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Tuesday 1 March 2011


At the outset I must thank Mr. Eric J. de Silva and Mrs. Goolbai Gunasekera for presenting their views on two different aspects I had mentioned in the previous articles. They are both eminent educationists who have empathetic and sympathetic views with what I had to say on what they have found to be interested in the articles, though I do not know any one of them personally. It is strange that though I have lived for more than sixty five years I know only a handful of people outside the university circles and that most of the people in the university system do not agree with me on most of the things I have to say. I do not jump into any conclusions from these two observations not because I have a little knowledge of western Mathematics, but since my Sinhala Buddhist culture which I rediscovered about thirty years ago does not encourage me to do so.

I was brought up in a semi urban environment, and had my entire education in Sinhala, until I was fourteen years old, and as I have said in a previous article my knowledge of English was very poor. I resented English and I must say that I had an aversion to learning English. At the age of fourteen I had to learn Pure Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry in English and the following year I was introduced to Applied Mathematics and Advanced Mathematics again in English. At the end of that year, to be precise in December 1960, fifty long years ago, I sat the GCE (Ordinary Level), offering the three Mathematics subjects, Physics and Chemistry in English, Buddhism in Sinhala, the remaining two subjects being Sinhala and English. Learning Mathematics in English was not much of a problem as in a sense Mathematics is a language by itself. The principles in Physics had to be grasped in the language of Mathematics as my English was poor to express them in that language. It was only years later that I came across a statement by none other than Einstein himself, the epitome of Judaic Christian Chinthanaya, who had said something to the effect that if one could not explain Physics without resorting to Mathematics, then one has not understood Physics. Western science or any other discipline has to be taught in a language that the student knows (in which he feels at home – some Sinhalas and Tamils may feel at home in English) and not in a subject in which he has a very superficial knowledge if at all and which is foreign to him. In my case English is still foreign to me.

With Chemistry it was worse as only a few principles could be expressed in Mathematics. I had to cram the principles and I was not good at cramming or remembering so called facts. I am not good at all remembering poems, gathas etc., and the only song I know completely is the National Anthem. To make matters worse very often I could not express the practical procedure to the satisfaction of the teacher. When the teacher was famous Mr. E. C. Gunasekera all hell broke lose, but I must mention that unlike some other teachers he never ridiculed me (once a teacher, when I pronounced the O in boy as in “godaya”, wanted to know whether I was attending ….. central school.), and in fact I thought that he had some admiration for me. He was my class teacher in the University Entrance class, the present GCE (AL) class, and when I wanted to apply to enter the Faculty of Science, instead of the Faculty of Engineering (those days in filling the application form to sit the University Preliminary Examination or the Entrance Examination as it was called, one had to mention the Faculty one wished to apply) he encouraged me to do so. (A cynic might say that in any event I would not have entered the Faculty of Engineering, but to the dismay of such people I won a University Entrance Exhibition in spite of having failed in Chemistry). He taught me to be clear and logical in thinking, remember that happened outside the Mathematics class, and taught indirectly, perhaps not realizing what he was doing, the demerits of linear Aristotelian logic.

Once he was not satisfied with the definition of an acid given by the fourteen year old brats and wanted us to explain definition. Not surprisingly nobody in the class was capable of explaining definition and then he wanted us to define explanation! At that time I did not understand the significance of these orders (they were not questions coming from that much respected and loved teacher) but more than twenty years later it propelled me towards what can be called cyclic chinthanaya. Before English was made the language of instruction I was not afraid when questions were asked by the teachers, except in the English class, and sometimes I did not hesitate to ask questions involving fundamentals from the teachers. However, this changed with the introduction of English, and I wanted to hide my face in the class as I did not want the teachers to question me. How often I have found my own students in the university doing the same if they are questioned in English. Invariably throwing the Faculty decisions through the windows of the lecture theatre I resort to Sinhala as I want my students to learn and to be creative if possible at least in other fields, rather than be crammers sticking to the Faculty decisions on instructing in English. It is unfortunate that the Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya Universities are not instructing the students in the respective Faculties of Science in Sinhala after the first semester of the first year, thus going against the 1959 Act that established those universities. In spite of teaching science in English we have not produced a single FRS, who has come up with a new concept or theory in any scientific field, (the Sri Lankan who became a FRS few years back does not belong to this category) not to be confused with FRCS and other medical fellows who can be found in abundance. No Nobel Prize has been won by a Sri Lankan in a scientific discipline in spite of so many of them having worked in the western countries for the best part of their lives. It has to be emphasized that I do not attach much value to these Fellowships, Prizes and Awards, but I mention them as they reflect the so called standards in western knowledge.

Einstein’s statement which I came across while being a postgraduate (or graduate in American parlance) student in Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Sussex, brought me down to earth both literally and literary. I had been working on Cosmology and applications of General Relativity in Astrophysics, and the formulator of Relativity and Cosmology himself was telling me that I do not understand what I was talking about, though not in the same spirit it is stated regarding Mathematics. I began to wonder what would have happened if Einstein had to study Physics in English and not in German. Einstein was not famous for his Mathematics and had to depend on his teacher Minkowski and others later in life for help in Mathematics. If he had had to learn Physics in English at the gymnasium, it is very likely that he would not have ended up even as a clerk in the patent office. The national revolutions in Europe that made those countries independent of Latin (and Greek) did not want to succumb to English. This is reflected in the attitudes of the European Union, and the westerners would have most probably lost Lagranges, Boltzmans, Foucaults (not the recent Philosopher), Descarteses, Plancks, Einsteins, Bohrs, Schrödingers, Heisenbergs, Hilberts, Gödels, Machs, Wittgensteins and even Marxs if English had been the language of instruction in the respective countries. I am now not a sympathizer of western Physics, western Mathematics, western Philosophy or Marxism, but the western world would have been much poorer, of course relative to their culture and western Christian modernity, had Europe lost even a few of them. Most people are most creative when they are young and roughly below the age of thirty five years, Planck being an exception to this “rule”, and I consider it as a crime to teach whether Arts or Science subjects in English up to undergraduate level. Once a student has grasped the fundamentals he could be instructed in English or even in Latin if it is necessary but instructing a child or a young adult in a foreign language that he or she has not properly grasped is likely to kill the creative abilities of the person concerned in the other fields as well. When those who had come from English speaking families could not become FRS, knowing not only the “correct” pronunciation but the nuances, idioms and other subtleties of the English language what could be expected from the others who did not have those capabilities? I am not suggesting for a moment that learning western science in Sinhala will make the students more creative in those disciplines but at least that will open their eyes to contradictions in the culture in which science is created and the culture of the Sinhalas, and make them creative in other fields such as Philosophy (non western). Only some of those who are deeply immersed in the Judaic Christian culture have the potential to create knowledge in western science. The others can obtain their Ph.D’s. (To be continued)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva