A well read and popular writer, Ranga Jayasuriya, ended a recent article with the Churchillian quotation “Democracy is the worst form of government until you study all others.”  So absolutely true! But the important angle here is that citizens of a country must have a smattering (at least) of their own form of government before [...]

Sunday Times 2

The importance of learning governance in school


A well read and popular writer, Ranga Jayasuriya, ended a recent article with the Churchillian quotation “Democracy is the worst form of government until you study all others.”  So absolutely true! But the important angle here is that citizens of a country must have a smattering (at least) of their own form of government before they have the ability to compare it to others. So, what can be more important than citizens of a country understanding their own systems of Government not only properly but also thoroughly?

Vital though this may be, it simply does not happen. Most of us have gone through life not really understanding our Constitution (even its basics) and assuming that those in Parliament know what they are doing. Even the slapdash and unprofessional behaviour of the majority of our politicians does not seem to prevent us from voting for them all over again.

We had a touching faith in our government institutions when the British were still ruling Ceylon and we continued to have it when the first National Government took over from them. There were changes, of course, but nothing drastic enough to cause wobbles in the morning teacups of the knowledgable citizenry. Politics and the goings on of politicians were not considered dinner time topics of conversation in polite society. Our adrenalin levels remained static and any political post mortems were carried out by those actually involved in running the country. Conversations did not begin with the line, “So what is happening to us these days?” with only one meaning to be deduced from that question.

Almost all those ministers in that Ceylon’s first Cabinet lived within hoo kiyanawa distance of most Colombo-ites and each other. Their electorates were nicely controlled and visited regularly. Life was peaceful. An efficient Civil Service curbed any undue excesses ministers might have shown. They rarely did!  (Read V.P. Vittachi’s fascinating book  “What Went Wrong” which is self explanatory.)

The right education sets the tone for an elevated future for our country

The only bone of contention for many citizens was Education. C.W.W. Kannangara’s ‘Pearl of Great Price’ was not only popular with all, but was necessary if (then) Ceylon was to please Nationalists and return to using the national languages. Free education had to be initiated and no one dreams of quarrelling with that. The implementation of the Sinhala Only Policy caused a little more dissension but we are not going to go into it here.

The implementation of the Sinhala Only Policy started out sensibly with a gradual shift over of the medium of instruction taking place. I was in the SSC class (modern OL class) when the first lot of little Grade Ones started their schooling in the ‘Sinhala Only’ class.

My own SSC Form consisted of Burghers, Tamils, Muslims, British and Malays. Sinhala and Tamil were compulsory subjects and my Burgher friend, Rosemary, even won the Sinhala Prize that year. But alas, many Burghers did not feel comfortable with the new language policy and began their exodus to Australia. At least, this was one of the main reasons for their relocation, I believe.

In the meantime, our subject syllabuses in schools did not change overmuch. Some of us did Science. Others Arts. There was Home Science, Art and  Music to balance  the whole thing. There were no technological subjects. In fact, who had even heard of them?

There existed, however, a nice little subject labelled ‘Civics’. It was a convenient choice if one needed that extra topic to make up the required number of subjects  for examination.  It was popular with both Science and Arts students alike and it certainly was interesting.

The Civic’s Text was a slim volume outlining systems of government, giving future students of Political Science a reasonable grounding in the subject. It ensured that those who did not proceed to university, or even to the AL classes, were given a basic knowledge of the art of governance in their own country as well as the main countries of the world. The classes were lively and interesting but the subject was dropped from the modern OL syllabuses. I wonder why?

Perhaps, no one bothered to translate or upgrade that slender text and the study of Civics just faded from the consciousness of the Education Department. Would this not be the perfect moment to initiate the study of Civics all over again as a subject for the OL students? Making it a compulsory subject would be an even better idea rather than teaching religion to uncaring children at the moment. I say ‘uncaring’ because our crime rate has never been higher, proving that all the religious instruction in school has not touched the hearts of students a whit.

Civics, on the other hand can be used as a badly needed tool for unity right now. Were Sri Lankan children to be taught of the equality of all citizens of Sri Lanka regardless of their race or religion they would undoubtedly be somewhat curbed in their desire to foist their own beliefs on others.

So teach Civics. Teach our children about the varied forms of governments which should be done in outline, of course, and it should be taught only in the OL Prep and OL classes. At the moment the terms such as democracies, monarchies, dictatorships and republics are just  terms not even properly understood by most of our politicians who would be totally unable to explain these systems of government if they had to do so.

What could be more fascinating than learning about (let us say) the governments of Thailand or Britain? Both are monarchies but the differences are quite riveting.  A good teacher would explain the love of the Thais for their Royal family. Criticism of them is not only not tolerated but also is a crime punishable by a jail sentence. In Britain you can run down the poor Queen freely without fear of reprisal.

Then there is contrast of the United States against India. Both are Federal States but with totally different applications of the Federal system. Repressive regimes and their subsequent upheavals are excellent topics of which our youngsters could be made conscious. After all a fairly wide knowledge of advantages and drawbacks of other systems makes all citizens aware of the plus and minus points of our own.

At the moment, I seriously doubt that Sri Lankans are aware of their rights or duties vis-à-vis the governance of our country. We tamely accept whatever is dished out by the Government and the only people who make loud and long protests are those made quite unjustifiably by university students and unemployed Graduates. The Graduate protests require an article all by itself to explain to the taxpayers why they need to protest against demands which no other country will tolerate.

So will a knowledge of Civics help? Of course it will. At least schoolgoing citizens of this country will, in future, have a basic knowledge of how our country is run. They may demand better educated politicians than we now have. Clearly, when people expect more they will make sure they get it.

Education is one of the most important aspects of a citizen’s life. The right education sets the tone for an elevated future for our country. I do not pretend to know what all this will entail, but future public exam syllabuses, with the modern emphasis on technology, should not be left in the hands of self styled experts. Sri Lanka should begin rounding up well-qualified experts, who have no hidden agendas, so that in a few years time we may have the sort of education which suits our people in the same way that Finland’s outstanding system  suits them and has elevated their standards to being the highest in Europe.

In Finland, teachers are the highest paid government servants. Imagine such a utopian situation in our country. However, to be a teacher in that country, a  Master’s Degree is necessary…..not one given by some locally established Colleges with dubious foreign connections such as we have here….and if my opinion starts a debate — well so be it. What is ultimately the best for our university hopefuls must be decided upon by a wise government – and not what is best for educational entrepreneurs interested only in the finances of education.

I strongly suggest the study of civics as just one method which can help to achieve unity as well as a much needed change in religious instruction. I hope all this will be considered. Let our education ensure really worthwhile citizens of our country. May they be trained to be mature and thinking adults!

At this time let me quote Oscar Wilde who said. “All the world’s a stage, but the Play badly miscast,” Indeed the ‘Play’ of Sri Lanka deserves for better actors.

(The writer is an educationist. goolbai@gmail.com)

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