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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Theatre of the Absurd and the Present Political Caricature

The Island 17/07/2011

By Prof. Gamini Keerawella|
University of Peradeniya

The trade union action of the Federation of University Teachers’ Unions (FUTA) that made the university teachers resign from their ‘voluntary’ positions has now reached its second month, bringing the entire university system of the country to a standstill. Three striking developments are clearly discernible in the mobilization of university teachers during this two-month period. The first is the continuous momentum of the trade union action by bringing into their fold the faculties that did not take part in the trade union action initially. The burgeoning active participation of an overwhelming number of teachers in the actions initiated by the FUTA, which is really unprecedented in modern Sri Lankan history, made the voice of FUTA louder and clearer. Secondly, the initial demand for a decent salary structure for university dons has gradually evolved into a broader discourse where necessary structural reforms in the existing system of university education in Sri Lanka are emphasized. The plethora of newspaper articles to that effect is indicative of this development. Thirdly, FUTA has extended its activities beyond the parameters of seats of higher leaning to the streets by arranging marches and holding public seminars.

The resignation of university dons from ‘voluntary’ positions demanding the implementation of the salary proposals promised by the Higher Education authorities brought into focus the multi-faceted structural crisis that our university education is presently confronted by. The crisis of higher education highlighted in turn the broader crisis and contradictions of the post-colonial state in Sri Lanka. It must be noted that education, both school and university constitutes a key element of the institutional apparatus of the state. The crisis of higher education in Sri Lanka is by no means new or sudden. In the pedagogic sense it is an outcome of the failure on the part of the different stake-holders in higher education over a period of time to initiate necessary innovations in line with the rapid changes and new dynamics in motion in the knowledge industry. In the political sense it is a reflection of a lack of clear vision and direction in relation to the historical task of post-colonial state-building and national integration. The response of the political authorities to the demands of the FUTA made plain not only its apathy but also the narrowness of view in perceiving the crisis in higher education. The behavior the Higher Education authorities indicated that they lacked any sense to grasp the totality of the crisis in higher education.

The whole concept of education is witnessing a profound and rapid change presently in the context of changed historical conditions relating to the construction and distribution of knowledge. In this process, prevailing perceptions and assumptions relating to the form and content of ‘knowledge’ are also changing. On the one hand, issues such as what is meant by knowledge, methods of its acquisition and distribution are being reframed and addressed anew. On the other, the knowledge industry is expanding its horizons by leaps and bounds in accordance with this epistemological reframing. As a result, the earlier mooring of our pursuits of knowledge have been profoundly shaken by the swirling of new intellectual currents. At this historical juncture, the formidable challenge that all of us in the higher education sector have before us is to relocate our universities in a new intellectual space as vibrant seats of higher learning. There is a long way to go.

