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Meaning of Openness in Education in Sri Lanka

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by Liyanage Amarakeerthi
(Speech, delivered via Zoom at the Convocation of the Open University,
Sri Lanka, on 15th of December, 2020)

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Registrars, Deans, Directors, librarian, professors, lecturers, other dignitaries , graduating students, ladies and gentlemen,

It is with a sense of pride and gratitude that I deliver the convocation address of this year at the Open University. We are in the middle of a pandemic. In addition to taking and harming many lives all over, the pandemic has robbed me of the opportunity of standing in front of you in a grand convocation hall looking at your faces lighted with happiness. But today, we are celebrating the occasion, in a historic manner. Let us collectively show that human spirit will cope with and survive any pandemic.

The epidemic has been destructive indeed. Some scholars argue that access to education will fall back to the level in 1980s, and, in some countries, 9 out of 10 children will fall out of schools. In our country, too, the long–term impact of the epidemic on education is likely to be much worse than we think. Perhaps, the need for the kind of education provided by the Open University will be greater in Sri Lanka after Covid-19.

The Open University has a special place in my heart for several reasons. For one, I have some of my close friends at the Open University, and they are among the most renowned literary writers, scholars and intellectuals in the country. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, the concept of education at the Open University is also dear to my heart. Teaching at a conventional university, I have had the luxury of meeting and teaching a group of brightest young men and women in our country. But all of them come into the university through a single, narrow opening called GCE (A/L). I wish I had students entering my own university through other legitimate doors making our student population even more diverse.

At crucial points in our lives, we all sit down to reflect on the way things have been, and at those times, we often look for the help of new sources of wisdom in order to reorganize ourselves. At such moments, if someone wants to return to formal education that person should be able to find her way there. The Open University has been a haven for those who rethink, reconsider, reevaluate, and reorganize their lives. A society is truly free, truly just, truly democratic, when people have a second chance – another opportunity of taking a shot at a better life, a qualitatively different life. The Open University has provided many of you that chance. A great Sinhala poet, Ariyawansha Ranavira said in a short poem,

බොහෝ විට
බොහෝ දෙන
යළි එති කවිය වෙත
මහළු හිස් නමමින

Often times
many people
return to poetry
bending their
aging heads down.

 

Not just to poetry, people do return to many good things later in their lives. As poetry, all areas of life should be beautifully prepared to welcome those who return. Not just bending their heads over but the heads held high, people should be able to return to formal education.

Other meanings of openness

Let me now introduce a few other meanings of ‘openness’ I like to see in education. For us in Sri Lanka, education is not just a mode of acquiring knowledge and wisdom. It is the greatest social equalizer in modern Sri Lanka. Ours is an extremely unequal society. We are unequal in ethnicity, religion, gender, class, caste, region and so on. Education was the most important mechanism that has brought about at least some sense of equality in our society. Let me give you a quick example. In 1881, female literacy in Ceylon was 3%; By 1921, it had increased up to 21%. When the University College of Ceylon was established in 1921, there were only four female students in the first intake. Just four!

Nearly hundred years later, at the faculty of arts, the University of Peradeniya, 85% or more are female students. Still in many areas, women are underrepresented and underemployed. But if it wasn’t for free education the inequality between men and women could have been so much worse. Graduating ladies today, imagine living in a country where female literacy rate is just 3 %. Graduating gentlemen, I hope you also don’t want to live in such a country.

All of us––teachers, students and administrators––must remember that free education has been the greatest social leveller in our country. So, we must not forget the significance of leaving it open to people from diverse backgrounds.

 

Openness of other kinds

Let me touch on another aspect of being open in education. Human beings struggle with natural and social conditions everywhere in order to create a life with justice, equality and freedom; in order to create a finer co-existence with the natural world. In the process, human beings create knowledge everywhere and at different circumstances. Being open to such knowledge, without being parochial, is one key aspect of being open in education.

In a time of celebration of cultural difference, one of our challenges is to recognize the shared history of humanity. What we have in common is often overlooked, in celebration of uniqueness and singularity. Throughout human history human communities have had numerous connections with each other. In terms of sharing knowledge and culture, globalization is much older than we think it is. A goal of our education should be to see why and how those connections are made.

Some of those similarities come into being because we humans are similar to one another in our biological hardwiring. Roughly at the same time in history, human beings everywhere have decided to put an end to, their hunter-gathering lives and remain at one place farming a garden and raising a family. This similarity occurs because we human animals are alike in our basic nature. Interestingly, in nearly all those places women were the ones to domesticate plants and animals. Perhaps, they might have told themselves, ‘now it is enough of wandering dragging these children around. Now, we want to stay foot and make home.

That thought, womanly thought, motherly thought, if you will, might have been a key thought that led to the creation of present civilizations. That thought may have unwittingly end up domesticating women themselves.

