23rd November 1997


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The good old days at Peradeniya

Ragging in the universities is the hot topic of the day. In the midst of it came the tenth death anniversary of the much talked about 'Aththa' editor B A Siriwardena ('Sira' to most of us). The two brought back memories of the good old days in Peradeniya.

Sira was in the first batch of Arts undergrads who moved to Peradeniya from Colombo towards the end of 1952. When the time came to select the next batch, those who had got through four subjects at the University Entrance exam were automatically selected. Even those who had good passes in three subjects had a chance of getting in direct. Others had to face a viva voce. Even those who had got through two subjects sometimes had a chance of being called up for the v i v a.

RaggingIt was customary to wear a full suit (white) for the viva. It was difficult to hide the coat although one could keep the tie in the trouser pocket till the last minute. Having old school friends was a relief. Sira was one such friend I had, having being together at Ananda. (We fondly called him Seretse Khama in college because we felt Sira had some resemblance to him). I went for the viva with a friend who had already got in direct. When Sira met us he invited us for lunch at Arunachalam Hall where he was residing. We wouldn't hear of it. We were scared of being ragged. Sira insisted nothing of the sort would happen. When I took off my coat after the viva at the Senate building and was wondering what to do with it, Sira immediately took it over and wore it. What a relief! I pulled out the tie and put it in the pocket. And we went for lunch, sat with the seniors in the Arunachalam dining hall and felt quite at ease. Sira did announce to everyone that here were two 'potential freshers'.

The first hurdle had been cleared. The next - the big one came when we had to take up residence. I got Jayatilaka Hall as my residence. Sira was not going to be there to 'protect' me. But I breathed a sigh of relief when I found another old friend G T Wickremasinghe (who also joined Lake House after his stint at Peradeniya just as Sira and I did) whom I could depend on. He happened to be the Hall President and he was going to have a big say in the rag.

"I am going to pretend that I will be tough with you. Don't indicate we know each other," G T warned me. A gang was to come in the night to each room to christen us. What are we in for? Being the first freshers' batch we couldn't even compare notes. With heart beats rising we waited for the appointed hour. We knew the sub wardens would turn a blind eye unless something serious were to happen. We couldn't hide either. Being a small hall of residence with only 60 rooms and each room being occupied by two, the hall population was a mere 120. Unbelievable in today's context but true!

After dinner the rag gang led by G T turned up making quite a big noise down the corridor. With a huge bang at the door it was announced that the 'honourable seniors' had arrived. The door was opened. The gang entered. After some preliminary inquiries - name, school, subjects and the like - the 'ordeal' began. 'Take a dive to the pool and swim'. This was the toughest task I had to face. I got on the bed, dived to the floor and pretended to swim. After a sing song the session was over.

It was not over. We were ordered to wear full kit for lectures for one week. This gave an opportunity for seniors to identify and rag us outside the hall. Again it was good fun. 'Give a flower to a female senior and ask for her hand'. The seniors would crowd round and have a hearty laugh. Fresher girls could easily be identified. Some had a flower on their hair. They came for lectures wearing the saree knee high. Once the lectures were over we made a bee line to the hall where we felt safer.

In the evenings the seniors would get us to stand in a row on the lawn along the Galaha road and salute to the senior girls passing by. They invariably took an evening stroll.

The week passed. In between we used to suddenly get thrown into the Shirley de Alwis memorial pond at the turn off to Arunachalam and Jayatilaka halls. This was the worst 'treatment' we got - a ducking with clothes on, lecture notes, books and all.

After about two weeks we were told that we should get to know our batchmates from Hilda Obeysekera hall. (It was then a girls' hall of residence). The seniors took the initiative in organising a netball match one evening. Once again it was good fun. Of course it was the seniors who were more keen to get to know the Hilda freshers.In the process we too benefited!

Soon the seniors and freshers were to organise many outings together. Each society - be it the Buddhist Brotherhood or the Travel Society - organised a trip at least once a term. A couple of bus loads took off either on dayouted or two day trips. And we got invited to socials and camp fires in the different halls.

In Hall affairs, there was no discrimination between the seniors and the freshers. We were all one. I still remember the 'soup procession' to the Warden's room (Professor J L C Rodrigo was our warden) protesting against Mr Suwaris' tasteless soup. though we were not happy then about the 'yellowed' rice we got on Sundays, looking back - what a luxury meal it was.

The following year, we were the 'honourable seniors' who had to organise the rag. Keeping to the traditions set by our seniors we tried to improve on them. The induction took the form of a freshers' procession round the Hall, dressed in full suit, carrying lit up candles ending up in the common room taking the oath of allegiance to Jayatilaka Hall.

And to get back to Sira. He left Peradeniya one year before I did. After leaving Peradeniya I joined the 'Dinamina' as a reporter and not many months later Sira joined the features desk. It didn't take much time for managing editor M A de Silva to realize that here was the ideal leader writer. And he wrote some of the finest feature articles. Unlike today, the 'Dinamina' tradition then was not to use any bye-lines. Thus the articles appeared under 'a Feature Writer'.

We were together until just before the 1965 general election when Sira quit to join the 'Aththa'. We were friends till he breathed his last.


Groping for knowledge

Notes from an English teacher's diary Part 7 - by C.N.S.

1960 was a watershed in university education. Swabasha medium students were admitted to the university and hundreds of rural students without even a knowledge of the rudiments of English entered the Arts faculty at Peradeniya. The role of English in university education had changed dramatically.

A group of 173 "swabasha-medium" undergraduates admitted to Peradeniya began their university education with an Intensive Course in English directed by distinguished American linguist from the University of California Dr James Sledd and conducted by fourteen selected teachers.

The course was not compulsory, but all, except one student, who were advised to follow it because of their inadequate proficiency in English enrolled willingly.

"A university course is almost useless without an ability to use English books. English books are a source of knowledge. A knowledge of English is essential to read the books in the university library. What you learn from books is more important than what you learn from lectures.

"The aim of this course is to enable you to read English books easily and freely and to understand what has been read "

In these words, contrived to be as simple as possible for his audience, the late Professor Hector Passe, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Professor of English explained to those Swabasha undergraduates why they had been advised to follow the intensive English course before their academic year commenced.

Grouped into eight classes, each of which was taught, by two teachers over a period of two months, they followed an English course prepared by Dr Sledd.

The expected outcome was that the students would be equipped with the necessary skills to read and understand books at university level (there were over 200,000 English books in the library at that time with 700 new books added every month) and even follow lectures in English.

Similar courses were drawn up with adjustments and improvements for the Swabasha undergraduates who entered university in ever larger numbers. University education was now within the reach of rural children and Peradeniya was now "more open than usual".

A Sub Department of English was set up initially under the direction of Miss Chitra Wickremasuriya, and later in 1964, under Professor Doric de Souza. This sub department expanded and the English department contracted.

That was the beginning of English intensive courses, now delivered not to hundreds but to thousands of undergraduates in the universities. There are English Language Teaching Units (ELTU) in most of the universities, with a permanent cadre of English instructors.

The University Grants Commission also conducts pre-university English programmes called GELT (General English Language Teaching). Many retired teachers have found work in these programmes and perform an invaluable service while also supplementing their infinitesimal pensions.

ELT has become almost a monopoly of pensioners. You'll see scores of them, more of the gentler sex, at weekends at Reid Avenue; an altogether moving sight, for they are "monuments of unageing intellect" of a bygone era.

How effective are these intensive English courses? The late Doric de Souza confessed in his Preface to Professor Siromi Fernando's 'A Certificated Course in English' (first published in 1985 and reprinted five times):

"I planned and organized the English course for swabasha medium entrants at Peradeniya and Colombo in the 60's and at Vidyalankara in the late 70's. The results I achieved were disappointing.

The reasons for failure were many - some of them "extrinsic", and some, no doubt, "intrinsic" so far as the programme of teaching was concerned."

The need to teach English almost abnovo to undergraduates proved one thing: English teaching in our schools is a failure. The results of undergraduates who were given a diagnostic or placement test given at the beginning of an English intensive course provided evidence of how little they had learnt in school.

Said Professor de Souza:

"My diagnostic test yielded miserable results in 1964. Except the Buddhist monks who came from Pirivena institutions, the vast majority of swabasha-medium Arts entrants reported that they had eight to ten years of English teaching (in schools). I readily discovered that those students who got 90 marks and more in this easy test had picked up their English at home and in their social environment and not at school.

"So the Rs 50 million or so annually spent (the figure must be much higher now) on the salaries of English Assistants and on equipment was going down the drain."

Theoretically, English is taught everyday in every school over a period of eight to ten years. But the practical situation is different.

There are some rural schools that don't have English teachers, and those that have face another dismal problem: the teachers themselves have very little competence in English even if they are trained teachers.

Many undergraduates who have been taught English for several years in school have little or nothing to show for it.

This, however, is not a situation peculiar to English. Thousands of GCE (OL) candidates get zero for Mathematics. This means they cannot draw a straight line from point A to point B, which is a question that carries half a mark! Also, thousands of Grade Five Scholarship Examination candidates get zero for Sinhala.

The minimum qualifications prescribed for English teachers are a credit in English at GCE (OL). Over 7500 English teachers have only a credit pass. And, a credit does not by any means denote a creditable level of English proficiency. About 1000 English teachers have a distinction. But a distinction in English nowadays does not mean what it should mean.

Most young people who have an excellent command of English, if ever they become English teachers, treat English teaching only as a stoppage, a stepping stone to better jobs.

English teaching in schools has therefore been a mecca for mediocrities "who learnt English as a foreign language and for whom it is entirely foreign", to quote Professor Kamal de Abrew.

And, last year their salary scales were revised across the board to bonanza levels. The money spent as salaries on English teachers who do not know English "must be going down the drain", as de Souza lamented, while many Sawabasha-medium undergraduates continue to remain unarmed with what they call the "kaduwa" when they are in dire need of it - to read English books at university.

What the late Professor Passe said, inaugurating the first English intensive course in 1960, must be repeated over and over again: "A university course is a almost useless without an ability to use English books."

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