13th February 2000
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Only the truly educated are free

By Ephrem Fernando
The film 'Goodbye Mr. Chipps' starts with the scene where a late arrival is seen rushing towards the school. Chipps is about to retire. It is his final day. He ignores the boy and refrains from using the rod. Silence is punctured by the sound of flogging in the background. 

Recently I happened to drive past a well-known school in Colombo. It was in session but the noise was overwhelming as if a Cup Final was being played inside. 

When we were students, silence was enforced with severity. I received my first flogging at eight, from a Jesuit Headmaster. The second at twelve from a De La Salle Headmaster. The birch taught me the value of obedience and the evils of uncouthness. But that aside, it was with a sense of nostalgia that I read the following couplet penned by James Clerk Maxwell, while a student. 

Ye years roll on and haste the expected time 

When flogging boys shall be an accounted crime.

The Scot was a genius and when he was occupying the Chair of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University, discovered the way electricity combines with magnetism to give light. 

Twenty four hundred years ago Plato, the most renowned student of Socrates, complained in Book VII of the Laws, "They are unable to count one, two, three or distinguish odd from even numbers or are unable to count at all or reckon night and day and who are totally unacquainted with the revolution of the sun and the moon and other stars. All students I conceive should learn as much of these branches of knowledge, as every child in Egypt is taught, when he learns the alphabet. In that country, arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children which they learn as pleasure and amusement. I have heard with amazement of our ignorance in these matters. To me we appear to be more like pigs than men and I am quite ashamed not only of myself but of all Greeks". 

I am ashamed not only of myself but of all Sri Lankans because of our educational system. Students, though they have obtained distinctions for this and that and expect to enter university, are miniature editions of the type Plato was referring to and are readily snared by spurious claims, misdirections and evasions. They have not even heard, among others, of Epictetus the Roman slave who became a great philosopher, Polybius, Thucydides, Plato, Cicero, Aristotle and Socrates, soul-mates when we were students. 

A brilliant Professor of Mathematics, a kin of mine, confessed recently that the reason for his early retirement was indiscipline and ignorance of students who enter the universities from the schools. Barging into offices and common-rooms of Vice-Chancellors, Deans and Professors and torturing them with Billingsgate was common, he admitted. 

Responsibility for students knowing little, bewildered and indisciplined, rests squarely on those who run the school system. Their plans are grandiose and often expire in tall talk.

In the midst of this extravagance, decrepit school buildings crumble and fall apart, forcing students to learn under trees and bushes while the morale of teachers plummets, due to low salaries and deplorable working conditions. 

The Ceylon Technical College, at Maradana, that trained countless students for the University of London engineering examinations is withering and steadily declining. Now the pundits at Pelawatte have decreed that the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Ceylon, now at Peradeniya and about to celebrate its fiftieth birthday, admit over 300 students, despite the facilities being grossly inadequate to cope with such number. A devastating failure rate is anticipated. 

The remedy is to clean out these who offer nothing but pretence and confusion and liberate the school system to give it back to the descendants of Legoc, Pillai, Methananda, Kularatne, De Saram, Long, Corea, Pullimood, Motwani, Lanerolle, Luke, Alban, Fraser and Weber to whom our very lives are beholden. 

Quacks and charlatans have nothing to offer except fundamentalism, tribalism and racism. Every time a fort is taken from them there is genuine human progress. A comment by the Roman Philosopher Epictetus is appropriate here. He wrote "Only the truly educated are free".

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