Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Making ‘ kalakanni’s out of ‘creme de la creme’

 A response to Minster of Higher Education, S. B. Dissanayake
 by A University Teacher

(May 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Minister of Higher Education has recently taken to the habit of insulting academics. Having taken upon it himself to fix the failure of Sri Lanka’s university system, he freely allocates blame, saying that he gives university lecturers the ‘creme de la creme’ of Sri Lanka and that we make them kalakanni in just four years. This, readers must admit, is quite an achievement, even for the under qualified, overpaid academics of Sri Lanka.

Minister Dissanayake is a skilled rhetorician and topics such as the creation of employable graduates and the process of paper marking are all within his area of expertise. After all, he is a graduate himself, and highly employable at that. What more could we as university academics hope for than for our country’s young to
follow in the footsteps of the illustrious Mr. Dissanayake.

At a recent press conference, (on Derana, 8.30 p.m., 10/05/2011, ) Minister Dissayanake made some interesting remarks.

Getting rid of the “Dead Weight” of External Graduates

Firstly, the Minister asserted that the present external degree system in the country would be overhauled in the long run as the graduates who are produced via this system are just plain graduates and as such they are useless and have become dead weight to themselves, their families, their gama and rata. Mr. Dissanayake makes a good point here, because if history has taught us anything it is that he is qualified more than any other to ascertain who or what is a dead weight to the country. Above all, the Minister here taught undergraduates everywhere that contrary to the instructions of their teachers, broad sweeping statements did serve to prove
ones point when one lacked any kind of real proof or content.

Mr. Disanayake’s message was loud and clear - why go for reason when you can go for volume?

We’re sure that the many external degree holders who are now government teachers and state officers all over the island can sympathise with Mr. Dissanayake’s diatribe against them. He is after all an internal graduate of the University of Sri Jayawardenapura and being as such well understands the concept of dead weight.

Using his trademark humour, the Minister then went on to make a joke about how lecturers mark external degree examination papers by throwing them up in the air. Presumably he meant that they would give the ones that fall first more marks for being heavier and therefore lengthier, and while the Minister’s grasp of physics here is laudable, his comedy is left wanting, especially considering that this joke has been in circulation in academic circles for the better part of a century.

The allegation with regard to the evaluation of answer scripts certainly needs to be examined. If it is a serious allegation, it should be addressed at individuals, not an entire social group. University academics, for example, do not go around making statements that politicians are corrupt, do they?

Although corruption is prevalent in Sri Lanka, we believe that honourable political figures like Mr. Dissanayake do exist, and we only ask for the same respect in return – that he address us not as a collective when highlighting the faults of a few of us. While he’s at it, maybe he can make public a list of lecturers who have grade 8000 – 9000 scripts a week. It turns out that many of us would like to meet them, if only for novelty’s sake.

Taking the Joke seriously and Joking about Serious Matters

Despite having an extensive background in rhetoric while a student leader at Vidyodaya, Minister Dissanayaka’s argumentative skills have come to let him down in recent times. Even now, it is evident that he fails to see that his condemnation of the external degree programmes, the Minister by implication has exonerated the internal degree programmes, a position which he himself proceeds to demolish in the same breath in the next statement he makes in the same press conference.

Although such incongruities are not uncommon in the political rhetoric of today, Mr. Dissanayake has been known to speak better. It is obvious that the Minister cares deeply about fixing the university system and now approaches it with the motive of breaking it down completely to rebuild it again himself. One cartoonist illustrated this process partly in the portrayal of Minister Dissanayake trying to disentangle the tangled mess of the ball of thread he himself has made in the university crisis.

Making “Kalakanni” s out of ‘creme de la creme’

Now to the crux of his argument. Since Minister Disanayake’s speech up to this point mixed humour and serious rhetoric with such poise and finesse, it is indeed difficult to say whether there is a hint of irony in this following statement. Sadly, even after extended analysis, it is difficult to say if Mr. Dissanayake was being serious or sardonic. On one hand, the statement is ludicrous enough for him to have been using it සබ jest. On the other, it is too ludicrous for him to use it in jest. He must be serious.

The Minister said that “[W]e give universities children with three A s, ‘cream of the cream’” and that after four years, “a kalakanniya is produced by university lecturers, professors.” As discussed earlier, this is a quite a feat, and in all humility we say that even we simply cannot accept all praise for this transformation.

The Minister of Higher Education calling the ‘cream of the crop’, or as the idiom goes, 'the best of the best' of our youth the ‘kalakannis’ after they spend four years in the seats of higher learning of the nation clearly outlines his view of higher education. The Minister’s justification for using such a harsh colloquial term to describe our young graduates seems to be that they are unemployable. The equation seems very simple: if one is not employable according to some pre-given standard, he or she is wretched. We couldn’t agree more.

We need to point out that Mr. Dissanayaka’s kalakannis are not magically produced in four years at university. They are a culmination of years of hard work by many branches of society. Accepting sole credit for this dead weight would be irresponsible on our part. Many, many stakeholders have contributed to making
these kalakannis. Stakeholders such as their families, school teachers, tuition masters, the University Grants Commission, self appointed student leaders, and of course let us not forget many Ministers of Higher Education have helped them along as well. Minister Dissanayake himself of course is not a part of this list and cannot be given credit for creating this dead weight. He, after all, is here to fix the problem and save Sri Lanka education. More power to him!