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Tuesday 1 March 2011


When a subject or a module or a topic is not made compulsory people learn due to various reasons. However, in general they have to learn something that has already been created by somebody else and often what has been accepted by the society in which he lives. The acceptance could be due to long term experience that what is learnt is useful to the broader objectives that the society is trying to achieve or due to various other factors. However, there is another kind of “acceptance”, where the subject matter is imposed on the society by alien agencies. Very often these agencies are colonial powers. Of course, there are the creators of knowledge who create new knowledge and among them there are people who would propagate what they have created. They are also in a sense trying to impose their views but they are different from the colonial powers as the former would very often try to convince others without resorting to political means. When I mention creators of knowledge I do not think in general of those so called contributors to knowledge who are after postgraduate degrees. They are very often only solvers of some peripheral problems or glorified collectors of facts, reporters, designers of questioners sample collectors etc.

In Sri Lanka like in the other countries we have what the western education specialists call the formal and the informal sectors. The so called formal sector is controlled entirely by the west whether we have educators from the western countries or not. In the bad old days we had educators (teachers, principals, education officers, vice chancellors, lecturers etc.,) from the “mother country” (do not ask me whose mother is) itself but at present except in the case of few schools we have local educators but that does not mean that the bad old days are over. The educators in Sri Lanka still follow the English and now the Americans as well. I know how much I have suffered as a student and as a teacher as I had to follow what the English and the Americans have dictated to us. The university autonomy is nothing but humbug, and the faculty boards and the senates have no option but to imitate the western syllabi and curricula. The so called educated people are products of this system and today I find some resistance within the Faculty of Science of the former Vidyalankara University renamed University of Kelaniya by none other J R Jayawardhane through an Act of Parliament, to the Bhavana programme that I as Dean of the Faculty have introduced after hours, mind you after hours and not within the time table. There is resistance to experiments on what I would call Sinhala govikama and Sinhala vedakama which we have commenced at Vidyalankara. The protestors have been told by somebody that these practices are not scientific, and they think that the work I have initiated does not comply with the so called scientific method. As far as I am concerned there is no scientific method as such and these are only ideas that have been propagated throughout the world in order to maintain the hegemony of western knowledge that includes western science. Western science has been lifted to a status of so called objective knowledge that is supposed to approach objective reality, with the assistance of so called Philosophy of Science that has been created again in the west.

The importance of learning English/Mathematics has to be discussed in this background. Who decided that English and Mathematics are two important subjects? Who decided that they are useful subjects? I know that in my case my creativity in the field of knowledge was set back by at least ten years as a result of having to learn western science in English, and I still feel after fifty years that I would have been better off if I had my undergraduate education in Sinhala. Those who read this column perhaps know that I think in Sinhala and that English is still foreign to me. The usefulness of Mathematics for shopping is gradually diminishing as the society is being flooded with various types of calculating machines. I am prepared to admit that Arithmetic is part of Mathematics, unlike some people who think of Arithmetic merely as calculations, and that number is a very abstract concept difficult to grasp. Many students who are not good at abstract thinking give up Arithmetic because the subject is abstract and above their level of understanding. Most of us are familiar with seven chairs or seven tables or seven coconuts. However, how many of us are familiar with the number seven. The number seven is represented by the symbol 7 but the symbol 7 is not the number seven. It is only a symbol just as much the Roman VII is not number seven. The number seven is roughly the common property of the collections of seven objects such as seven chairs and seven nuts. While seven bananas may be a concrete concept for most the number seven is not so. Those who are familiar with “shapthasvara” may not be familiar with the abstract concept of number “hatha”. If numbers are so abstract what can be said of even elementary Algebra.

Some Mathematics may be useful in Engineering and those who want to become Engineers (those who have been directed to Engineering by the society) may study Mathematics up to a certain level. Similarly some Economists, not all of them surely, may find Mathematics useful but simply because of it we should not make Mathematics compulsory for all Economics students. The uses we have discussed so far may be called direct uses but some would argue that there are indirect uses as well. It may be claimed that Mathematics train the students to think clearly and logically. I am not quite sure of this as there are so many among those who have studied Mathematics who are not very clear and logical in their thinking. On the other hand there may be at least a good proportion of those who studied Mathematics, who have taken to the subject due to the fact that they already possessed an inherent ability to think clearly and logically and also in an abstract way.

Now the million rupee question is who decide on what may be called indirect uses? Direct usefulness of Mathematics in Physics or Engineering is obvious. However, it leaves the question as to the usefulness of those two disciplines in society. This again is decided by the society and these decisions are taken in a holistic way though we may not realize it. The concept of hegemony of Gramsci is holistic and the western Christian hegemony has made us to believe that western abstract Mathematics has indirect uses such as mentioned above. In any event it has to be mentioned that the attempt by Bertrand Russell and others to reduce Mathematics to logic has failed. In the twentieth century it was also proved by Gödel that Hilbert’s formalist programme was not to be realized. What Gödel proved in essence was that there are statements in Mathematical systems that are true in a Mathematical sense, which cannot be derived from the set of axioms of the system. Thus with the failure of Russell’s and Hilbert’s programmes western Mathematics has become a structure without a solid foundation. So much for the logical and analytical nature of western Mathematics. Incidentally Gödel’s theorems, which are known as incompleteness theorems belong to Number Theory which is sometimes called Arithmetic. The failure of western Mathematics is due to inadequacy of Aristotelian logic and linear thinking. However, the western society is obsessed with Aristotelian logic and when they want us to be logical they have no misgivings on the logic that we should follow. How useful is to be logical in the Aristotelian way in a Sinhala Buddhist society when that logic fails miserably in explaining how King Devanampiya Tissa could neither be his relative nor non relative (noneya in Sinhala). (To be continued).

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva