|Artwork: Vintage Himal, 1998|
Southasia enjoys a strong history of learning through formal and informal systems of education, but the system of education introduced during the colonial period was somewhat alien to the cultural ethos of the region. The crisis in education and its functional uses, however, emerged conclusively during the postcolonial period. Our failure to find timely solutions to this crisis has unleashed violent, anarchic and parochial responses from the new generation, which is rapidly developing a bias in favour of social-fascist and fundamentalist ideologies.
Ironically, education is yet to be recognised as a valid factor in conflict resolution in Southasia. Nor has it been understood that the negation of a liberal education in the postcolonial period has been a major impediment, which has produced a vertically divided society. Humanising and democratising education through the liberal arts should thus be seen as a remedial strategy in the process of restructuring the future education policy in multicultural Southasia. Such a process will ultimately sustain an intellectually independent next generation of Southasians, who will represent the best of humanistic traditions and values as citizens of the world.
Just as we have borrowed the environment from the future generations, it is incumbent upon us to pass down the best elements of our inherited culture to the youth of Southasia. We must respect their aspirations, place greater confidence in their judgment, and provide them with all the space they require to express themselves. There is yet much soul-searching to be done as to why several generations in Southasia took up arms against the existing socio-political and economic system, and sacrificed their lives to realise a dream of creating their own space and culture. Not only has the older generation failed to come up with answers, but we have miserably failed even to understand the problem, as well as the crucial fact that each individual from the upcoming generation is a non-renewable resource.
Students in modern Southasia suffer from multiple tragedies, foisted upon them by their elders. They are entrapped within a vicious and sub-standard tuition market. They are crushed under a curriculum that is dreadfully boring, inaccurate, irrelevant and overloaded with unimaginative information. They suffer from a depraved, knowledge-murdering, intelligence-purging examination system, in which the student is forced to regurgitate memorised ‘information’ – certainly not actual knowledge. Critical and creative thinking is an alien concept to most teachers at any level, who fear the inquiring mind and resent any intellectual initiative on the part of the student. Finally, when the burnt-out pupils reach the level of higher education, they are hung out to dry, with no assurance of a seat in the university, and without being offered appropriate professional opportunities.
Indian Ocean rim
One of the critical challenges facing education reform in Southasia is bridging the national, religious and cosmopolitan identities with a futuristic vision. Conversely, we also have to pose the question as to whether we should opt for an inter-cultural curriculum in a multicultural society, as the limitations of multiculturalism as a paradigm for the study of cultures and their interactions has increasingly come under scrutiny. The worry is that multiculturalism could in reality exclude the concept of dominant and subordinate cultures. According to some specialists, multiculturalism only provides an overarching worldview, and its curricula would run the danger of reproducing a monolithic view of cultures. Hence, the suggestion that intercultural studies can more effectively examine interacting cultures, calling attention to the dynamic processes.
Situating liberal education within the newly evolving global system is an imperative at this juncture. To begin with, there must be a paradigm shift with reference to the region itself. As against Southasia – the colonial construct – the Indian Ocean rim may be viewed as a more rational application. This definition, engulfing the crescent from east Africa all the way to western Indonesia, would provide the student with a far more flexible regional concept, based on a historical and rational boundary engulfing the widest array of interactive ecological, technological and cultural zones, as against a vertically narrow Southasia.
Multicultural and inter-cultural reforms in education must grow out of a desire for social justice that is required to get a more accurate picture of politics, history, culture and identities, beyond the traditional scope. Some of the most vital areas that need to be absorbed into the system include: preparing the student for global citizenship in a shrinking world, distinction between knowledge and skills, education as a vehicle of change for construction and sustenance, multi-disciplinary research into inter-cultural inquiry, humanising the sciences, internationalising and diversifying higher education, awakening the next generation to the complexities of the global economy, instituting problem-oriented and issue-related curricula, and ensuring heterogeneous faculty and students.
Southasia, at a crossroad today, needs to rethink its educational policy, and make it truly a gift to the next generation. Modern India’s greatest intellectual sage, Rabindranath Tagore, echoed the idealism of the uninhibited spirit of inquiry, the unhindered flow of knowledge and freedom of thought, in these words from “Where the Mind is Without Fear”:
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action:
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my
~ Sudharshan Seneviratne is a professor of archaeology at the University of Peradeniya and Director-General of Sri Lanka´s Central Cultural Fund, the custodian organisation for UNESCO-declared World Heritage sites.