In order to relocate our universities in a new intellectual space and to transform them into vibrant seats of higher learning, a series of parallel reforms/innovations addressing different aspects of university education are required. The days that our universities had enjoyed the monopoly of higher education with state-protection are gone. If institutional and individual survival is not linked to their performances, our universities will not be forced to meet this challenge. It is true that we will not be able to do it at once. But, there should be a comprehensive plan of action with a clear vision, a time frame and, of course, with necessary resources to proceed in that direction. The edifice of higher education is maintained by the tax-payers money. Hence, there is a moral obligation to justify every cent of tax-payers money spent on higher education. The need for far-reaching reforms in the higher education sector must be perceived in this context. Broadly speaking, these reforms must address at least seven levels. To begin with, the present out-dated Higher Education Act, No 16 of 1978 which has been retained with six ad-hoc amendments by successive governments needs to be replaced with a new one to ensure a new statutory founding to our university system in facilitating the process of relocation of our universities in a new intellectual space. Secondly, the role of the UGC which is presently used as a naked political tool to command universities must be reviewed and its functions redefined to suit the changed higher educational environment. Thirdly, at the level of university administration, far-reaching changes are required. It is true that state-funded universities cannot be fully autonomous institutions. Some degree of autonomy with necessary accountability is highly required. In order to go forward we need dignified vice chancellors who can give academic leadership to our institutions rather than ones who act as servile ‘political agents’ masquerading according to the whims and fancies of the political masters of the day. Fourthly, the present recruitment and promotion procedures must be overhauled to ensure that those who really deserve should be recruited and promoted. As in the case of many other world-class universities, granting tenure should be done after a vigorous, but fare, process with mandatory Ph.D. qualification. At the same time, there should be a mechanism to get rid of liabilities and dead-wood. Fifthly, the introduction of new programs and the revision of the syllabus of existing courses constitute a key element required to maintain the Universities of Sri Lanka as vibrant seats of higher learning. Sixthly, not only the content of teaching but also the method of teaching needs substantial change. The construction of knowledge is a collective endeavour where teacher and student are organic parts of the same process. As Antonio Gramsci stated "every teacher is always a pupil and the pupil a teacher. But the educational relationship should not be restricted to the field of strictly scholastic relationship by means of which the new generation comes into contact with the old and absorbs and develops a personality of its own which is historically and culturally superior". The advances in information technology can be effectively used to enhance the delivery capacity and through which the role of universities enormously. It is high time we have multiple approaches to teaching and learning incorporating blended teaching and learning to enhance the delivery capacity. Last but not least, necessary in-built compulsions are required to make our universities seats of thorough research. That does not mean that serious research is mot taking place in our universities. It has been proved that the scholars in our universities are cable of conducting world-class research amidst all the difficulties imposed by lack of financial and physical resources. But, there are no in-built institutional compulsions to do so. Without developing the human resource base of our universities we will not be able to execute necessary internal reforms. We urgently need new blood to our university system, newly trained or already trained but located elsewhere. To begin with, research chairs and endowment chairs must be established in every department on a contract basis as flagships to chart out the new directions.

The demand for a reasonable salary structure for the university teachers should not be viewed as simply another generic demand for a salary increase in the face of the rising cost of living. It must be a necessary point of departure for the attempt to develop the human resource base of our universities. Looked at from this perspective, the present trade union action of FUTA is an attempt to protect the sprit of the ‘free’ education system in Sri Lanka. What is meant by protecting ‘free’ education? It is not the protection of buildings or the old order. As stated earlier, if our seats of higher learning cannot provide what is required in a globalized educational environment with competitive substance and skills, free education would become an empty shell. On the other hand, if Sri Lanka wants to be a knowledge hub of Asia, we need to develop our human resource base and through it teaching and the research capacity of our universities.

The response on the part of and the government and higher education authorities to the demands of FUTA is pathetic. Instead of entering into a constructive dialogue with the university teachers to develop over-due reforms, the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) resorted to a confrontational course, dragging the conflict for two months. The top political leadership of the country remains deaf and blind to the brewing crisis of the university system. Their responses reveal the lack of acumen in handling a crisis which cannot be resolved by the use of military force and also the absence of any vision of the direction of higher education in Sri Lanka. The responses of the authorities to problems of higher education in Sri Lanka seemed so weird that their behavior reminds us of a substandard version of the Theatre of the Absurd. I can recall the parallel in the period prior to the 1970 General Elections. Having been disturbed by the continuous verbal attacks on University teachers and students by Mr. I. M. R. A. Iriyagolla, the Ministry of Education of the 1965-70 government, Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra made this remark: the Kolama of the Hath Haul Nadagama is Minister Iriyagolla, (the clown of the drama of the seven-party alliance). He stressed that the Kolama has no key role to play though it is always on the stage. Its only task is to please the leader and make the audience laugh from time to time.

