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The echo of Neanderthals on the streets of Colombo

All these wonders start in civilian or military research laboratories, or in universities. It is so rewarding to be living in such a cradle of ideas and be bumping onto people who will have something new to say every day. Alas! My own country Sri Lanka opens the doors to this world of innovation to only 3% of its population. 

by Thrishantha Nanayakkara

(October 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
Around 400,000 years ago, some human looking animal whose muscular strength nowhere near other predators like lions and tigers asked a very important question that the other animals didn’t dare to ask often. “Is there a better way?” – a better way to hunt without having to struggle with the prey like Lions and Tigers. Neural networks that started to throw spikes at each other kept on assigning affordances to things he saw around him. His value of a stick, a sharp piece of stone, a vine, etc, changed right in front of him. Soon, his brain helped him to put together these raw materials to finish the first weapon – the spear – that would help this weak animal to emerge victorious among other seemingly unbeatable predators. Man’s path as an animal took a turn. He kept on mastering the art of asking this question: “Is there a better way to do this, that….”. This flash light in the darkness of common sense sustained an unbroken string of innovations. Homo Sapiens asked this question about the way they hunt animals and pluck fruits and vegetables from the woods. About 10,000 years ago, they asked if there was a better way to eat the meat, fruits, and vegetables without having to go deep into the woods. The result was the emergence of the art of agriculture (the art of moving the essence of the woods to the backyard and controlling it). With the advancement of the society, the value of knowledge and memory increased. Continuous struggle with knowledge sharing and archiving made them ask if there was a better way to store knowledge and information other than keeping in the brain. The result was the art of mapping a mental concept to an agreed set of shapes made out of straw knots. This was the first form of writing found 5000 years ago. This helped people to store a memory outside the brain for the first time, and for others to acquire that knowledge by reading the knot pattern. The journey continued. About 3000 years ago they started to master one more question – “why does this happen this way?”. This led to the discovery of natural laws such as the five sets of natural laws called “Dharmatha” found in Buddhist philosophy (Utu niyama, Bija niyama, Kamma niyama, Chitta niyama, and Dhamma niyama). Humans started to develop places called universities to train people to ask the above two questions. Mesmerizing constructions in Babylon, Cairo, Sigiriya, etc., emerged. Europe mastered the art of converting energy from one form to another. The steam engine triggered the industrial revolution just 200 years ago. Innovation, discovery, inventions, exploration, became normal buzz words. Man finally found mechanized computing just 50 years ago with the advent of the computer. Internet wrapped the world to a nut-shell just about 20 years ago. I remember how I wrote letters as a graduate student to my family back in Sri Lanka and waited for more than 2 weeks for a reply just 10 years ago. Today, I can see if any of my family members is online for a skype chat (with video! Yes, free of charge!!). Our generation is sitting on a spring of innovation.

All these wonders start in civilian or military research laboratories, or in universities. It is so rewarding to be living in such a cradle of ideas and be bumping onto people who will have something new to say every day. Alas! My own country Sri Lanka opens the doors to this world of innovation to only 3% of its population. While forcefully doing so, it sits back and watches the widening gulf between Sri Lanka and those countries that provide wider opportunities to train a vast proportion of their younger generation to master the art of asking the above two questions. Sri Lanka calls it free education and refuses to confess that it is a gross confusion between free-of-charge education and free education. In true free education, citizens who aspire to obtain a higher education should have as many choices as possible. Education for a fee for those who can afford it, scholarships to those who deserve it, bank loans to those who dare to invest, and of course free-of-charge entrance to universities for those who must be empowered at the expense of the TAX payers are among many other options. However, except few countries like Sweden (mostly free-of-charge education to about 60% of the 10 million population), most other countries adopt a portfolio of options to provide opportunities for higher education to its citizens.

Today in Sri Lanka, the Inter-University Federation Front (IUFF) seems to be suspecting the moves of the Government to allow private universities. What is unfortunate is the way the Government is reacting to this natural reaction from student unions. In my view it is the job of the IUFF to raise concerns, and it is the role of the Government to initiate a dialog with them and the public on why reforms are needed, and the mechanisms available to nurture free-of-charge higher education in par with other options. Obviously, the student unions have not been seeing attractive examples for private sector higher education in Sri Lanka. They are right to say that most existing private higher education institutes are “tutories”. They haven’t seen locally relevant and internationally respected research and innovation in them. They haven’t seen researchers who maintain their own laboratories teach graduate and undergraduate students out of their own exposure to the art of asking the above two questions that propelled human civilization so far.

Therefore, I kindly request the Government to take a more moderate approach to address this issue without trying to intimidate student activists that may lead to other complicated social problems. However, I wholeheartedly congratulate the Government for taking a bold step in the right direction, and wish them courage and strength to maintain a productive dialog with all stake holders including parents who have a right to have their children obtain a meaningful higher education either through state universities or otherwise.

(The writer was a senior lecturer at the University of Moratuwa (2003-2007), the commissioner of the Sri Lanka Inventors’ Commission (2005-07), and subsequently a Radcliffe Fellow, Harvard University, USA and a faculty member of King’s College, University of London)
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