We may have discovered farming at different places unknown to each other. But our connections have developed to such a degree that manioc/cassava, potato, sweet potato domesticated in South America, are our own now, several centuries later. Though we have borrowed potato from South America, we have more than four hundred ways of cooking it in South Asia.

In our higher education, there should be an openness of another kind. Let me briefly touch on it and it will be the last point I will be making my speech. In our education system, different fields of studies need to be open to each other and to develop conversations on key concepts in those specific fields. Working in the field of literary and cultural studies, I should be able to engage in serious discussions with scholars in natural sciences, for example. Our education needs to foster such conversations.

 

Rational Thought and Emotion

Descartes made an error in over emphasizing rational mind and considering other sensory experience to be secondary in cognition. Perhaps, it is the case in cognition; but cognition, acquiring rational knowledge, is only a part of human existence. We are human beings not only because we think, we are human beings because we feel – emotionally feel. Recent studies in neuroscience have shown that emotions, our feelings, are important even for our rational thinking. American neuroscientist Antonio Damascio’s research on brain-damaged patients has demonstrated that patients with injuries in areas in their brains that deal with emotions are not capable of making, rational decisions about appropriate behavior and so on. In our brain, the areas that deal with emotions are physically separated from the areas that deal with reason and logic. Though physically located in separate domains, the emotion-compartment of the brain is required for the reason-compartment in making sound decisions. Damascio’s eye-opening book, Descartes’ Error, can be an invaluable guide in rethinking our education and in opening the doors of our specific fields to other fields.

Moreover, Descartes’ error has led to a kind of anthropocentricism where human beings are made supreme on the ground that they alone have rational consciousness. Recent studies have shown that even trees have their own collective consciousness, and they ‘consciously’ act for survival. For example, when one tree is attacked by a swarm of locusts, that tree emits a hormone-like compound so that wind can take the news of attack to other trees. And those trees now have time to emit another chemical compound, that might repel the locusts. As long as we are closed in our educational habits and habitats, we cannot know that trees do communicate with one another, perhaps even with us. This is another reason for me to argue for more openness in education.

Such openness is not possible, if scholars are like the lion of Sinhabahu, the play, who practically imprison their intellectual progeny in the caves of narrowly specialized knowledge. We need a generation of Sinhabahus who are capable of holistic thinking not just of breaking the rock door of the cave, the compartmentalized knowledge.

In our times, specially learned person is able to put his specialized knowledge in meaningful conversations with other areas of human knowledge. Respected professors in natural sciences, attending this convocation, please pardon me if I am stepping into your own areas of specialty. And I am making a case of such trespassing, anyway. Biologists talk about a part of our brain called “amygdala”. When we accidentally chew on, rotten food or something, a chemical reaction occurs in that part of the brain and we instantly throw up that food even before conscious thought occurs.

Here is what fascinates me: the same part of human brain gets chemically activated, when we see something morally disgusting, such as an old woman is being physically attacked. Now, see brain chemistry of the faculty of science, and the ethics of the faculty of arts, are much more connected than we have made them look. I learned these connections from a stunning book by Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are graduating from the Open University today. I wanted to stir your mind a bit about possible meanings of ‘openness’ in education. I hope you will be able to strive for more open conversations at your world of work and the world of leisure. After all, the idea of openness is in the name of your own university. You are graduating today taking that name with you. That alone makes you special.

From Peradeniya, I send you all, all the good wishes!

Thank you.

(Liyanage Amarakeerthi is a professor at University of Peradeniya)



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Features

Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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Features

The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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Better use of vanity projects; Cass apologises, and New Year graciousness

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A wise one, with the interests of the country at heart, calling himself ‘A Member of the Silent Majority’, wrote in The Island of Friday, April 9, offering an excellent solution for the better and genuine use of the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport which was built at a stupendous cost to both the Treasury, and wildlife abundant in the area, to satisfy an ego and sycophants’ cries of Hail to the King. Even sans Covid and lockdowns and shut downs of airports, the Mattala Airport was a white elephant, endangering and displacing the black elephants, roaming along their familiar corridors; receiving such few airplanes. Thus, as the writer Cass mentions says, convert the airport to a super hotel with excellent and sure-fire access to wildlife watching, like referred to hotels in Kenya and elsewhere. Yes, it will definitely be a bigger money earner than an airport waiting for a plane to land. Expensive equipment going rusty could be transferred to smaller airports being developed all over the island. There was such a hue and cry when storerooms, within the deserted airport, were used for paddy storage, but not even a whimper of concerted protest when the vanity projects were being built. We also heard that on the rare occasions a plane was to land/take off, peacocks in the area were shot at to prevent them flying into the planes. Aney, what a sin, just to have a name on a nameboard! Use the Suriyawewa Cricket Stadium too for a better purpose and less costly to water and maintain green in near desert climate conditions. What about a residential training institute for youth, perhaps in small industries? If the king-sized ego demands the name be present, OK, leave it. What’s in a name?

Any matter, financial or economic, with benefit to country buttressing it – refer to Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne. Likewise, anything pertaining to fauna, flora and preservation of natural habitats ask Devani Jayathilake. Cassandra would give two years of her life (she does not have 10 left, she suspects) to know what the answers of the three wise and sincere ones mentioned would be to the proposal to convert the Mattala Airport, oops sorry – Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport – to a 7 star hotel for wildlife watching and then tourists proceeding to Yala and other places that were touted to be reached easier if planes brimful of tourists, landed in Mattala. Pipe dream even sans Covid-19.

The thought of the millions, nay billions, our country was indebted to China to construct these vanity projects aka white elephants of the Rajapaksa fiefdom sends Cass’s blood racing in her contracting veins. And now another hair-brained scheme is being exposed, not new but re-exposed: that of the stupendous amount sent direct from the Central Bank with no nod, as reported, from the then Cabinet or Parliament, to an American-resident con-man to improve our appearance on the world stage or at least American stage. My word!! Cosmetics of creams and colours and such like can improve the face of an already beautiful woman. But a country that was once beautiful, glorified, accepted internationally and then politician-spoilt, cannot be redeemed by PR work, however expensively. Nivard Cabraal was the then Govenor of the CB. Of course, as every Banda, Singho and their women say, nothing will come of this. Powerful political sweeping under the carpet in the presence of cardboard administrators and sycophantic hosanna singers, makes the matter disappear and not merely hides it. Unless of course there are enough intrepid outers-of-truths and persistent protestors, brave and national minded enough to continuously tease the matter like a cat its caught rat. Ranjan is locked away in hard labour for four solid years, losing his Parliamentary seat for misusing the gift of his gab, while convicted murderers of the right colour attend Parliament, escorted and all.

Cass apologises

To the reigning Mrs World, Mrs Caroline Jurie, for crowning, uncrowning and recrowning of the winner of the recent Mrs Sri Lanka contest. Caroline Jurie took this stride because the winning contestant was four years on the way to being a divorcee, which status forbids a woman from attempting to wear the crown of Mrs…. (country) with a view to becoming Mrs World. This title and honour is bestowed on a woman who promotes, holds sacred the institution of marriage and is a married woman. Cass castigated Caroline Jurie without knowing then the fact that Jurie had protested about this candidate being considered due to her impending divorce; and allowed to contest. She said she withdrew from the panel of judges since her point was not taken by the others. WHY is the Q. Easy to answer. The new beauty queen of shaky married status was a loud speaker in favour of Presidential Candidate Gotabaya R in Polonnaruwa (captured on social media) and probably spoke on stages for SLPP Parliamentary candidates. So of course she was slated to win; vision impaired over rules and future probabilities, She has her height – one advantage. Beauty can always be dexterously rubbed and painted in. But honesty is important and cannot be cloned or grafted in.

Cass now definitely faults the new Mrs Sri Lanka. She should not have contested, having her papers sent in for divorce and not retracted. What happens when she wins the divorce (or her husband wins it, however the divorce was first mooted). Another local contest? And if the divorce was still pending and she went overseas at great expense and won THE crown or a lesser one. To be returned forthwith when she has to remove the present gold band from her third finger, which probably she has already removed but hastily wore for the contest and when preparing for it? This is why Cass avows that many young women particularly, are so very selfish and forward and uppity and even dishonest now. In Cass’ time and even a decade or two later, a girl would never do what this new beauty has done, flipped aside a core rule and necessity of the contest, just to win by honest means or foul. Way the country’s going, my friend.

Post – Aluth Avurudhu

Cassandra is stuffed gill-high with kavun, aluwa and crunchy kokis, preceded by kiributh and lunumiris. She is fending for herself because a dip in Covid numbers and having had the jab, her domestic wished to enjoy a family new year having missed the last one, locked down as we were. Cass made her own kiributh – tasting somewhat like it should, but the sweets were all gifted her. So, also the offers of help, sleep-ins at others’ homes and solicitous frequent inquiries of ‘how are you?’ Kind and gracious relatives and friends, acquaintances too are thanked; and the most appreciated being neighbouring kitchen helps and care givers. Three-wheeler drivers who spin Cass around on errands too make enquiries. And thus her thoughts when resuming work at the nekath time and word processing this article. Sri Lankans are such good people: kind, caring, willing to share and genuine. And then specters themselves on this very sunny landscape: the dishonest, selfish, revengeful and disgraceful. Shrug them off, clear the mental picture and pronounce thank goodness for goodness around.

May all of us (decent people) have a very good year to follow today –Subha Aluth Avuruddhak!

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