The Theatre of the Absurd as a particular theatrical expression emerged in France with the plays of the French theatrical avant-garde of the late 1940s in the background of the shock created by the Second World War and the revelation of the Nazi atrocities. Many play writers of this genre of theatre were influenced by the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. The works of the French theatrical avant-garde of the late 1940s and 1950s, namely, Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Eugene lonesco (The Bald Soprano), Jean Genet (The Maids and The Blacks) can be referred to. Samuel Beckett in his drama highlighted the uselessness of human action and the failure of the human race to communicate while the focus of Ionesco’s dramas is the futility of communication. Hence, the language of his drama appears nonsensical. Influenced by negative elements of the Existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, these play writers emphasized the absurdity of human existence: it has no meaning or purpose. In order to depict it in their drama they employed disjointed, repetitious, and meaningless dialogue and confusing situations. I am drawing attention here not to the serious philosophical underpinnings of the Theatre of the Absurd, instead only to its theatrical features. I clearly see the parallel between the bizarre behavior of political and higher education authorities in the face of the crisis in Universities and the theatrical features of the Theatre of the Absurd. It has no single logical plot, but to a keen observer it is not difficult to read the political ‘text’. Characters are not developed logically or lineally. They speak different things at the same time, are full of clichés and finally it is nonsense. What the left hand is doing does not relate to what right hand is doing. Take different uttering and mutterings of the policy-makers as examples. As in the case of the Theatre of the Absurd the ultimate conclusion of irrational and illogical speech of the decision-makers is ‘silence’. Different acts/scenarios of the drama are not interconnected. Completely surprising appearances on the stage are quite possible. It was none other than Hon. Nishantha Mutuhettigama, M.P. who emerged from the Temple Trees, instead of officials of the President’s office or the Secretary of MOHE, to receive the petition of student Bhikkus to be handed over to the President. There is a sheer mix up of roles of hero, villain, traitor or clown. Hence, determining whether one is a villain or a clown is not that easy. The character that comes to the stage first with the hero’s attire ultimately ends up playing the role of villain. It was the Minister of Higher Education who stated in the Parliament that the salaries of University Professors would be increased to over Rs. 2,000,000. The FUTA did not really ask for that. When the FUTA presented its salary proposals it was him who assert that the possibility of getting the demand of FUTA is point triple zero one. The incoherent acts of the drama are so confusing it is not possible to predict who enters the stage next. It may be the Secretary MOHE, Hon. Nishantha Mutuhettigama, M.P. or the Minister Higher Education or Minister Dr. Mervin Silva. However, there is no difference as to who enters the stage because the political ‘text’ is the same. The character that entered the stage in the cloths of a traitor ends us by playing the role of the clown. At the same time, one who is expected to play the role of villain ultimately plays a different role akin to that of a ‘Good Samaritan’. It must be noted that when the trade union action of FUTA gained continuous momentum Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, the Secretary to the Treasury genuinely attempted to find a mutually acceptable solution to the salary issue within his limits. The striking theatrical feature of the entire episode is the utter mixing of roles. Therefore one who really believes that he is playing the macho role is actually performing the role of a clown.

In the face of the impending crisis of higher education in Sri Lanka, the responsibility of the concerned academics of the country is formidable. Those scholars who took part in the trade union action on a mass scale cannot stop there. It is a fact that the majority of the university dons want to remain apolitical. A handful of prominent university teachers who were active in the political sphere in the past such as H.A.D.S. Gunasekera, Doric de Sousa, W.S. Karunarathna, Premadasa Udagama, Vishwa Warnapala have given the impression that university academics have an innate love to politics. However, it is not the reality. Many in our universities want to remain political virgins. With the mobilization of university teachers by FUTA over the salary issue and especially the responses on the part of the Government, many of these university teachers have now come to grips with the reality that it is not possible to give birth to the desired just society while remaining political virgins. It is now high time to get into the fold of similar new social movements and to have a constructive intercourse with broader democratic forces to promote the democratization process. It is not to change the regime or to replace the existing rulers with new one. The aim would be to develop mechanisms and structures to strengthen good governance and democracy. It goes without saying that knowledge, love and democracy need to be strengthened and renewed continuously. If our attention is dissipated and do not rejuvenate these three elements necessary for good life they would become outdated with the passage of time. We must begin with our own institutions.

The present problems in the higher education sector are ones that have evolved over time. The present regime is not the sole father of these issues but it has the responsibility to take steps in the direction of revolving them it is in the helm of state power. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Karl Marx stated that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living". We do not want to see the legacy of Mr. I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla weighting heavily on the Minister of Higher Education at this crucial historical juncture in the history of higher education in Sri Lanka. We wish that the vision of Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara would guide Hon. Minister S.B. Dissanayake.