Sri Lanka's 'Liberal Arts' nightmare

By C. A. Chandraprema
Last week, I had the privilege of being one of the select crowd at the University of Colombo Academic Sessions public lecture series where Professor S.T.Hettige held forth on the question of Liberal Arts Education in a Liberal Economic Environment. The audience was not a 'select crowd' because of any limitation in the invitations. On the contrary, the entire public was invited by advertisement in the Daily News. But by the time the lecture commenced it was painfully obvious that even those engaged in 'liberal arts' education within the University of Colombo was not in attendance.

Liberal arts beggars

Despite the poor turnout, this undoubtedly is one of the most important questions in the field of education today. The vast majority of the products of our universities today are liberal arts graduates. And with the expansion of the university system, the production of liberal arts graduates has increased alarmingly. Education should not normally be a cause for 'alarm', but in Sri Lanka, it is. Very few of the Arts graduates being churned out have any prospects of employment and most of them end up joining the JVP to swell its cadre of full time activists. Also from time to time we are subject to the painful spectacle of university graduates sitting on the pavement holding placards demanding jobs from the government. Despite all this, year after year the production of arts graduates goes on regardless.

The term liberal arts refers to subjects like Sinhala, Pali, Buddhism, Christianity, Geography, Economics, Political Science Sociology and so on. Some of these subjects like Economics have some technocratic potential but that only for those who have studied the subject in English. In defining the purpose of liberal arts education, Professor Hettige quoting an authority writes that while the professional and technical courses concentrate on learning particular skills, liberal arts students are supposed to develop their powers of "...reflection upon the broad vistas of human knowledge...."

Very few of the Sinhala and Tamil educated Arts graduates in this country have this ability to "reflect upon the broad vistas of human knowledge". Because of the language problem, they do not even have access to "the broad vistas of human knowledge". In addition to this reflective ability, Prof. Hettige quoting more authorities, says that what is expected of a liberal arts education is "the ability to think effectively" to "communicate thought" to "discriminate among values" and the cultivation of "independent and critical thinking"( and hold your breath!) "cosmopolitanism as against parochialism" (!) and "the capacity to deal as a generalist with the ever increasing complexity of specialized knowledge." Now these are attributes we would normally associate with highly trained technocrats. And if the liberal arts graduates produced by our universities had even half these attributes, not one would be unemployed.

Education for employment

This brings us to that vast question which we inevitably confront in any discussion about education - What is the purpose of education? Is it to impart certain skills that make one employable or is it to create a more 'self aware' and 'cultivated' man? If education is only meant for individual cultivation, then the person who obtains education should not expect it to be a passport to employment. In such an event, education would be an end in itself regardless of the job availability. If such is the motive, then certainly, liberal arts education opportunities should be freely available to all who want to be 'educated'.

In Japan for instance, where about 60% of the school-going population receives a tertiary education, a youth with a university degree may find himself in a shop floor job in a factory. This is what has made the Japanese workforce so highly trained and of such high quality. But the tradition in this country has been different. From the time the British began a massive expansion in the education system in the nineteenth century, education has been geared to the job market.

In the old days under the British, formal education was to a large extent liberal arts education except for a few specialized institutions like the law college, the medical college and the technical college. And all education especially in the English language was for the job market. In those halcyon days the typical educated man was supposed to be a 'mahattaya' a man of higher sensibilities with a regular income to match. The local population went after English education in order to get into the 'mahattaya' class. During the British period, while English education was job oriented, Swabhasha education which formed the vast bulk of the schools system (over 85% of it) was meant for 'education for the sake of education' to make the recipient 'something more' than what he was.

And what was the result? Swabhasha education produced the social force that ruined this country. The hoi polloi who had been made 'something more' by the Swabhasha schools obviously did not think of it as an end in itself. For them even the non-knowledge they had received was seen as a conduit to power and privilege and employment.

Education and ruination

The rational course of action in Sri Lanka's present circumstances would be to drastically scale down liberal arts education. As it is at present, the liberal arts education imparted by our universities neither impart job skills nor help to make the recipient a 'more complete human being'. Why talk of the 'broad vistas of human knowledge' to these pathetic youth who have probably never read a book in all their lives? The system here is such that from the O/L onwards, students get used to depending on notes taken down in class and that is what prevails even at university level. Perhaps the complaint of having 'zombie' like students can be heard form foreign universities as well, but here it is especially marked because of the language problem, where the vast majority of the university student population does not have access to 'the broad vistas of human knowledge'.

At the O/L or A/L examinations, students should be channeled to courses with more employment potential without allowing them to embark on the self destructive course of obtaining a liberal arts education at the tertiary level which is of no use either to the recipient or to the country. Moreover the resources expended to impart this useless education will best be utilised for other purposes. Even in British colonial times when it was found that too many people were going in search of English education, it was artificially restricted by the government.

