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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Monday, April 04, 2005

English and Elitism - Part 2

Online edition of Sunday Observer - Features: English - Yes. But which English?

Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake

Having disposed of the utilitarian aspects of the teaching and learning of English Gamini K. Haththotuwegama proceeds to tackle the more substantive and larger issue of English in Sri Lanka's national life. Here again what is important is how English is viewed by those who are called upon to absorb it.

Is it viewed as a hostile force invading a people's psyche and obliterating all its native memories or as a force, which has to work in conjunction with the indigenous culture and thus enlarging the indigenous ethos? GK quotes with approval the following excerpts from a paper read by Ernest Macintyre: "That when one grows into another culture through the intensive root-cutting education in English, the creative urge to truthfully turn it back on the soil you were pulled away from, the sentient world of the indigenous culture, is a magnificent compensation, the quality of which is not sometimes available even to those with unmoved roots, in a world of much movement."

In other words Sri Lanka's most outstanding English language playwright and dramatist is saying that a native intellectual who has been exposed to a 'root-cutting' education in English is capable of greater creative energies which can be turned back on the soil from which he was uprooted than one who had not been dislodged from it.

In the same context GK cites the late Regi Siriwardena lamenting that as a child he had been denied the little gathas, stories, folk rhymes and songs that the Sinhala child grows with from the cradle. That is the measure of the alienation of the English-educated intellectual however well meaning,liberal, radical or humanitarian he might be.

The obverse and positive side of this, of course, is that some of those who might have imbibed the native ethos with their mother's milk can well become rabid racialists while the alienated intellectual can grapple with himself and seek to integrate himself with his culture while retaining his broad humanism.

Ironically both Siriwardena and Ludowyk sought to accomplish this in their own ways. Siriwardena educated at St. Thomas' and the University College wrote sympathetically of Sinhala literature, drama and the cinema while Ludowyk born in colonial Galle and educated at Richmond College and the University College became Sri Lanka's first native English language savant while being able to retain his bonds with Sinhala culture to the extent of being able to write a monumental work such as 'The Footprints of the Buddha.'

It is necessary, however, to remember that both of them effected this transformation before the mindless majoritarian wave sailing under the flag of a bogus Sinhala-Buddhist culture was to sweep everything in its path.

Which English then should be taught to a new generation? GK is justifiably caustic about and dismissive of the schools' Shakespeare Competition where an emphasis on elocution has served to keep away provincial schools.

He makes the incisive comment that since English was never dethroned after 1956 but subtly and insidiously further empowered such an elitist investment (in elocution) was deemed necessary for the future, a power investment. But even if we leave aside the absurd world of the elocution teachers and their cohorts and the pathological phobias of a doomed elite what of the English taught by those wayside tutories now mushrooming all over the countryside flaunting the name of various dubious Sirs as if the knighthood had been resurrected in Sri Lanka? I wish GK had taken up this question for although it might fall strictly outside the scope of (university) English teaching this kind of half-baked English is bound to have a harmful long-term effect on the country.

This question becomes even more relevant in the light of the next question which GK raises. Calling it a 'retrogressive colonialism' GK says that in recent times the socio-economic power structures have become enormously hospitable to English. But that is at the higher end of the spectrum, the secondary and tertiary levels of education. But what of the drop-outs from the schools system, those who crowd these hole-in-the-wall tutories in desperation to learn English because that is necessary even to get a job as a room boy in a hotel.

Not only is the English they are taught half-baked but also they are fleeced into the bargain. Then even at the upper end there is tragedy if not farce. GK discloses that there were over 80 students to study first year English at Peradeniya last year but of this 50 per cent had failed.

The question then poses itself in two aspects. On one hand there is the continuing elitist hold on the English Departments, the Kaduwa-waving gatekeepers seeking to keep the plaebian hordes at bay. On the other hand there is the need to maintain standards and not dilute them in deference to the popular masses knocking at the doors.

