Thoughts on the 119th birth anniversary of C. W. W. Kannangara
Reason to rejoice, or regret?
By Carlton Samarajiwa
Would 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 education"?

Rejoice, of 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 wise decision?
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 was democratized.

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.

The "national 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".

Opportunity knocks
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 as ours.

The central 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."

Kannangara not 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.

Possible regrets
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."

Sad showdown
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.

Our thoughts 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.

A price to pay
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.

The promotion 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".

Posters on 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 stay.

Odds and evens
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".

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