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Friday, June 24, 2011

Renewing our contract with society What are we looking for?

The Island 24/06/2011

By Sivamohan Sumathy

A section of University teachers protesting against the government’s refusal to meet their demand for a pay hike. Members of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) launched their protest march at the University of Colombo University and walked to the Public Library at Independence Avenue. (File Photo)

In the last 20 years, spanning the 21 odd years since I joined the university, FUTA has taken up strike action thrice, in the limited sense but galvanising the entire university academic population. Our collective action today is the third in this line. On the two previous occasions, the action was one waged over demands for salary hikes.

When we took action in 1992, it was following the days of terror in the south (and the north and the east). It was about our pay, but also about recovering our rights, our right to strike, negotiate, the right to assembly, a partial attempt to recover from those days of terror and silence. The latter action of 1996, I presume, was more narrowly focused on the salary issue. Both strikes took place during the long drawn out war. But this time around, there is a slight change in the texture, the meaning and the provenance of the action. It is what I will call a paradigm shift. It is fashionable to talk of paradigm shifts these days. Let’s call what I hope to outline as something marking a small paradigm shift; a shift in the way we think of ourselves, as university people and as educationists.

What exactly is this paradigm that I stress upon so much? We are asking for, very simply, a salary raise. This demand of ours, we think and argue, is our right. It is our right, because we are fulfilling a social function in the country. That social function is based on a contract, or if we don’t like the word contract, invokes a responsibility. The responsibility is directed primarily toward education in the narrow and the very broadest of terms. Let me invoke the name of an educationist, Antonio Gramsci to elaborate on my position. Antonio Gramsci, who struggled against fascism in Italy, realised during that time, how important education, at all levels, is to a society’s well being, survival, for building solidarity across ethnicities and classes, and for counter hegemony. He put the role of the intellectual under deep scrutiny. One could say that everybody is an intellectual. But in society, some are assigned the label, the identity of the intellectual. For Gramsci, the intellectual can play two different roles for contradictory purposes. The first is the traditional intellectual. The traditional intellectual props up the system, perpetuates the status quo and blocks change. The other is the organic intellectual, who emerges from deep within the body of society, and is not alienated from its joys and fears. The organic intellectual fuels hope, presses for change in collaboration with society, in its struggle for survival and for greater social well being. Today, in our context, need to find out what exactly this is.

The last two odd months makes us think more carefully of our role within the hegemonic bonds of nation building. In renewing our contract with society, let us also ponder more broadly on this moment, not just in terms of the university lecturer and the academic and intellectual, but also in terms of the country at large. We can speak of it in socio-economic terms, such as the rapidly encroaching neo-liberal policies that tie us to a global market, Sri Lankan labour, in multiple fashions, so that our educational system is turned toward creating a labour force that is subservient, trained in light skills, and deeply service and consumer oriented. How do we equip ourselves to call this modality into question so that we can together with the rest of society equip ourselves to fight the oppressive tendencies of neo-liberal economic policies? We can also seize upon this moment of post war (not post-conflict) struggle, to reflect and act upon the role we need to play in raising questions about the nation and its many nationalities itself; the socio-political and the political unconscious of ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality. In other words, the socio-political relations between communities, Muslim, Tamil, Sinhala and Burgher (among others), about gender and class relations as they cut across society.

There is a particular and concrete way in which this task outlined above can be envisioned. I spell it out as twin interventions:

* How do we intervene in the general public’s debate and discourse on education?

* How do we intervene in the general public’s debate and discourse on democracy?

The two are intertwined. The goals of democracy have to be fought for in the site of education, and the goals of education have to be attained democratically, through discussion and dissent. Where does the academic come in here? I will speak with a concrete example here. The parents of a seven year old told me of a Grade 3 primer that their son’s class uses for environmental studies. This is a text book guided by the government’s education programme for primary schools.

The lesson on ethnicity or the ethnic composition of the country has a table with columns for race/ethnicity and corresponding columns for religion, attire and food.

So, we have in the table, under race/ethnicity, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher. The corresponding columns for each ethnicity is as follows: Against Sinhala, we have Buddhist, osariya and other predictable items and kavun and kokis (for food). For Tamils, surprise, surprise, we have in the column for food, thosai and vadai. While all Sinhalese are Buddhists, all Tamils are Hindus. There are no Catholics or Christians among them. Now, Muslims, eat predictably, kukul mus. It gets better. Burghers who Christians and wear skirts, eat cake.

Fifteen years ago, I would have dismissed this as some isolated case of idiotic and misplaced multiculturalism which does not transcend the bounds of primary school curriculum. But today, I would not be so sanguine. The unimaginable and gigantic proportion of sheer ignorance that is evident in this example has seeped through to the entire educational/cultural sphere. It is part and parcel of the dumbing down of education, where history is equated to tourism and history is imparted to the ‘nation’ on spurious history channels and other forms of popular culture. And we as academics have sadly abdicated our right to intervene in this debate. Political pressure, controversies coming by and large from the right wing, the popularity of popular cultural forms like television have mired us in an indifference that is dangerous to the entire country. The example I gave is not just racist. It is not just wrong. It is unintelligent and unintelligible. This example is just one instance of the abysmal level to which we sunk, have lost all connection with what’s going on in the public sphere. And this is dangerous. A natural development of this dumbing down of education is what we find in the leadership training programme conducted by the military to university entrants. There is something very very wrong here, fundamentally wrong, and there is a great urgency to address this danger at all levels, immediately.

The second intervention I want to speak of, of democracy, is what underlies our hope for the country at large. This is the ideological side of our social contract. This is what we are here for. A very huge part of our endeavour is to cherish the ideals of free education. While among academics there might be divided opinion on the wisdom of establishing private universities, there is consensus on preserving the Kannangara inheritance of free education, including that at the tertiary level, for the public system. Cherishing that ideal means improving on it, improving on the quality of our programmes within the university system. We cherish and promote free education, because we want to be free. Free from cheap politicization, free to think, to discuss and act; to promote a climate of dissent. Free education is not there for some to get richer and richer and the others to become poorer and poorer. Free education is about working toward the well being of the entire country. It is about pondering issues that concern ethnicity, the questions regarding the disappeared in the war and in its aftermath, in the post war scenario. It is about cherishing hope for greater solidarity between the struggling classes. Free education brings with it the ideals of freedom with it. But it is not free trade for any of us. This democratic hope is enshrined in the democratising and democratic act of free education. We cannot let go of that in any of our pursuits and that is part of our struggle for democratic living in this country. Approaching this socio-politically, I will say, free education is predicated on a notion of responsibilities for the organic intellectual. If we do not wake up to this call today, we will be made redundant one day.

(Based on the talk delivered at the public seminar, Knowledge Hub, myth or reality? at the Public Library Auditorium, Colombo on 21, June, 2011, by FUTA).