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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Imposition of leadership training for university entrants is an intrusion into an autonomous sphere

by Prof Charles Sarvan

This is a response to the Friday Forum’s press release (Jayantha Dhanapala et al, 9 June 2011) on compulsory leadership training for university entrants, a programme that “has been introduced by the Ministry of Higher Education in a military environment under the leadership of the Ministry of Defence” (Forum). What I write is not comprehensive.

Secondly, it’s offered in the spirit of “democratic dialogue” urged by the Forum: see, for example, Anne Abeyasekera’s response in the Sunday Island, 26 June.

Thirdly, it is tentative because friends (such as Elmo Jayawardene) admonish that, having left Sri Lanka many, many years ago, I am unaware of nuance and implication. (I do not have the government’s document but trust it has been widely distributed, and carefully studied.) The concern is not with the concept of a foundation course per se but with (a) the manner of its introduction and (b) content: all students should be exposed to opportunities for personality development throughout their education, and many universities conduct orientation programmes, including English courses for new entrants (Forum). The crucial question is: “Since time, resources and opportunity are limited, how best can they be utilised?”

To impose a programme on university students under the leadership not of the Ministry of Education but that of the Ministry of Defence, seems to indicate a failure to appreciate that different spheres have different virtues. (“Virtue” is used here in the older sense of merit, ability or power.) Indeed, what is a virtue in one sphere, discipline or activity can be damaging in another.

No one doubts the vital importance of the military: “It would be ludicrous to believe that a defenceless people have nothing but friends” (Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political). The first requirement of a people is survival within their territory: everything else follows, and is built upon, this material fact. It is the military that safeguards a people and their space. (Of course, the armed forces since independence have dealt only with Sri Lankans: one hopes they will never have to confront a foreign army.)

The priority when it comes to the armed forces is the contrary of that expected at a university. Soldiers wear “uniform” – the word is made up of “uni” (that is, “one”) and “form”. University students, on the contrary, are expected not to be “uniform” in their thought but to exercise their minds independently. It’s the opposite of what Tennyson wrote in his poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’: Theirs is not to reason why. Theirs is but to do and die.

“Theirs is not to reason”, but reasoning independently is precisely what is expected of university students, and a foundation year (or courses) must emphasise and offer training in aspects such as logic, methods of reasoning and the detection of fallacy; data collection; rational evaluation; the organisation and presentation of written material in clear and coherent form, etc.

The military demands obedience, “command and control, action without disputation” (Forum) but a university cultivates and expects challenge: the German phrase, “die Andersdenkenden”, means “those who think otherwise”.

I recall, as an undergraduate at Peradeniya in the late 1950s, being given, during a tutorial, the essay-topic: “Federalism is a prelude to union or separation. It is not a substitute for either. Discuss.” The next week, assignments were handed in – except by one of us who, when asked, replied he had done the necessary reading, consulted the recommended texts, but all had declared that a federal state was, in essence, already a unitary state: the USA, India, Canada, Switzerland and several others had federal constitutions.

Therefore, the question, the topic itself, was not correct. From a wrong question, one cannot arrive at a right answer. The student who hadn’t written anything was the only one awarded an ‘A’. I record this incident as a tribute to that lecturer who had the intellectual honesty and the moral courage to acknowledge he had “slipped up”, and to recognise and reward independent thinking on the part of his student.
The “A” grade was a reward to that student and, I suppose, also meant to encourage the others. Theirs is (emphasised) constantly to reason “Why?” (I recall the lecturer’s name as Dr Weerawardene, but may be completely mistaken.)

The manner in which leadership training for university entrants is being imposed seems to be yet another intrusion into yet another sphere that should be autonomous – such as justice – and one fears the military victory over the Tigers may lead to the defeat of democracy and, with it, what Avishai Margalit terms ‘The Decent Society’. Several concerned and caring individuals and groups have sounded alarm bells, but are they being heeded?

Of the Forum’s document, I draw attention to points 10 and 11. The former, the module on history and national heritage, includes the arrival of the Aryans. A university is not only a repository of knowledge but an institution where knowledge is furthered, added to, and deepened. Academic staff are expected to conduct research, and to keep up with their reading so that they are aware of the latest thinking in their field and, in turn, bring it to the notice of their students. So historians, though they deal with the past, are assumed to do so through modern “spectacles”:

They should not be stuck in the mud of the past, mindlessly chewing and regurgitating the same cud, over and over again. Regarding the coming of the Aryans, will students be made aware that science has now, over many years, challenged and dismantled the notion of “race”, a belief particularly vicious in the 19th century, culminating in the 20th with the “racial” ideology of the Nazis, and their Aryanism, a belief as evil as it was utterly irrational? Will ancient myth be taught as fact? Will story be treated as history? (I would draw attention to ‘Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History’ by Romila Thapar, an independent and meticulous historian: see, Sarvan, ‘Public Writings on Sri Lanka’, pp. 145-6.) Will it be indoctrination masquerading as education?

In “a group exercise on world leaders the suggested world famous leaders are Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, King Dutugemenu, Anagarika Dharmapala, Mahinda Rajapakse, Veera Puran Appu, and Ranasinghe Premadasa”: The Forum, No. 11. And again one asks, what are the aims and ideals that lead to the establishment and maintenance of a university? At a military academy, famous military figures may be held up, not merely for uncritical admiration but for examination of limitation, mistakes and failure. It would, one hopes, be balanced and evaluative: history, and not hagiography.

For example, General Rupert Smith, in his ‘The Utility of Force’ writes that modern warfare can be traced to the military genius of just one man: Napoleon. Yet Napoleon lost major battles, ending in defeat and exile. Similarly, Anagarika Dharmapala, is a complex and controversial figure, near-venerated by many, seen by some as a racist and misogynist. Professor H. L. Seneviratne states that one cannot talk about political and social developments in Sri Lanka since his time to the present without reference to Dharmapala’s work.

“No major Sinhala thinker or writer after him escaped his influence” (‘The Work of Kings’, 1999, p. 28). Yet (Seneviratne argues), Dharmapala’s words and actions have led not to “regeneration” but “degeneration”. Will a study of him frankly and fairly confront this counter-picture?

Further, since a university above all else emphasises thought, shouldn’t the world leaders selected be also leaders in original thinking? Shouldn’t they be scientists and philosophers, drawn from both near and far (in geographic distance as in time)? They ought to be individuals whose discoveries and contribution to knowledge have had an impact not just on one country, or even on one region (Asia), but on the world at large. Nor should the selected figures consist only of men. The list above does not meet these criteria.

The Lord Buddha is reported to have said that one shouldn’t believe or accept anything he says simply because he says it. His words were on the lines of: “Think about what I say and, if you find it true, then, and only then, believe it so that it becomes not my truth but yours”. If this attitude of the Buddha is made the guiding principle, then Sri Lanka will produce graduates as good as any in the world. If not, it will manufacture “brainwashed” products (an allegation made against certain “madrasas” in Pakistan), out of touch with the modern world; backward, rather than forward, looking; un-innovative, unwilling and unable to think fresh thoughts.

A wealthy (for example, oil-rich) country may build an ultra-modern, beautifully landscaped, university but real respect will depend on the mental quality, the academic standard, of the students it produces. A friend recently sent me pictures of the Campus, and I was happy to see that it remains as beautiful as is our time. But a more valuable beauty – one far more difficult to achieve and sustain – is the nature and quality of the education made available; the humane values upheld; the breadth and depth of the knowledge students come away with; their willingness and capacity to think independently, and the contribution they make to progress. Finally, it’s these that go to make a university truly impressive, and “beautiful”.