There is an additional problem with liberal arts education in Sri Lanka especially among the Sinhalese. As everybody knows, the work ethic is largely alien to Sinhala culture (except in the case of certain segments of the population . Among the Sinhalese in general, imparting tertiary level education in useless courses in the liberal arts may be actually a case of destroying lives. A youth who might otherwise have been gainfully employed as a welder or mason might have his life ruined by being selected to university for a liberal arts course after which he would not be able to take up a non-white collar occupation.

The more humane course of action will be to cut off such youth from the O/L or the A/L at the very latest and ensure that he goes into some gainful occupation rather than being burdened by a useless non-education. The requirement of the modern age is that everybody should be educated up to a certain minimal level. Ten years of schooling which would end in an O/L type education can be considered that minimal, 'humanly required' level. For anything beyond this level, realitry has to prevail. From this minimum level onwards, the education system should be geared to the job market in that particular society. In Sri Lanka at present, we are only creating discontent by expanding liberal arts education simply as a means of postponing unemployment. If the government restricts university entrance, those who have passed the A/L's will at once be deemed unemployed. But by corralling them into a useless university course for three or four years, unemployment can be postponed. And that is what the government has been doing with little regard for the future consequences.

Education and economic expansion

Of course since of late, there is a situation where even science and engineering graduates are finding it hard to find employment despite the limited numbers turned out. There is the undeniable factor that had the economy been a little more dynamic more graduates would have found employment than at present. The graduate unemployment problem in this country is directly linked to the question of economic expansion. The economy in this country has been underperforming for the past several decades and the economy is too small for the population. Sri Lanka has survived thus far by exporting the unemployment problem in the form of housemaids and what not. If all the several hundreds of thousands of Tamils and Sinhalese living abroad were suddenly to come back to Sri Lanka, there would be pandemonium.

The graduate unemployment problem is connected to this wider problem of a stagnant economy and a growing population. Had the economy in Sri Lanka been growing at the rate of some other Asian countries that have managed to make it to the ranks of newly industrialized countries, then perhaps we might not be talking of a graduate unemployment problem or the case of liberal arts graduates. These days, we have a tendency to treat the terms 'unemployed graduate' and 'liberal arts graduate' almost as synonyms!

But that is an if. The bottom line is that the economy is not expanding and that it will not expand satisfactorily even in the forseeable future. So the educational dress has to be cut according to the cloth. In the present liberalized economic environment, liberal arts education had to be drastically curtailed. Professor Hettige himself has admitted in his paper that "...an education system which imparts disjointed fragments of liberal arts education to a large, underprivileged segment of the youthful population can be not only socially unjust but also political dangerous...."

Rice first please!

One thing that I could not help noticing in Professor Hettige's paper was the almost 'millennial' role that he sees for liberal arts education. He seems to feel that a good liberal arts education can mould a 'higher man'. He would for instance see the widespread tolerance of corruption, violence and abuse of power and electoral malpractice's as a failure of liberal arts education. He quotes an educational authority to the effect that "...One of the prime aims of liberal arts education would have been to afford the people the opportunity to involve themselves in the deepest problems of society, to acquire the knowledge, skills and ethical responsibility necessary for reasoned participation in a democratically organized polity...." While placing liberal arts education on a moral pedestal, Prof. Hettige tends to look down upon those who are "...almost totally absorbed into professional or vocational pursuits alienated from the wider social and civilisational context..."

It appears that Professor Hettige is a partisan of the 'education is an end in itself' school of thought. He appears to deplore the rising tide of "intrumentalism" in education whereby educational qualifications are sought to ensure desirable work opportunities.... He talks of the "vocationalisation" of university education . Initially he says, it was mostly in the professional fields like Law, medicine and engineering but now various other fields have followed suit. "It is then but a small step to bring in all kinds of practical subjects into the university such as beauty culture, the hospitality trade and advertising." My question is why not? Why shouldn't subjects like beauty culture, hospitality trade, and the like be introduced into the university? In the 1990's during the Premadasa government when an attempt was made to introduce such subjects to the affiliated university curriculum, the JVP student unions raised a hue and cry saying the government was trying to turn educated youth into barbers and bakers! The fact is that both barbers and bakers have better job prospects than liberal arts graduates.

While academics like Prof. Hettige who are themselves products of a liberal arts education may have 'messianic' expectations of a liberal arts education, one thing that is very clear is that such lofty goals are certainly not going to be achieved by the horde of Sinhala educated liberal arts graduates that this country has been producing. Since the government is now looking into the matter of higher education, they should seriously consider drastically restricting the university intake into liberal arts courses while making available alternative courses in practical subjects like baking, beauty care, printing and so on. Why talk of a higher man? Lets have an employed or employable man first!