Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Talking to People on the Streets: Fighting to Protect Public Education

The Island,   


By Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Last week, university dons around the country took to the streets asking people to sign a one million-signature petition demanding that the authorities safeguard the state-funded education system of the country. In Kandy, some famous professors and academics from University of Peradeniya turned up in the middle of the city and explained to people why they were asking people to sign the petition. The preamble to the petition reads:

"Education is a primary feature of all human societies today. It is a fundamental human right and a fundamental feature of our democracy. Everyone has the right to education and access to education (Article 26 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948). In 1945, education was established as a ‘free’ service, which should be made accessible to all persons irrespective of caste, creed, gender, ethnicity, language and region. This brought about a near social revolution in the country. Free education has provided social mobility to ordinary people; people from all parts of the country. We all need schools of quality for our children. Universities are where so many of our children aspire to go to. It brought about a renaissance in the arts creating a strong sense of belonging among its people in different ways. This system has supported artists, writers, teachers, engineers, doctors, dentists, vets, architects, agriculturalists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, accountants and many more professionals. Education supports all other professional and bureaucratic services contributing to the health of the country."

Of course, people already knew about most of it. They, however, were visibly startled when they heard the tragic twist at the end of the tale:

"Yet, today, public education is under severe stress from many quarters. We are concerned about current government policy toward education and higher education. From 2005 onwards, government spending on education has been fast decreasing. When the current President came into office, in 2005, the government’s expenditure on education was 2.9% of GDP. Today, it has fallen to a miserable 1.9% of GDP."

Though I was only known in my own neighbourhood, I was there among those famous professors talking to people. We told them that in terms of GDP allocation to the public education, our country was the lowest in the region. Even Bangladesh, with which we proudly compare and contrast our country, does not allow us to claim that we are better in spending on education. In cricket, most of the time at least, we beat the daylight out of the Bangladeshi team, but that country takes care of its education far better than we do. We like to think that our current President is the best leader we have got after King Dutugemunu, but we told the people that after he came to power, the funding for education had continued to dwindle. Under him, the number of students admitted to universities has gone up while funding has come down! People who were interested in what we had to say stopped and told us about other important things: "Mihin Air," "Hambantota harbour," "CSN," "Rugby," "white vans," "a little puppy from from Zurich,""Z-score," and the like. Then they signed the petition. On the first day alone, we collected thousands of signatures while taking our message to people by talking to them personally.

Professors meeting public

Conversation between ordinary people and academics on the streets has given us an opportunity to re-assess our duty as academics. The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) has started this trade union action demanding an almost complete re-thinking on state funded education from primary education to universities. As for universities, the lack of funding, including salaries, has been a major factor bringing the quality of higher education down. In addition, the politicization of the university administration, so evident in how vice chancellors and other administrators are now appointed, has eroded intellectual freedom at universities. It is not that all vice chancellors and administrators are political henchmen but the system is such that any reputed professor now has to seek political patronage to serve in the highest position in a university. This trend of increasing politicization has not only kept some great scholars away from those positions but also allowed some incredibly mediocre people to become vice chancellors of several universities in Sri Lanka. So academics have decided to tell this to people who vote the politicians, responsible for this mess, into power.

When the government engages in any kind of reforms in education and higher education, academics need to know what the proposed reforms are in advance, as we told the general public. But, the method preferred by the current Minister of Higher Education is to ignore the academic community completely. Rather than engaging with the academics and listening to their various arguments on the matters related to education reform, the minister has handpicked some academics willing to toe his line. Yes, there are academics who prefer servitude under powerful ministers to freedom of thought within universities which they should ideally be interested in. In contrast to them, academics on the street told people that we should be party to all discussions on all education reforms.

Meeting People in

the Public Space

It was heartening to see how enthusiastic people were to sign the petition. In Kandy, people who happened to be in town for various reasons came to where our table was, to place their signatures. One family made their 10-year-old daughter sign it. The girl even did not know what word "signature" meant. "Write your name again," the father said. He knew that her future was at stake. Some police officers in uniform signed because they knew that their children needed state-funded schools and universities. And though new police stations have come into existence, hundreds of rural schools have been closed down. We gave them the numbers. In addition, the number of pupils in primary classes at popular schools has become a joke. More than fifty First Graders for a single teacher! This is a gross distortion of the very idea of primary education where close attention and care of the teacher and enough space for play and creativity are the essential conditions for early childhood development. In the streets, we could apprise people of the state of education in our schools.

We are university academics all right. But, we are no longer a privileged minority with a secure life confined to academic ivory towers. The ‘reality principle’ has eaten into our space, driving us to people for whom we are ultimately responsible. As the American philosopher Stanley Cavell once said, if a professor cannot meaningfully converse with a baker, it is the professor’s problem. This trade union action has given us an opportunity to re-learn the art of talking to ordinary people. And we have a new chance to remind ourselves that we are part of the people and that before ‘knowledge’ was professionalized, ‘professor’ was one of them. For example, when early people were taming fire, the ‘scientist’ was there with them as they changed and managed nature. He was not called a ‘scientist’ then. When the study of fire (and all other phenomena) became a professional field, the professors, sadly, were removed from the theatre of life. Now, we are retracing our steps. In addition, in our country there was never an academic tower, ‘ivory’ or otherwise. We just pretended that there was one!

So we are meeting people. The FUTA has decided to visit people in their villages and homes. We have seen enough of NGO-funded civil society people who organise seminars in Colombo, often at fancy hotels, where the cost of a single meal can feed several families in poverty-stricken villages; they have failed and lost their credibility. We academics spend our own money and visit villages that are in fact our ‘home turfs’ before Dr. Kannangara’s free education paved the way for our social mobility. We do not return to those villages to celebrate cliched ‘purity’ which is claimed to exist there but to remind our people that the free education of this country has been the greatest social leveller in recent history, and we collectively need to protect it for posterity.

My long-time inspiration, late professor Edward Said observes that in order to take up the social responsibilities of our time, professionals need to learn how to be amateurs again. Specialisation, argues Said, can make one indifferent to social and political environment which one’s specialised knowledge should serve. Therefore, professionals as responsible intellectuals need to have some sort of amateurism in them.

"The intellectual today ought to be an amateur; someone who considers that to be a thinking, a concerned member of a society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies. In addition, the intellectual’s spirit as an amateur can enter and transform the merely professional routine most of us go through into something much more lively and radical; instead of doing what one is supposed to do one can ask why one does it, who benefits from it…"

Well said, Professor Said! I would rather be an amateur than a narrowly focused professional. So, going to meet people at their homes will be one last test for us academics on strike. We are more than ready for that!

(The writer teaches literature in the Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya)

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