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Sri Lanka - Home of the unfulfilled

16 November 2019 02:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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In Sri Lanka, everyone wants to become a doctor or an engineer. On the other hand, according to official statistics, most end up in the arts faculties. Experts tell us that this is a problem, and they prescribe solutions. In an underdeveloped and under-developing society where everyone is trying to go up and grab at everything, though, status looms highly in our scheme of things, and we become content with whatever sorry state of affairs the country is in. The rift between science and arts thus is symptomatic of other rifts and issues ailing the country, the culture, and the economy; on the one hand, we do not focus on professions that thrive on research (an essential must if we are to progress), and on the other, we discourage our children from, for instance, getting into manual labour. What Bryce Ryan wrote in 1961 about our dominant work ethic may well be true more than half a century later. 


Among the middle-classes especially, elders tend to give up half their aspirations and hopes for the sake of their children. This inevitably turns the children or at least a majority of them into a means to an end: everything is sacrificed for them, so it’s natural to expect that they’ll sacrifice everything in return. Boasting, not about what one’s offspring are doing but about what they will be doing therefore becomes an essential part of conversation at birthday parties, weddings, and even funerals; generally, the more boastful the boast, the higher the sense of expectation by the parent. In societies like ours then, where status is privileged even at the cost of economic wellbeing, children are generally seen as a means of achieving the parents’ lack of (economic/social) fulfilment; the more pronounced the latter is, the more pigeonholed the child will be into doing science and maths, medicine and engineering. 


Sri Lanka is a land of unfulfilled dreams, and unfulfilled dreamers. We clamour to change our political landscape without understanding why we are where we are. We are where we are, in part at least, because we refuse to go forward; surely, that’s not hard to understand. We are a nation of professionals in it for what everyone else might get if we don’t move in and grab at it quickly enough. What more can you expect in a society where students in the same class clandestinely borrow (that is, steal) their own friends’ subject notes because the syllabus is too big, they were absent, exams are around the corner, and parents pressurise them to get as high a mark as possible by resorting to whatever means? Or in a society where a child has to go through three attempts at A/Levels before the parent realises he or she cannot be forced into doing maths, science, or commerce? What more, indeed. 


Part of the reason for this sad conundrum, apart from the retarded state of the economy, is the lack of awareness. There is not only money to be made in the newer, more recent additions to the university subjects list, there is also a greater opportunity to seek greener pastures here or elsewhere through them. Elders, predominantly from the conservative middle-class (upper or lower), are either ignorant of this or indifferent to it. The status or prestige that being a doctor or engineer or lawyer (the latter a profession surprisingly not ranked at the top) accords to someone comes largely from the fact that not many end up in these professions. At the turn of the 20th century, for instance, only a select few qualified as lawyers, and a village community would have just one or, at most, two (it was the same with doctors.) More often than not, the lawyer or doctor would hail from the most influential family in the community, and it was seen as incumbent upon their offspring to turn to these professions because that was one way through which the rest of the community could be kept in its place. 

 

" Even if money and a fairly decent livelihood can be made with otherwise untypical educational/occupational choices, they are best untried, for the simple reason they haven’t yet joined the ranks of the privileged professions"

 


The link between social position and the demand for these subjects remains intact; it’s mostly to be seen with families from intermediate milieus that send their children to schools outside their hometowns or villages. I was one such child, though I was more the exception than rule: My parents gave me ample space to do what I wanted, which was to write and follow what I loved, which was history and literature. But I was more fortunate than most because of the circumstances I was born to. In the case of most other such families, the children were almost always trained to pick the usual subjects: Generally, the further one was from the school one sent one’s child to, the more powerful the pressure on the latter was (and is) to choose the usual subjects after he or she completed O/Levels. 


The situation I suppose is quite discernible in the case of the Grade Five scholarship exam: There is no guarantee that those who pass it get through their A/Levels well (more often than not, they do not), but the pressure to be seen as the intellectual superior of other children from the community who could not get into a top school through it is as high as it has always been. Once, somewhere in the South, I was treated to the sight of a mother admonishing her son (who had entered a prestigious school in Colombo after securing the highest mark from his earlier school at the scholarship exam) for his lack of interest in studies, lamenting that even those who had failed to secure the cut-off mark and remained back were entering university. It was a mixture of pathos and irony, and I didn’t rightly know which side to pick. Being diplomatic, I stayed neutral, and reflecting back on it later, I realised the child did the same: He listened to the mother, scowled and said nothing, and went back to doing nothing. Perhaps, I should add that in most cases, as with this child’s, the parents tend to be the most influential members of their community: The father and mother typically work as teachers, principals, nurses, police and military officials, or for that matter minor officials (like security guards) in private corporations. This obviously redoubles the pressure – on the child. 


Much of the allure of occupations in fields like medicine used to come from their short-termism: The waiting period for doctors, lawyers and engineers was relatively brief. This was advantageous in a context where few could aspire to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, particularly in the pre-Donoughmore era prior to the granting of universal suffrage and free education. To engage in a profession that thrived on research, on the other hand, was not seen merely to be less profitable but also less glamorous, and back in the day, one usually took to such subjects wholly on the condition that one took to a more viable subject: eminent sociologist Ralph Pieris, to cite just one example, prevailed on his parents to send him to London School of Economics to study sociology “on the understanding that my university studies were only incidental to my qualifying as a lawyer.” Ralph, of course, was luckier than most, and he understood this when he had to pass the baton; as his daughter’s work on history and sociology makes it eminently clear, he did not repeat his parents’ mistake. 


The problem is that we are still living in the pre-Donoughmore era, even though everyone can vote and education is free and compulsory for all. This, however, is not really a problem once you realise that while the franchise and public education system is available for all, the class cleavages rampant in them and particularly in the latter have not been done away with. In that sense, the mindsets governing our educational and occupational choices are as stagnant and archaic as they’ve always been: Don’t pick arts or commerce subjects, and don’t even think of technical education. Even if money and a fairly decent livelihood can be made with otherwise untypical educational/occupational choices, they are best untried, for the simple reason they haven’t yet joined the ranks of the privileged professions. That they probably won’t ever join them is another story, but as things stand, it’s much easier to think of nose-diving your way through seven or eight years of unpaid torture as a budding doctor than to live a more fulfilled life as a software designer or sound engineer, “professions” that, unfortunately as of today, remain, for the most, the monopoly of big cities and suburbs. 


In the absence of an economic policy that places emphasis on industrialisation, the emphasis will always be on theory rather than application, which is why professions that call for labour and effort are universally loathed. On the other hand, even as theory science cannot be taught, for the simple reason that most schools lack requisite facilities. We thus have a situation where, thanks to the universal dread with which labour is held and the over-hyped esteem with which medicine, engineering and law are held, students who can do neither turn to the arts. They end up unemployed, paying a high price which we all, in this country, partly pay. Sadly for us, the solution to all this, as always, remains as far-off as it ever was. 

 

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