In a militant outburst GK proclaims that English 'has to serve the liberation struggle of our people' but the question is which English? It is here that he cannot quite banish the lurking suspicion that 'even the radical critical literature in English could be part of a hegemonised literary canon.'

GK again tackles the question in terms of English Departments. His expressive language deserves to be quoted in full: "What's the point of giving English at university levels, feeding the students with the highest academic equipment available - the most radical, nay revolutionary cultural theory, by presumably some of the best literary-linguistic brains in the business, yes feeding students whose acquaintance with our culture begins and ends presumably with 'Thannane naa - thana-naa' sung by Ba and Sa (and a herd of tune-repeating umbaas) who have been successful as no others have in setting a price to our folk rhythms, as a street drama actor put it so succinctly?" The answer again is to immerse these undergraduates in the best of Sinhala and Tamil literature and perhaps the less deracinated works of English writing in Sri Lanka but the problem is how successful will this be in a context where classical Sinhala culture (this does not apply so much to Tamil) has been so drastically eroded in recent decades by the onslaughts of popular culture enjoying both state patronage and the sponsorship of the mass media?

It is in this context that GK suggests having courses in Sinhala/Tamil literature as part of the AL English syllabus and also introducing the teaching of history as part of these same classes since this has been nearly eliminated from the contemporary schools system. He suggests the post-independence period as a suitable area for such studies.

The point as GK's concluding remarks demonstrate, is that today's generation whether educated in Sinhala or English lack the bi-lingual cultural equipment which made it possible for the pre-1956 intelligentsia to sympathetically relate to the best in both cultures and while returning to their roots in either Sinhala or Tamil culture retain a broad intellectual-cultural outlook. Today these have been eroded by linguistic compartmentalization and a collapse of critical standards themselves rooted in a mono-lingual ethos.

At root Haththotuwegama's lecture rather portentously titled 'Unreasonable Postulates and Treasonable Practices Correlative to English - Rescuing the Liberational Impulse,' is an argument for the teaching of a new kind of English at university level which while attacking elitism will not lead to an erosion of academic standards but will produce an English which will be rooted in Sri Lanka's soil and resonate to the cry of its soul.

It is also a lecture which only GK could have delivered because if there has ever been a teacher of English who has effortlessly related himself to the wider Sinhala socio-cultural milieu without pandering to populist whims or compromising his intellectual integrity it has been Gamini K. Haththotuwegama.

There is a quality of epiphany in his final salute to Lakdasa Wikkramasinha who was the English language poet who most fiercely denounced the colonial legacy and who was drowned in his 30's. In many ways Wikkramasinha exemplified the agonised dilemma of the sensitive English-educated (even anglicised) generation recoiling in horror from the atrocities of colonialism but forced to excoriate the oppressors in their own language.

Considered to be Sri Lanka's best English language poet although dying young he had yet to expiate his guilt by taking refuge behind the facade of his feudal ancestry (note here the irony) and writing a Sinhala poetry which was widely considered impenetrable which made him a figure from a dying era even before his tragically early passing.

Blogger Chandare said...

Why do all these articles about "English Education" in Sri Lanka talk about Shakespeare ,Ludowyk and all these crap about English departments in universities ?How many people care about this stuff?
Why not discuss after 209 years (1796 - present) of English Langauge domination ,less than 5 percent can read and write English in Sri Lanka? What are the numbers for the circulation of English Langauge newspapers in Sri Lanka?What percentage of the circulation are purely for the purpose of classified adds(looking for job postings)?
To support a bi-lingual or English speaking elite of intellectuals Sri Lanka needs a wider base(or pool) of English language base of readers and viewers.
To support English poets,novelist and theater directors Sri Lanka needs a whole lot of people with bad grammer (like me) first.
Former president J.R.Jayawardena said it best when he asked "Sahithyaya Kanada?"(Can you eat literature?).To get a cream of people ,we need to get other people fed and clothed first.Colombo based English speaking pool is so tiny that it is no wonder that our elite bi-lingual intellectuals are bankrupt and inconsequential.  

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