Rajapaksa and Susil Premjayanth did continue with perhaps the most important initiative begun under Tara—the English medium in secondary schools in the government system. That had begun in 2001, but was sabotaged by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became Prime Minister at the end of that year. But his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, a former Vice-Chancellor of this University, was more enlightened, and ignored Ranil’s instructions that he halt the programme, and it continued. He was lucky not to be tear-gassed, but, in those days, there were some restraints on unbridled authority with the forces then more supportive of alternatives.
But the teacher training programme I had started with support from Paru and Oranee, had to stop. The NIE then took that over and completely destroyed the learner friendly approach we had initiated, with its hierarchy promoting formulas, such as three Ts and then five Es and seven Ks, gloriously asserted in lengthy sentences such as ‘Also the teacher should closely observe the children learning, identifying students’ activities, disabilities, providing feedback, developing the learning capacities of the students and making implements to extend the learning and teaching outside the classroom are some other tasks expected from the teacher.’
As I commented on this in English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence?, ‘It might seem churlish to cavil about the two main verbs in this sentence, were this not an instructional guide to English teachers, with three language editors who have doubtless been well paid for their pains, or the lack of them.’
Training then was in the hands of the NIE, and the programme began to flounder. But, fortunately, the contract to produce books had been for two years, and Nirmali continued in charge of this, so at least a good foundation was laid, though after that the Ministry and the NIE took over and the usual tedious stuff was reintroduced. Our efforts to introduce wider knowledge, and creative thinking, were abandoned totally, unsurprising given the ignorance I had found in those entrusted with producing textbooks at the NIE (which managed once to produce a history syllabus which left out the French and the Industrial Revolutions in the whole secondary school curriculum). Let me, to prove my point, give you an extract from what the NIE managed to produce
‘Red the story …
Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway have a nice time” bye.
So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys
She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted.
“He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail it’s marvellous”
“Monkey usually do that’
And, so it seems does the NIE, was my comment. Unfortunately, I cannot in a speech make clear the carelessness with regard to punctuation and spelling, but a printed version will show just how appalling the NIE usage of English is and the callousness of inflicting half-baked stuff on our children.
Despite all this English medium has survived, but that it could have done so much better is obvious from the continuing proliferation of private English medium schools. Interestingly, the former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Dharmasiri Peiris, whom I met after many years, reminded me that in the early nineties he had wanted me to work at the Ministry to remedy the situation, but he had abandoned the effort when officials at the Ministry opposed this, understandably so given that I do not tolerate nonsense. And though Tara was made of sterner stuff, and did make use of my services, two changes of regime before things could be consolidated meant that our children still get short shrift as far as English Language Learning is concerned.
I have spoken thus far of English at university level and in schools. I have also worked on English for vocational training, first thirty years ago when the World University Service of Canada commissioned a basic textbook for those starting on vocational training, then more comprehensively when I chaired the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.
Having discovered that what were termed NVQ Levels 1 and 2, supposed to prepare youngsters for vocational training, hardly existed, I started Career Skills courses at those levels, to develop other soft skills and in particular English capacity, and these rapidly became the most popular courses in the system. After all, I had done a trawl and found that parents wanted something for their children to do in the fallow period after the Ordinary Level examination. Uniquely, Sri Lanka wastes the time of its youngsters by delaying the resumption of school, a boon to the tuition industry which embarks on recruitment and hooks youngsters for the next few years.
Needless to say, when I was sacked, the English courses were abolished, and successive Ministers of Education, who now have charge also of vocational education, bleat about the need for more English but do nothing to promote this. Least of all do they think of learning from the past, and far from reinventing the wheel, they simply talk about movement while allowing all means of transport to be dismantled, with parents and children who have been left in the lurch turning if they can to private education, tuition in particular.
As your former Vice-Chancellor perceptively put it, when I was last here, the education system is abandoned by those who have the means to pursue alternatives, and it is only the most deprived who cling to it. And whereas any country with a conscience would do its best by the deprived, decision makers in Sri Lanka do not care about them – like the Mr Lokubandara, who ranted against English in the state system and sent his son to an international school, and then when I reprimanded him told me sanctimoniously that it was his wife who had insisted on that.
Is there then no hope? I fear not, and now I can understand the despair of Mabel Layton in Paul Scott’s brilliant analysis of the failure of the British in imperialism, and her lament that “I thought there might be some changes, but there aren’t. It’s all exactly as it was when I first saw it more than forty years ago. I can’t even be angry. But someone ought to be.”’ I rather fear then that your Vice-Chancellor’s observation will prove even more apposite in the years to come. There was a brief moment three years ago, when covid first hit us, when I thought the system would bestir itself to provide alternatives, but I fear nothing of the sort happened.
But let me end now with what should have happened. Given that the onset of covid saw closure of schools and institutions, there should have been efforts to develop curricula appropriate for a time when face to face contact would not be easy. And this required, as I started by saying, thinking as learners do, and tailoring the content of curricula, as well as systems to convey it, to the abilities of learners, not teachers.
This was particularly important in the context of 2020 in which learners had limited access to teachers. But our decision makers could not think on these lines, nor understand that the key to this was simple materials, that are not just user friendly but that will allow learners to gain not only knowledge but also relevant thinking skills on their own. Provision could and should have been made for guidance, but this had to be minimal, and also provided through small group clusters, where students could learn from each other, in addition to getting guidance at a higher level as available. I recall vividly the brilliant initiative of Oranee Jansz, in insisting that all GELT students not only did a project, but that they dramatized this. This proved a wonderful motivating factor, and students in the remotest of areas worked hard together, and the synergy they developed, to use one of Oranee’s favourite words, led to rapid learning by even those who had been initially very weak.
Such a system was especially important for youngsters in rural communities, and could have been activated in 2020, at a time when communication was difficult, and where the panacea authorities developed, of online contact, was not easy, and in many instances not even possible. But as I have noted, those rural communities are of no concern to our decision makers, whose main motivation is to have their children advance through educational systems different from those the majority of our children have to undergo. They are not at all like Oranee, or one of the academics I remember most fondly from my time at this university, Prof Wickremaarachchi, who started an accountancy course in English medium only, and noted that one had failed as a teacher if one’s students did not end up better than oneself.
To continue, in the midst of a country in a desperate plight, with the positives this university could develop, I will revert to the last time I was here, in December, and highlight again the initiative I mentioned when I began, to work through the national library system to promote English through entertainment for early learners. The project which has been developed suggests at last, after two decades, an effective approach to extending opportunities and means of learning.
This can easily be taken further, at all levels – and work on this has begun – to fill gaps that the state has sedulously ignored for several decades. Costs would be minimal, if only innovators such as the personnel here responsible for the initiative were given a free hand. I can only hope that, with the support of the hierarchy here, and the other players who have combined to take this forward, from the Governor of the Northern Province to the Chairman of the National Library Services Board, that this initiative will lead to the proliferation of user friendly materials and personnel able to use them productively.
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