his article is based on a talk given at a seminar titled, “A More Just and Democratic Society” held in Jaffna on September 21, 2014 to commemorate Rajani Thiranagama.
“…. Talents and ability are not confined to any social class or group and any social system must provide for their emergence by the provision of equal educational opportunities...” (Government of Ceylon, 1943).
The Kannangara reforms of the 1940s, and later initiatives that sought to improve access to education to marginalised groups, addressed issues of democracy through education. Yet, even with these efforts, today there are many ways that education and spaces of education marginalize entire subsections of society, based on their access to resources, their ethnicity, gender, language, religion, social class, and/or caste.
Marginalisation of groups of people occurs by making access to education harder for some, by valuing the ways of life or experiences of particular social groups over others, and by making it harder for the voices of less powerful groups to be heard in educational spaces. Such exclusions may not only destroy education, but also the very foundations of our society.
Marginalisation occurs every day in education
Formal structures of education, such as schools or universities, differ not only in the experiences and opportunities they afford, but also in who may access them. When students must travel over ten kilometers to get to school or when they do not have running water or bathrooms, the education system marginalizes these students. When the curriculum normalizes the experiences of some social groups, and fails to reflect those of others, the latter are marginalised in education. How might a Buddhist child respond when taught that meat is ‘Muslim food’? The primary school curriculum distinguishes foods eaten by the major ethnic groups of Sri Lanka: Meat is a Muslim food. My son learnt this in school, and he was not alone. Where does that put him and other non-Muslims who eat meat? Where does it put Muslims who cannot afford meat or who choose not to eat it? It is lessons of this kind that contribute to the stereotyping that is currently being deployed to create prejudice against Muslims.
The education system also marginalizes segments of the population when dominant narratives are spelt out as truth in the curriculum. Can a child who has experienced the harshness of war accept a history that makes no mention of it? Should we accept the subordinate role that girls and women play in textbooks? These are some of the ways that we marginalize and are marginalized in the present education system. Of course, there are others.
Marginalisation through militarisation
Over the years,especially after the end of the war, a militarized ethos has descended on Sri Lanka. It has created an ideology that accepts force and aggression as means to resolve conflict, and construes voice and expressions of alternative perspectives as threats to those who hold more orthodox views. Such an ethos idealises authority from above. It privileges outcomes and results over process, and thereby dismisses or trivialises democratic processes of engagement. The decision to give leadership training at military camps for students and school principals exemplifies how decision making bodies are unwilling to respond to public concerns over how military involvement in such ‘educational’ programmes are opposed to the very meaning of education. This, coupled with a sense of entitlement amongst those in power, has made us objects to be governed, creating undemocratic spaces in which governance means marginalisation of the governed.
At a recent meeting at the University of Peradeniya, a meeting I attended, a case was made for why all student activities at the hostels had to be reported to authorities. Fear was evoked in the staff of what would happen to them if the authorities “above” found out about the nefarious student activities taking place in hostels. The rights of students to congregate, to create their own spaces of education, and to be agents in spaces of education were diminished in the span of a few hours. Only a few expressed concern. Many remained silent, perhaps thinking they are not entitled to be a party to this decision. After all, we had been told that these decisions had already been made. In the end, silence won.
Marginalisation in educational policies
Recently formulated national education policies fail to address marginalisation and exclusion. These policies attempt to make educational structures tools of national development. Students and teachers have become elements in a larger national plan to compete in the global marketplace. These policies stress the role of education in creating skilled and compliant workers. A key feature of the Ministry of Higher Education’s strategic plan to create ‘good students’, is by increasing their flexibility and adaptability. In other words, ‘good students’ become compliant graduates who will oblige, no matter what horrors their workplaces dish out to them. The present policies attempt to create students who are already integrated into the desired system, giving them no opportunities to question or critique that system. The role of universities has become that of producing workers. Importantly, these workers are now being produced without investment by employers. We at universities have them chiseled and ready. No need for apprenticeship and skills training at workplaces because universities have produced the required products. Universities have been streamlined into this system of production and the identified ‘inefficiencies’ within it are fast being eradicated. In the process, students are losing their voice and agency, and teachers, their role in education. In the process, we are also losing education itself.
Resistance as Marginalising
What about resistance to all that is going on? Two years ago, the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) launched a campaign to focus attention on the attack on education. Teachers’ unions, student groups, and many other groups highlighted the deplorable state of education in Sri Lanka. Such campaigns continue today, but remain marginalising in many ways. Most are Colombo-centric in both activity and decision making. Many of them pay scant attention to creating spaces for voices in the periphery to be heard. Concerns over language have been addressed only superficially and the gendered nature of these spaces remain, for the most part, unaddressed. Unless these movements are self-critical and open, how can they reform this system? Will they be able to provide an alternative vision for education when they are themselves entrenched in the prevailing system?
Even within existing campaigns to highlight the crisis in education, those of us within formal structures of education are limited to seeing threats to education as those that occur in and/or to our schools and universities. In our efforts to protect these spaces from the many threats that we face daily, we forget other educational spaces, whether they be public libraries, other public spaces, or even workplaces.
When public spaces are made off limits to the public, as when permission to hold the series of events organized to commemorate Rajani Thranagama in the Jaffna University and Jaffna Public Library was revoked, a place of education has been attacked. When an employer determines how individuals must think, not think, act, or not act, spaces of education are being constricted.
When you go to a workplace where an employee clearly fears expression, fears smiling, fears talking, there is an infringement on education. When we go to a government office, and there is no one there who can communicate with us because they cannot speak our language, we are seeing violence against education.
"Marginalisation of groups of people occurs by making access to education harder for some, by valuing the ways of life or experiences of particular social groups over others, and by making it harder for the voices of less powerful groups to be heard in educational spaces."
Just as we who are in spaces of education must fight to regain our universities and schools from tyranny and fear, limiting these battles to the confines of these spaces is self-defeating. First, because education happens everywhere, and as teachers and students of life, we must concern ourselves of all spaces of education. Second, it is self-defeating because these battles are played out far earlier than that moment when we see them played out in schools and universities. What makes a parent compliant when the president of the country says that she must wear sari to schools? What makes a principal ask parents, rather than government bodies, to pay for school development? What makes a teacher intimidate or terrify a student and what makes a student rag and victimize another? What makes all this acceptable? Did we learn to accept these injustices in school and university spaces alone? This learning began much earlier. It took place at home, at places of worship, at the market, at visits to the doctor, at Sunday school.The Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University banned the Rajani Thiranagama commemoration events from taking place at the University,and did not see such events as within the University’s mandate, as its obligation, as a place of learning. That action did not occur solely within formal structures of education. This is why the fight for education is a much, much broader fight. It’s a fight for freedom, a fight for solidarity, a fight for our very being.
Education is a dialogue - a dialogue in a moment. When there is a clash between actions and ideologies, that is the point of education. Education is the process of resolving this clash. From that point of view, this moment, as we stand in solidarity of Rajani and others who stood for democracy in the wake of undemocratic actions, is a moment of education, and as such, it has been in itself precious. There is no need for such a moment to receive the acts and endorsements of politicians and others.They need not hear us. They may dismiss us. In itself, this moment is all that it is. Yet, as we confront our reality today, we must act in a manner that promotes education, and its essence. I ask, therefore, how we as students, teachers, parents,or members of the public can regain education.
How do we create spaces where we can raise our voices without fearing retaliation? How do we acquire that language, and initiate dialogue that could begin this process?