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It takes all kinds to make a world

25 June 2013 05:51 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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El Presidente has scored again. He has stepped in decisively to punish a rogue Provincial Council member who humiliated a schoolteacher by forcing her to kneel in school. The rogue politician in question was promptly arrested by the police, and resigned in disgrace. One hopes he’s qualified to do a white collar job, or he may be forced to spend the rest of his life as a security guard, with plenty of spare time to rue his misfortune, while we have yet another proof that rule of law is healthy in this country.

Unfortunately, my memory isn’t as short as all that. It replays that episode when Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva tied a minor government employee to a tree – in front of television cameras. I can’t express anyone in power calling the victim, expressing outrage and promising justice. There was a farcical ‘disciplinary investigation’ against Mervyn Silva, who naturally didn’t proceed to resign in disgrace.

A student of contemporary law may well conclude that the law works in two very different ways in suburban Kelaniya and at remote Navagattegama. But there’s no point in having theories of your own. They must be put to the acid test of debate. Therefore, I discussed this matter with an ‘intellectual type,’ or, at any rate, a ‘thinking person.’ I did this knowing full well the horrors and pitfalls of such debate. But, if you continue to quote Voltaire as I do, then you must be prepared to face the consequences.

I got this interesting reaction from the thinker – in the Mervyn Silva incident, the victim subsequently made a public statement absolving the Deputy Minister of any responsibility of the action. He said that he tied himself to the tree (no TV footage of this feat has been preserved for posterity). Now, in the Anuradhapura school case, the teacher-victim made no such statement, saying in effect that she knelt in school acting on her own (perhaps as an experiment, to find out how those students who must undergo the ordeal felt like). Therefore, justice could be carried out unhindered by the victim.


"The Education Department has no standard measurement in either case. Teachers decide according to their whims. Even in the girls’ schools of Colombo, uniform lengths vary a great deal"


"There are known cases of ruling party Provincial Council members accused of rape and murder, going about   their jobs as usual and getting paid by the taxpayer. But the rogue in Anuradhapura faced swift justice"


This reasoning put me in a very deep pit indeed. It’s hard to argue with this kind of resolute logic. Besides, the thinker now proceeded to accuse me of thinking like a ‘NGO Karaya’ which is the ultimate slap in the face these days.

In the world view of Voltaire, it takes all types to make a world – politicians such as ours, people who tie themselves to trees, and NGO Karayas. Admittedly, this is an old-fashioned view and not suitable to contemporary Sri Lanka. But I can still point out to certain flaws in our thinker’s reasoning. There are known cases of ruling party Provincial Council members accused of rape and murder,  going about   their jobs as usual and getting paid by the taxpayer. But the rogue in Anuradhapura faced swift justice. This anomaly should be a case study for future generations of lawyers and law makers.

The government has reaped a political harvest, and the odious Bandula Gunawardhana has been quick to jump onto the benefits wagon (as quickly as his bulk would allow). Truly, this goes to confirm this government’s concern about our education system. On June 20, full page newspaper ads heralded a new era in our education, introducing the Technical Subjects stream to the schools. How this would be bear out in the grim context of continual cuts in the education budget is conveniently forgotten, along with the fact that arts subjects would be neglected as ‘useless.’ Besides, with national malnutrition rates reportedly at 20%, the first step any truly concerned government should take is to reduce taxes on food stuffs, ensuring that children (as well as teachers) can eat properly.

But all this is irrelevant compared to the political benefits. Teachers are historically sacred to the SLFP as part of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s pantheon (or ‘pancha maha balavegaya). Along with paddy farmers, they can be deified or cast aside according to political expediency. Swift action taken in the Navagettegama case is proof, as far as the gullible are concerned, that the government would stop at nothing to ensure the wellbeing of our teachers.

This takes me to another aspect of this case. The whole ugly incident occurred as a result of that rogue Provincial Council member’s rage over his daughter being disciplined at school. According to press reports, the teacher believed the girl’s uniform to be too short. Accordingly, she had it lengthened at school (one assumes that this was done by loosening the hem).

It astonishes me that there is no ongoing debate about the way discipline is enforced in our schools. This practice of lengthening short uniforms is an old one. Male students, on the other hand, are given impromptu hair cuts if their hair is deemed too long. But what is the criterion for determining this – that a girl’s uniform is too short and a boy’s hair is too long (we aren’t talking about really short skirts or very long hair, in any case).

In fact, the Education Department has no standard measurement in either case. Teachers decide according to their whims. Even in the girls’ schools of Colombo, uniform lengths vary a great deal. They may vary within the same school. Has anyone considered how humiliating it is for a student to have her uniform lengthened at school? What the teacher should have done is to call the parents and point out the matter to them. It isn’t known if this teacher had taken that vital step (the idea that the length of skirts or hair can ensure moral, civil societies is nonsensical). Certainly, the father in this case behaved like a savage. But most parents whose children have been humiliated at school over uniforms or hair length have accepted it uncomplainingly, when they shouldn’t.

The problem is that the adults, working in a highly corrupt social structure, hope to keep their children pristine by imposing arbitrary, often unfair, rules. It doesn’t work, because the children are exposed to the same corruption the moment they enter school, as bribes are required in most cases to gain entrance. Unquestioning obedience at school is a 19th century educational concept, now discarded in more developed societies. But we still demand it.

Tyranny starts in our schools and coalesces in Parliament. It has been my long-standing thesis that the undermining of our democratic system begins at school, with widespread corruption and arbitrary punishments.

In the schoolteacher’s case, she deserves all the sympathy for the outage she suffered, but her high-handed, arbitrary manner of imposing morality on her wards needs more public awareness and serious discussion. Like our politicians, schoolteachers too, can always turn into tyrants – and the children will follow.
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  • Prajiv Pakula Wednesday, 26 June 2013 12:20 PM

    Thank you for raising the issue of how "discipline" is enforced in our schools. No one should be able to undress a student regardless what school rule is violated. Obviously, these primitive practices need to be discarded in favor of more respectful methods. Another issue that should be addressed here is the gutless behavior of the acting principal.


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