We are Proud on the first of March: The commencement at the Faculty of Arts,Peradeniya

by Liyanage Amarakeerthi

(February 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya, sends its latest batch of graduates out to the world on March 1st, 2011. Inclement whether that has been making all of us in the hill country quite nervous for weeks has now quit its hostility. And we are sure to see happy graduates walking in the spectacular university park for one last time before they enter the real world. Mother Nature has already begun to decorate the university ground around the Faculty of Arts. Those who write about the faculty of arts, Peradeniya mostly focus on 1950s and 1960s. When our present Dean of faculty Prof. Anoma Abhayarathne, the first ever female to hold this esteemed post, asked me to write this piece celebrating our imminent convocation, I decided to focus on the present.

Many world renowned scholars

Apart from ‘producing’ renowned scholars, the faculty has made itself the home for some other scholars who are not its own products. It is a commendable aspect given that Sri Lankan universities often give priority to ‘their own’ people in hiring academic staff no matter how qualified the ‘outsiders’ may be. I, too, wish incidents such as the one Dr. Jayarathne Pinikahana refers to in his fine essay in The Island of Feb. 16 would not take place. Dr. Pinikahana refers to an incident at the Faculty of Arts, where a candidate with a PhD was overlooked for a position. Though I do not know the background of it, I want to refer to the incident since I am not arguing that everything is hunky dory at present. Ironically, those incidents show how confident our universities are of the quality of their intellectual products. We may be a bit over confident, but we have our reasons.

That is why we want to be happy on March 01.

The Faculty of Arts, the University of Peradeniya, does, in deed, have reasons to be proud on that day, when the latest group of young men and women will receive their degrees. At this moment, as many people often do, I can talk about the golden days of Peradeniya, Sarachchandra and so on. Those days were golden, no doubt. It would have been wonderful to be at the Faculty of Arts of Peradeniya when professors E. F. C. Ludowyk, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Siri Gunasinghe, M. W. Sugathapala de Silva, K. Kanapathippillai, Ashley Halpe, to name a few, were there. To see the bygone days as the only golden days could make us blind to the admirable aspects of the present and potentials for the future. Many people keep parroting the rhetoric of the golden past not necessarily to appraise the past’s ‘greatness’ but to ridicule the present and future. What they praise, in fact, is their own times. But, they forget that their past is responsible for our present. One could argue that some social maladies of the present germinated during those golden days!

Why happy?

We at the Faculty of Arts taught these graduating students, in some cases, without any facilities or recourses that a university should have. For example, we teach ‘film reading’ without a film lab or proper viewing rooms. And we ourselves did not have much resource for self-improvement. Many of us earned our postgraduate qualifications by winning competitive foreign scholarship and often with little support from the university system. With the money spent on a single fleet of ministerial vehicles, however, the government can produce several quality PhDs at an international university. Yet, some people do not seem to have realised that creating a ‘knowledge hub’ needs much more than rhetoric! Some of us, educated in the post-1956 monolingual intellectual culture, had to engage in intense personal struggles to obtain linguistic skills required to take part in the wider intellectual discourses held in international languages. While toiling to educate ourselves we educated our students as well. Therefore we have reason to be proud on March 01!

For years, the country’s priority has been winning the war and a great deal of resources were allocated for that purpose. All along, however, the government kept increasing the number of students admitted to universities. Finding space for these students alone has been a Herculean task for our deans. The university administration gracefully acted in accommodating them. It is true that we do not have a choice when the University Grants Commission sends us more students, but it is not government orders that motivate us but the students themselves: we love our students and we want to teach them. Those who reminisce of ‘the golden past’ often forget that only a privileged few entered the university those days, and they were taken care of as part of the elite. Resources at universities only dwindled with the passage of time. We taught them whatever we could. So we will be proud on March 01.

Paying for mediocrity

Commenting on the government’s plan to bring back expatriate scholars to Sri Lankan universities, Dr. J. Pinikahana maintains that a mere fifty thousand (50,000) rupees per month could not lure internationally established scholars into returning. Some of us who have returned regret having done so. Poorly paid as we are, we––at least some of us––have done our best to teach our students. We never let our students know of our hardships. If our parents and ancestral land do not provide us with the annual supply of rice and coconut, many of us would have given up teaching a long ago! It is only a few of us who are engaged in moneymaking enterprises such as private tuition, and the majority of us routinely go beyond the call of duty to help our students. These children know it. That’s why they do not regret that they could not enter our faculty some forty years ago! We cannot blame our children for not being born at a time we call ‘golden.’ For me golden are the ones who come to learn from us. We are here because of them. So, we are happy for them, and that is why we will be proud on March 01.

Marketability of our children

Advocating the marketability of our graduates some complain that our students are not up to the mark. There is very little talk about the skills they already have. One of the greatest skills they possess is that they are quick to detect a hidden political agendas of anyone. It is very difficult to trick them into accepting political propaganda. They are even suspicious of their own student leaders, though they might not speak out. A critical awareness of ideological programmes put forward by those who are in power is, from the point of view of liberal arts, one of the best ‘skills’ to have. Perhaps, it is exactly what the market does not want! As someone who teaches students to think critically about themselves and others, I will be happy on the 1st of March.

Computer literacy and English are often talked of as things our kids should have and lack of proficiency in them is blamed on us without bothering to provide us with adequate language labs, computer labs and the like. Our faculty with its very limited computer facilities has gone all out to impart some computer literacy to students. With some ‘on-job’ training, these children are capable of great things. That is not to say that we are already producing the best graduates. We are in the process of enhancing our performance. That should not prevent us from being happy on March 01.

Perhaps, this will be the last batch to graduate from a Sri Lankan university before the advent of private universities. Starting from this year, as the argument goes, we will see good many private universities starting to produce ‘employable,’ ‘market-oriented’ and ‘multi-talented graduates. Yet third world private universities are highly unlikely to come out with liberal curricula that promote critical thinking and balanced and nuanced understanding of human cultures. It would be great if these private universities model themselves on institutions like MIT, where physics, literature and linguistics co-exist. At MIT, I have seen, right next to the office of Noam Chomskey (linguistics), there is the office of natural science professors. Our private universities are more likely to produce ‘mercenaries’ for modern capitalism because the rhetoric of marketability and the demand in the market alone cannot and should not determine the content of higher education. Education must have a higher goal: emancipation. Some of us at the faculty of arts teach our students to critically assess everything given to them as reality: culture, nature, tradition, nation and so on. We teach them to develop sympathetic and ethical imagination towards everyone and everything dominant ideologues present as ‘other’ or ‘non-us.’ We teach them to critique culture, preserve culture and create culture.

We are confident that our brightest students will walk out to the world to do just that. In the US, convocation is called ‘commencement’ which means ‘beginning.’ I hope our students begin anew. I remain hopeful for the future.

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