He didn’t introduce Swabasha education; Kannangara did
A bitter irony in our independent history is that many well- intentioned policies went awry. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike whose 55th death anniversary fell on September 26 is conveniently blamed for one such decision- The Sinhala Only Act, which, by the very omission of the Tamil language, discriminated against Tamil and Muslim minorities, whose grievances – coupled with political aggrandisement by the Sinhalese leadership-- culminated into a civil war.
Bandaranaike is now a scapegoat for ‘ethnic bidding’ in Sri Lankan politics and everything that went wrong in the nation building exercise. He ‘bandwagonned’ with the rising monk led- Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism at the time, departing from the leftist consensus that both Sinhala and Tamil be official languages. The less ambitious Sir John’s refusal to appeal to the regressive populist impulses also helped Bandaranaike, who won the election convincingly. What followed was history.
An objective assessment of Bandaranaike’s legacy may not be charitable to him. But, the Sinhala Only Act would not have had the drastic negative impact it had on the country, without the fallout of a previous political decision, which had already put in place linguistic barriers, by the time Bandaranaike was elected prime minister in 1956.
"Seventy years later, we are back to square one. International schools that provide English medium education have mushroomed, though their education is unregulated and fees are beyond the reach of the average folks. "
Paradoxically though, the latter decision stemmed from one of the most progressive and path- breaking policies of all times in Sri Lankan history: Free Education Act of 1944.
Many Sri Lankans wrongly blame Bandaranaike for the compulsory Swabasha education policy, which blunted generations of Sri Lankans intellectually.
But Bandaranaike did not introduce the Swabasha (vernacular) education policy. It was C.W.W. Kannangara, the father of free education, who introduced the said provision, which was packaged into the Free Education Act in 1944.
Kannangara’s free education act expanded education opportunities for the nation’s children. The number of school enrolments increased from 58 per cent in 1946 to 72 per cent in 1953.
The number of teachers rose from 20,628 in 1938 to 32,870 in 1948. In order to provide better facilities and to expand science education, Kannangara built Central Colleges in far flung areas.
However, his introduction of compulsory Swabasha policy stood on the way of intellectual and professional attainment of the very students, his decision was meant to help.
This is something that Sri Lankans have rarely talked about, perhaps because, they tend to blame Bandaranaike for everything associated with the linguistic tragedy of independent Sri Lanka.
Kannangara’s defence of Swabasha education was that the mother tongue of a child was the best medium for his or her education. He outlined that position in the Report of the Special Committee on Education in 1944.
“The English language has for many years been the principal medium of instruction for all forms of education. It was allotted this position not of choice but of necessity as it was not only the language of administration but also that of outside commerce of the Island....it has also been adopted as the home language in number of Sinhalese and Tamil homes where the indigenous languages are used only in conversation with servants. With the advent of British rule the adoption of English as one of the media of instruction even by the Sinhalese and Tamils became necessary in the circumstances of the period. Nevertheless it was a wrong choice from the national point of view.
“Apart from our historical association with the United Kingdom and, the fact that as far as higher education is concerned, Sinhalese and Tamil have yet to be perfected as competent instruments for requiring modern knowledge, we cannot see any reason why English should be retained as a medium of instruction at any stage in the educational process, except for those who have (legal) adoption of it as their mother tongue”
“We consider that the mother tongue is the natural medium of education and the genius of a nation finds full expression only through its own language and literature. We are therefore of opinion that the ideal should be the mother tongue medium at all stages of education”. Subsequently, beginning from 1945, the compulsory Swabasha education was implemented in three phases; it was initially introduced from grade 1-5, and was expanded to Grade 10 in 1955. By the late 50s the entire school education was conducted in vernacular. By the mid 60s, universities began to offer degrees in Sinhala and Tamil languages.
Bandaranaike did not have a role in the Swabasha education policies, which however became fully operational during his tenure in the office, in accordance with the gradual implementation envisaged under the Free Education Act of 1944.
The paradox is that while the proponent of the free education opened many doors to the children of the nation, they also closed many other doors.
While the free education policy resulted in a quantitative improvement in the education system, the misplaced obsession with the Swabasha education resulted in the gradual erosion of the quality, which was witnessed in the decades to come. Later, those children whose employment prospects were heavily compromised by the very nature of the vernacular education they were given in government schools and universities would take up arms against the State in 1971.
Two more insurgencies would follow in the later decades, unleashing carnage both in the North and the South.
The local universities lost the qualitative edge over its international counterparts as they begun to churn out degrees in vernacular medium.
For instance, University of Peradeniya, which was ranked 52nd in the world in 1960 slid into obscurity; the fate of other universities were worse.
The Swabasha education produced a generation that was detached from the wider world view. Xenophobia, petty nationalism and dominant leftist revolutionary dogmas, the latter was gradually being bared hollow by then, took hold of the local population.
This potent mix of flawed ideologies robbed the country’s economic prospects, before driving it into a civil war.
Independent leaders did not expect the ensuing mayhem. But, like their many counterparts in the newly independent states in Asia and Africa, their policies were plagued by grave miscalculations. Driven by nationalist impulses and desire to appease an increasingly assertive local population, they overestimated the scope of national capacity in social engineering. There was also a degree of hypocrisy and self-serving adventurism.
Our independent leaders were products of liberal English education.
Kannangara, encouraged by Reverend Darrel, won a scholarship to Richmond College, Galle, and sat for Cambridge Examinations.
Had he chosen to study in vernacular, at best he could have ended up as a village school master. Bandaranaike returned from England, armed with a degree from Oxford to dethrone English language back home.
Of course, there was mounting social discontent with the existing status quo at the time.
The Sinhala majority who had long been marginalised in the affairs of the colonial administration were demanding their due place in their own country.
Northern Tamils, favoured by the British and helped by the preponderance of English medium missionary schools in the North were disproportionately represented in the public service (33%), judiciary (40%) and medical and engineering professions (50%) at the time of independence. However, nation building does not have quick fixes and that political expediency of the independent leaders cost the nation, dearly in the second half of the century.
By the time, Sri Lanka, then Ceylon scrapped the English medium education, the country in fact had a network of English language government schools, which functioned alongside missionary, Buddhist and Hindu schools, which also provided an English medium education that was infused with religious and cultural values. Planners of free education ought to have expanded that education infrastructure. Instead, they decided on a myopic nationalist agenda.
Kannangara and others gave the greatest gift to the children of this country, but, one grave mistake they committed, compromised on its quality. Worse still, by making Swabasha the only medium of instruction, they denied the children of the masses a choice, which was available prior to the Free Education Act.
English medium education was confined to a handful of fee levying schools, which only the rich and the powerful could afford to send their children.
Sri Lanka’s education reforms date back to the early 1830, when the Colebrooke Commission recommended the setting up of English medium schools to create a new breed of local elites who could take part in trade and commerce.
Colebrooke believed that this new local elites could be absorbed into the colonial administration, thereby minimising the cost of salaries paid to the expatriate British administrators – in the words, he wanted to create Ceylonese “in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
By 1920, under the then Education Bill, education received the largest share of State funding, higher than the funds allotted to the public work department, and both Buddhist and missionary schools in addition to government schools were receiving state aid.
The network of English medium schools were expanding. Therefore, to argue that the implementation of the Swabasha education was to abolish the disparity between vernacular schools and English language schools is being overly simplistic. Indeed, the decision was part of a nationalist social engineering exercise.
That particular exercise badly misfired. That education produced little career prospects. It had little value in scientific and intellectual pursuits. It did not generate economic growth at home and had little impetus for new ideas. Decades later, we were condemned to send our women to toil in the Middle East under slave like conditions.
Our men, who were also educated under the free education policies were forced to work in menial and semi skilled jobs in some of the most repressive countries.
Had Kannangara given them a choice, they could, at least, have become call centre operators back home.
Compare us with our counterparts who chose to retain English as the primary medium of instruction, most notably Singapore, which now has two world class universities and is a thriving commercial hub and a melting pot of all nationalities. It could have been us, had not we made some fundamental mistakes.
Seventy years later, we are back to the square one. International schools that provide English medium education have mushroomed, though their education is unregulated and fees are beyond the reach of the average folks.
The two -tier system that the proponents of free education tried to erase has re-merged. The fact is that it is a social phenomenon that is fuelled by market forces, which offer a higher premium for students proficient with English language. With that proficiency, many other doors are opened to career and personal enhancement, like the education at Richmond helped C.W.W. Kannangara to become the Minister of Education.
It is the government’s schools that need reforms and reintroduce English medium education in order to equip the future generations with skills and a global perspective.
Chandrika Kumaratunga during her Presidency undertook that ambitious mission. However, her predecessor had not shown much enthusiasm to follow through.
There could well be a reason for those different perspectives: By the time Mahinda Rajapaksa went to school, the Swabasha education was in full swing. He would have acted differently (On this particular issue) if he had the exposure in English medium education, which CBK was privileged to have at St Bridget’s, a fee levying school.
However, the President can now offer the children of this country an opportunity that he and many millions of his generation, were deprived of: a quality liberal English education.
That way he can help this country to harness the potential of its people, and also to fully utilise the opportunities offered by free education, seven decades after it was first introduced.
In retrospect, it is difficult to say whether it was Bandaranaike or Kannangara who committed the worst blunder. But, I would say it was Kannangara, who squandered the immense potential of his own path breaking initiative, by incorporating one dumb provision.
After all, we all who were helped by free education system would have been better off had he not made Swabasha education compulsory.