Crafting the definition of what a true Sri Lankan should be

by Lalith Weeratunga

I am greatly honored to have been invited by the Principal, Royal College, my alma mater, to be the Chief Guest at the launch of a landmark publication, “History of Royal College – 1985 to 2010”. Having entered Royal in 1961 as a First Former and having come from a village in the South, and quite a stranger to the ways and life of Colombo, I feel a sense of accomplishment to address this very august gathering.

I must commend the Principal, the Royal College Union and all others, who were involved in this mammoth task, by no means a simple process. Mr Larlasri Fernando who has been entrusted with this task certainly has done a job worthy of praise.

The period 1985 – 2010 is in itself historic for it is during this period our motherland faced the biggest threat in its entire history, that of disintegrating and losing its territorial integrity with a severe threat to its sovereignty.

Royal lost many of its great sons in the fight against terrorism and many were wounded and maimed. There were others, tens of thousands of our rural brethren who fought the enemy to save our motherland. To all those, I bow my head with great reverence and gratitude for their grit and courage. If not for them, you and I will not sit here with confidence at this momentous occasion and reminisce of our alma mater’s achievements and contribution to the nation.

Today these young Royalists do not have to think twice in coming to the school every morning, but go back to the period, 1985 – 2009 and you would realize the anguish and anxiety every parent in this country had when each morning they had to prepare to send their children to school.

Education lies at the very core of our aspirations. I refer to our continual striving to educate and mould our minds to be fitting instruments to face life with confidence. I can hardly think of a link between one generation to the next, more potent than this ceaseless striving for higher levels of knowledge and enlightenment that drives mankind towards its destined goals.

We have now arrived at a wholly new phase in our history. We are well integrated into the global economy. Our economy is shifting away from agriculture to industry and to a service-based economy capable of attracting foreign investment and off-shoring activities. We have a solid foundation in human resources and communication abilities in English, which is a global language. We have a democratic political system and a responsive private sector. Above all, there is peace in the land, after thirty painful years. Time is ripe and the stage is set for us to focus on rapid growth and development. We need to change the complexion of our system of education to produce the range and variety of skills required for development purposes.

We need to reinforce the system to be strong in areas of lifelong learning as distinct from schooling. Perhaps we would be better off if we took the advice of Mark Twain, who said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” The problem with most educational institutions is that they try to teach people what to think, not how to think. Contrary to what Francis Bacon said, knowledge alone is not power. Knowledge has value only in the hands of someone who has the ability to think well. People must learn how to think well to achieve their dreams and to reach their potential.

Undoubtedly, imparting critical thinking skills need to be incorporated into our system of education. One of the reasons people don’t achieve their dreams is that they desire to change their results without changing their thinking. Royal must inculcate this skill into her students as they will, as witnessed in the past, occupy the highest level of positions that will determine the destiny of our land. Royal well do well to remember that good thinkers are always in demand. A person who knows how may always have a job, but the person who knows why will always be his boss. Our school needs to produce this latter category, those who know why, rather than those who know how.

Our neighbour, India has thought it fit to concentrate heavily on Knowledge. They have established the National Knowledge Commission of India because knowledge has been recognized as the key driving force in the 21st Century and India’s ability to emerge as a globally competitive player will substantially depend on its knowledge resources. India believes that to foster generational change, a systemic transformation is required that seeks to address the concerns of the entire knowledge spectrum.

In the overview of the National Knowledge Commission’s Report to the Nation 2006-2009 it is stated that this massive endeavour involves creating a roadmap for reform of the knowledge sector that focuses on enhancing access to knowledge, fundamentally improving education systems and their delivery, re-shaping the research, development and innovation structures, and harnessing knowledge applications for generating better services. Keeping this scenario in mind, the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) was constituted in June 2005 by the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, to prepare a blueprint for reform of their knowledge related institutions and infrastructure which would enable India to meet the challenges of the future.

Over a period of time, a lot of tinkering has been done in our system of education, at the behest of individuals rather than a body of cohesive and rational thinkers. That has resulted in rather a disjointed system that leaves the student totally unprepared for the world of work that he or she enters on completion of school education. There is much that one learns, post school. Unfortunately, we do not provide the right ingredients during school life so as to enable young school leavers to engage in continuous education. Forget about knowledge and skills, our system must be able to produce an individual who loves one’s motherland. On this score, I wish to share some thoughts:

1) We must come to a national understanding, sans divisive politics, of what we expect a Sri Lankan to be. I have often thought what a true ‘Sri Lankan’ should be like. Let me elaborate on this thought. There are certain countries and nations in the world that have distinct characteristics. I just take one such case: the Japanese. We know that Japanese are so well known for their creativity, to be productive. One cannot miss the courtesy of a Japanese, wherever you meet them. Of course, they are also known as a very punctual nation. Their system of Shinkansen or bullet trains is simply amazing. If the arrival time is, say, 8.14 a.m., the train arrives at the station right at that time. Machines don’t make a nation productive; it is the people that make it so.

2) Dr Noriaki Kano, a professor of Management Science at the Tokyo Science University and one of the leading teachers of quality in Japan, having worked with many managers of American companies had adviced his students, “Americans tend to go an inch deep and a mile wide. You must learn to go an inch wide and a mile deep.” It can be deduced from that much valued advice that we must learn to do fewer things thoroughly rather than many things inadequately.

3) As much as we characterize or identify a Japanese through certain well defined criteria, an attempt must be made to craft a definition for a true Sri Lankan. Some of the major characteristics that I advocate for a Sri Lankan are being:
– patriotic
– courteous
– disciplined
– could be trusted
– punctual
– productive and
– valuing team work
There may be many more that can be included here. But, this grouping encapsulates the bare essentials.

4) There can be any number of subjects taught, but each subject must have a distinct bearing on the student, it must positively impact on the quality of life of the individual and relate to our cultures, values and what we stand for. Our education must help us to wade through life which is full of vicissitudes and the foundation for such a state of mind must be developed by the school, supported by parents at home. Every child must be prepared for the unpredictability of life. That is where education must concentrate.

5) There is also the ethical side of education. Various names are coined to describe this essential component of one’s education. Some call it moral education, some others call it value education and yet others name it ethics. Whatever we call it, the essence of it is that we must teach our children the rights and the wrongs. The importance of respecting our elders, living by the foundation laid by one’s religion in one’s life, respecting the space and freedom of others, protecting the environment, learning to agree to disagree, upholding democratic values, and abhorrence of violence at any cost are a few that I would like to highlight.

In 1995, a bestseller authored by renowned author, Dr Daniel Goleman, a US citizen presented to the world, a new concept – Emotional Intelligence, also known as EQ. Goleman through his well-researched book argued and debunked the theory that people with a high IQ always did well in life. IQ has been the basis on which selections had been made to many coveted positions. Seminal research has shown that having a high IQ does not guarantee someone to be successful in life. On the contrary, those who have a high EQ are bound to have success stories in life.

We must look to the future and understand the demands it will place on our country and its people. We must also not just dismantle institutions and make new ones. What must be done is to re-invigorate the institutions and encourage them to re-think their strategy in terms of the emerging needs of our nation.

Before I wind up, please permit me to leave a thought behind for you to ponder. This is a quote by the Scottish Psychiatrist, R.D. Laing. “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

(Lalith Weeratunga is secretary to the President)