on the 119th birth anniversary of C. W. W. Kannangara
Reason to rejoice, or regret?
By Carlton Samarajiwa
the spirit of Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, born on October 13, 1884
- a hundred and nineteen years ago - rejoice or lament over what
has been and is happening in our land in the name of "free
course, over the heights reached by the national education system
and the doors thrown wide open to generations of rural children
to acquire an education their parents were denied. It was Kannangara's
noble vision that, like Augustus who "found Rome of brick and
left it of marble", the State Council "found education
dear and left it free, that they found it a sealed book and left
it an open letter, that they found it the patrimony of the rich
and left it the lasting inheritance of the poor."
Mr. M. S. Aney,
the Indian Government's representative in Sri Lanka at that time,
having listened to these stirring words from the Distinguished Visitors'
Gallery, walked up to Kannangara, shook his hand, and said, "You
would have been worshipped as a god had you been in India."
A god Kannangara truly was. It was amid the fiercest and most dogged
opposition and in spite of abuse and calumny, vilification and ridicule
from a large and influential section of the people with vested interests
that he obtained the sanction of the State Council for his scheme
of free education. It was designed "to provide for all the
children of the land equal opportunities to climb to the highest
rung of the educational ladder, irrespective of the status or financial
capacity of their parents and for obtaining for our national languages
their rightful place in that scheme as an essential prerequisite
for building a free, united and independent nation". Education
Ah, free education
from the kindergarten to the university! The very thought had tremendous
appeal, romance and idealism for the bottom tier of the country's
two-tier society. For the well-heeled, English-speaking top tier,
however, "free education" posed a threat to their hermetically
sealed world of affluence, power and position. They had to oppose
Kannangara, and they did so both vehemently and subtly.
press" belittled Kannangara as "a small man who was denied
the advantage of a good education" (but he was one of Richmond
College's most outstanding pupils, winning many awards including
the Best Achiever's Prize at the Cambridge Senior Examination).
Collette's cartoons presented him as a nincompoop. For example,
once Kannangara said at a meeting that he had been a good cricketer
and showed two scars on his forehead as evidence of injuries sustained
on the cricket field. Collette's aside in a cartoon was: "We
always suspected a head injury".
Equally vicious were the delaying tactics of the Opposition in the
State Council. Kannangara, however, would not yield; by dint of
perseverance that lasted sixteen years and a debate that lasted
over a year, he had his Free Education Bill passed on May 27, 1947.
That was the
day that ushered in a new era for our marginalized rural children.
Great strides were made in education, which were by any standard
- enrolment figures, participation rates, teacher-pupil ratios and
other criteria - truly noteworthy for a Third World country such
schools that were established across the length and breadth of the
island and the opportunities they offered for poor children to enter
the portals of learning and to drink deep of the Pierian springs
(in so far as the Swabashas permitted) must gladden the heart of
Kannangara, who once told his pupil S. F. de Silva, who later became
Director of Education: "What do X and Y know of poverty as
I knew it? To sleep on a mat on a bare floor and have only rice
and sambol to eat. I must see that village boys get a better chance
in life than I had."
only grew up in poverty but he also died in poverty, with no pension,
no income to call his own. ‘None’ was all he had to
write in his income tax return forms.
But there must also be lamentation in Kannangara's heart over the
loss of innocence and conscience and gratitude among the beneficiaries
of his proposals initiated in the State Council in the forties of
the last century to make education free from kindergarten to university.
We hear of
hooliganism within universities and schools, campus violence that
causes the indefinite closure of universities, unspeakable indiscipline
on the playing fields, brutal ragging that leaves the victims dead
or crippled for life, school pupils assaulting their principals
at morning assembly and many more such incidents of absolute callousness.
These are not mere incidents that can be brushed aside as “schoolboy
mischief” because “boys will be boys”, as a politician-father
explained away his sons' recent unruly behaviour at a nightclub.
These are the
spillover effects of free education that must cause the Father of
Free Education's soul to grieve. There are the hordes of unemployed
and unemployable rabble, easily roused by slogans and lies of tongue
and pen and all that terror teaches. They are the Calibans of our
age who might say, "You gave me free education, and my profit
on it is, I know how to curse."
And, cursing and denigrating is exactly what we heard in a recent
unedifying ‘Kinihira’ talk show on Swarnavahini from
the mouths of undergraduates and two graduates (now opposition members
of parliament) aimed at our well-meaning but hapless USJP Vice Chancellor
Professor D. S. Epitawatte.
went to Vice Chancellors of the past such as Sir Ivor Jennings and
Sir Nicholas Attygalle who kept undergraduates on their toes and
in their place at Peradeniya. They would never have condescended
to participate in a public debate with such angry young men. But
those were days of an era now no more.
There are International Schools, not just a few in Colombo, but
a proliferation in the outstations too, which charge exorbitant
fees, some of them in foreign exchange. All this in a country that
boasts of free education. There are also the many tertiary institutes
affiliated to foreign universities offering study programmes which
none but the affluent can afford to pay for.
exercises regularly held in Colombo to market tertiary institutes
abroad in the manner that advertisers promote various brands of
marketable consumer goods is a feature of the educational rat race
that the Father of Free Education would never have envisaged in
his educational vision for the country. Such educational opportunities
abroad are "the patrimony of the rich".
the walls advertising tuition in almost every subject in the examination
curriculum attract hundreds upon hundreds of school pupils into
crowded private tutories when school is over. School education in
any school, though free, has turned about to be inadequate for passing
examinations. A flourishing private tutory business has come to
The sharp divergences between prestigious Colombo schools (Colombata
kiri) and disadvantaged rural schools (apata kaekiri) make a mockery
of the educational equality that was expected through a national
system of education. And last but not least, the 1971 youth insurgency
and the cataclysmic events that were repeated in the late eighties
by our youths who had "reaped the dubious benefits of free
education" through university degrees of little worth are fresh
in our collective memory.
Those dark days
of youth disenchantment like the dark days of today's youth frustration
cast doubts on the efficacy of our educational system and on the
nature of the avowed end results of education. The young people
we educate are uncertain of their loyalties, are misfits in society
and are thoroughly apprehensive of their future. We shall therefore
have to continue, in the words of Margaret Mead, to educate "unknown
children for an unknown world".