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Wednesday 9 February 2011


Learning English cannot be considered as learning of a mere language. It may be that no language can be learnt merely as a language as any language is associated with a culture. Even the so called dead languages when they were “alive” would have been associated with cultures and a person who learns those languages is introduced to at least some aspects of the relevant cultures. I admire the attempts made by some English scholars to use a Sri Lankan English, but I do not think that a totally Sri Lankan English can ever be constructed. I am not thinking of pronunciation or grammar only but the culture that English brings with it.

When one goes little deep into learning one begins to feel that learning any subject for that matter brings with it a certain culture. Those who learn western sciences and mathematics are aware of the culture that is brought with the learning of those subjects. While there is no pure culture as such one has to be conscious of cultural intruders. These intruders may be referred to as cultural Trojan horses if one were to use an idiom from western culture itself! The present debate among highly reputed scholars on not making a pass in Mathematics compulsory for higher studies in areas such as Performing Arts has not taken place in a cultural background but on whether Mathematics is necessary for living in the present day society. I do not think a knowledge of either Mathematics or English is necessary for a person to live in present Sri Lanka as so many people have proved so by living without either. I am not a western empiricist by any means but there are so many in the University system itself who have managed to survive without much knowledge of English / Mathematics, and I do not mean only the non academics. Of course, one would say it speaks for the drop in the standards but then the question arises as to who sets the standards.

In a way the children are the most oppressed in any society. Whether they go to school or not they have to learn what the elders teach them and there is nobody to protect their so called right not to learn something that they do not want or like or they are not good at. From the day a child is born up to the time he sits for the GCE (ordinary level) examination, if he survives in the system or up to the time he becomes a so called dropout he is compelled to learn what the others have decided as good for him. While a dropout has some freedom to learn what he wants from what is again presented to him unless he creates his own knowledge, those who are caught in the system have no choice but to learn what is offered in their so called chosen fields. (Though people speak high of the availability of choices when it comes to knowledge there is no way of choosing without knowing) It is very rarely a person caught in the system has the ability to create his own knowledge. I would not be surprised if a so called researcher were to tell me that dropouts are more creative than the so called educated people.

The Mathematics needed to live in the present society is confined to addition and subtraction and may be multiplication and division in very elementary situations. In most cases it is a result of people having to buy and sell things. However, these days even the educated people who shop in “super markets” do not need these abilities as the machine at the counter does all these things for them. It appears that “sophisticated” housewives who travel in chauffer driven cars and shop in “super markets” do not need any Mathematics to survive in the present day society. However, the poor performing artistes who travel in buses and shop in the Irida Pola (we are a middle income nation and now and some of them patronize the “super markets” as well!) need a very basic knowledge of the most elementary operations of Mathematics mentioned above. I know a little bit of Mathematics but only a tiny bit of that little bit is needed in my day to day to living.

Some are of the view that logical reasoning is introduced through Mathematics, but if needed this so called logic can be introduced through other subjects as well. After all it is elementary Aristotelian logic that is introduced through Mathematics and I suppose that almost all people know that sons are born after fathers and not before. Most of them also know that if Wimal and Bimal are of the same height, and if Bimal and Nimal are also of the same height then Wimal and Nimal are also of the same height. What we have discussed so far is western Mathematics, and that subject brings in a big dose of abstract thinking, but how many of us need that much of abstract thinking to survive in the present day society? It should not be forgotten that we are all accustomed to some abstract thinking. A word itself is an abstract concept and reading and writing depend on letters which are themselves abstract. The letters are symbols and all those who can read and write any language are familiar with some abstract concepts. However, these abstract concepts are needed only in societies that have alphabets and where reading has become a tool for communication. In any event there are so called illiterate people even in those societies who manage to obtain information without knowing the abstract alphabet.

The western society is more abstract in thinking and their “intellectuals” must have thought that the whole society should be geared for greater abstract thinking. The emphasis on the three r’s (reading, arithmetic and writing which are all abstract in a way) in education reflects this affinity for abstract thinking in the west. While the west produced abstract Mathematicians, Physicists, abstract novelists such as Dostoevsky and abstract artists such as Picasso, I can think of only cardboard Picassos, Einsteins and Dostoevskys in Sri Lanka. It is because we are not used to abstract thinking as the westerners, but the “upper crust” of “intellectuals” in Sri Lanka does not seem to realize this. Though they have failed to produce “greats” of the calibre mentioned above, they want the “lower rung” to come up to the standards of the “lower rung” of the western society. It is clear that the average level of abstract thinking (can somebody come up with an index to measure this?) in Sri Lanka, especially among the Sinhalas, is lower than that in the west. When we have not produced Picassos and Mozarts (Whether Mozart studied Mathematics or not is the question, he had abstract thinking in his blood so to say) why do we want our performing artistes to have a pass in western abstract Mathematics at the GCE (ordinary level)? When the average level of abstract thinking in Sri Lanka is lower than that in the west it is unfair to demand a pass in abstract western Mathematics to engage in higher studies in areas such as Performing arts. Let us face it. The Sinhalas on the average are good at Shilpa than at Shasthra. It appears that the Sinhala people have obtained their knowledge of Shasthra mainly through Bhavana. We are working on this problem at the University of Kelaniya and we will come out with more details in the near future. At Kelaniya we have organized Bhavana for students and staff after hours. I would suggest to the Minister of Education that we allocate time for Bhavana in the school time table. (To be continued)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva