s it is well known, ethnic tensions in the country have been on the rise again in recent times. This does not necessarily mean that a majority of the people want another ethnic war. But, in the absence of credible public opinion surveys, we do not know the extent of the spread of hostile ethnic attitudes in the country. Agitated nationalist groups naturally come on to the streets and shout slogans, because there are no attempts by the authorities to quell such campaigns due to the prevailing democratic environment.
But when the mainstream media flash such incidents on television screens and activists take them up for heated and at times obscene exchanges in the social media, the general political atmosphere in the country can be affected in diverse ways.
Ethno-religious consciousness is a product of a complex array of social, cultural, economic and political processes unfolding over a long period of time. Trying to trace its roots through historical investigation, no matter how rigorous it might be, can perhaps lead to more controversy and contestation because many people are looking for evidence to prove their point of view rather than to uncover any objective truth.
The resultant contestation can only exacerbate rather than resolve ideological disputes. This is the experience not only in Sri Lanka but also in many conflict ridden countries around the world. So, ideologically divided historians are not the best guides to resolve contemporary social and political controversies.
As mentioned above, ethno-religious divisions and conflicts are the result of a whole range of circumstances, both historical and contemporary. These circumstances have been extensively researched and widely discussed in Sri Lanka over the last several decades. Such discussions, however have not helped resolve the conflicts but often have made them worse.
This is because the discussions are influenced as much by objective analyses as by ideological biases and personal interests. In this regard, the formation and reproduction of ethnic identities and interest groups over time are highly significant.
"All these help emerging generations to develop an inclusive national identity transcending pre-existing parochial divisions based on race, religion, language, caste and region."
It is necessary to identify factors that facilitate these processes, both at a societal as well as at an institutional level. The most important among these factors are symbolic representations of the State, I.e. religious and ethnic symbols, State policies, access to valued and scarce resources and educational processes. The focus of this short article is on the educational processes and no attempt is made to discuss other factors for want of space.
As is widely known, modern education can play a highly significant role in democratic societies in preparing children and youth to become active and constructive citizens endowed with the capabilities and the social and cultural orientations necessary to live and function in a plural society peacefully.
As is well known, secular educational institutions can provide a shared space for children hailing from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds and facilitate inter-cultural learning that helps them transcend various divisions in society.
Moreover, the spread of modern, secular values through education also facilitates societal transitions, for example, from feudalism to capitalism or from a theocracy to a secular state.
Dissemination of scientific literacy among younger generations through education helps them to go beyond archaic ideas, superstition, traditional beliefs and embrace new ideas, modern values and rational and critical thinking. Learning of other languages over and above the mother tongue opens up whole new worlds of learning as children are no longer confined to the limited reading material available in one’s own language.
All these help emerging generations to develop an inclusive national identity transcending pre-existing parochial divisions based on race, religion, language, caste and region.
As is well known, our education system has not lived up to these expectations. After many decades since the introduction of universal free education, general and higher education have largely become instrumental activities devoid of any intrinsic value. For most people, it is simply a means of achieving narrow personal goals such as getting a decent job or entering into a lucrative profession. Parents, teachers, private tuition masters and school principals are joined by the political leaders of the country to push innocent primary school children to forget everything else and prepare for one of the most competitive examinations in the country, simply to qualify for admission to a well equipped urban school. Value education, citizenship education, and second language acquisition, acquisition of soft skills, inter-cultural learning, and developing durable and satisfying interpersonal relationships are reduced to a secondary or insignificant place.
"Moreover, the spread of modern, secular values through education also facilitates societal transitions, for example, from feudalism to capitalism or from a theocracy to a secular state. "
The results of such neglect are all too evident in this country today. These range from poor psychological health through interpersonal problems to wider societal issues like endemic corruption, inter-community conflicts, pathological religiosity, abuse of power and poor governance.
This is not to suggest that all the ills in society can be attributed to the failure of the country’s education system. The issues mentioned above are caused by multiple factors and education is one of them.
As a key factor, poor education certainly contributes to many of the issues. This is the reason why we have to take education seriously and adopt measures to reform it. In other words, evidence based education reforms can go a long way in arresting many of the negative social, cultural, economic and political trends in the country. We already know the aspects of education that need to be changed. These include the general orientation of education, structure and composition of schools, language skills, school segregation, secondary school curriculum and inequality within the education system.
Space does not permit me to discuss the above areas in detail. Yet, it is necessary to highlight some of the critical aspects. Firstly, the present memory testing examination system should give way to a more holistic education system that provides children and youth with a broad set of academic and practical skills as well as a modern outlook. School should be a place where children from diverse communities converge, interact with each other and grow up together. In other words, schools should not be ethno-religious enclaves that promote segregation and sectarian identities.
The present unequal distribution of human and material resources across schools should give way to more equity ensuring equal opportunities to all children irrespective of their class, community or residential background. And finally, school curriculum should not be overly segmented but organically integrated as much as possible so that all children have an overall education that combines arts and sciences, irrespective of the fact that they are more than likely to pursue specializations later in their higher studies.
What is equally important is that children and youth should not leave school without a set of basic soft and life skills. As is well known, today, most school leavers become unskilled workers in the informal sector with no chance of finding regular, decent work with minimum social protection. The resultant deprivations and frustrations, coupled with their parochial identities, often encourage them to join or support sectarian political movements that prevent the forward movement of the country based on rational, long term public policies. This latter point needs no further elaboration as I have done so in several of my previous articles in this column.