By: Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

WORD over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.”

From’ Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

The key words in the title are harmony, education, challenges and opportunities. The main theme is however reconciliation to achieve national harmony and the role education plays in this process.

We are gathered here to speak, listen and probably ask questions, because we acknowledge that we have contentious issues that have caused disharmony in Sri Lanka. The failure to address contentious issues in an enlightened manner, have kept the issues on the boil through various phases of our post-independence history.

When music is not harmonious, it sounds discordant and becomes a noise. It is not pleasing to hear. When a society is not harmonious, with relation to its component members- its peoples- and a ‘larger’ vision, it loses its direction, seeds chaos and breeds conflict. Harmony is balance and disharmony is imbalance. Harmony is the middle path and disharmony is the extreme path. Harmony is peace and disharmony is conflict. When a society is not harmonious in its thinking and actions, it ceases to develop and progress in a steady and meaningful manner. A society is not harmonious when it is inherently unjust and does not treat its peoples alike and provide equal opportunities.

Frustration, grievances and anger are fertile grounds for conflict. Conflict leaves in its wake a divided society that has been torn asunder. What was easy to break is usually more difficult to mend/make. Conflict robs a society of its abiding values and renders it soulless. It robs our humanity and distorts our equanimity. There are always two or more parties to a specific conflict, with all parties having valid grievances. There may be several reasons for a conflict, of which misunderstanding and refusal to understand are primary. As a prelude to resolving conflicts there should be a willingness to accept there is a conflict, understand the reasons from a multi-dimensional and ‘other’s’ perspective, forgive, apologize, trust, be trustable and desist from mutual recriminations. Education can provide the necessary mindset.

Harmony is the pleasant effect made by parts being combined into a whole. Harmony does not infer uniformity in thought, behaviour or actions. But it requires, as in an orchestra, a coming together of different vocalists, various instruments and the conductor, to produce a music pleasing to hear. Each conductor is unique, each instrument is unique, each player is unique and each vocalist is unique. The members have to adjust to the unique style of each conductor, and express their uniqueness within the whole, the music, the audience would perceive.

In societies- a collection of diverse peoples- we may march as individuals to the beat of different drummers, but as peoples, speaking different languages, professing different religions and living different cultures, we have to yet work together towards achieving common goals. The principle goal- the ‘larger vision’-, being a just society with safety, security, equal opportunities and adequate livelihood for all. Within this context there should be space for individual talent to find expression, value and appreciation. No single person should feel he/she is a victim of an unjust, iniquitous society. This is the ideal we have to strive towards, to re-establish harmony and contain conflict. Awareness of the elements that contain conflict and those that seed conflict comes through education.

Education should instill ethical values in society. Education should make us understand that most aspirations are common to mankind. Education should instill an awareness and appreciation of not only an individual’s cultural heritage but also an awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of the ‘Others’. Education should give us knowledge of ourselves as individuals and by extension of those around us. Education should produce ‘thinking’ persons. Education should produce cultured and wise persons. Education should produce persons who understand their limitations and can learn from those who transcend these limitations. Education should produce persons with respect for ‘Others’. Education should produce persons who seek to learn the ‘Wisdom’ distilled from previous generations and from those of learning and wisdom in their society and the world- at -large. Education should help understand the distinction between rhetoric and truth/facts. Education should help us reconcile the duality we see in everything around us and appreciate the whole- the concept of reconciling the opposites. Education is the key to achieving harmony in any society. Education should transform us into an ‘Ethical nation’, from one that is built on expediency.

The question that needs to be asked is what is education? Education is a process to educate a person. The word educate comes from the Latin root- ‘Educere’, which means ‘to bring out or lead forth’. Swami Vivekananda once said, “Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man”. This recognizes that every person has something ‘good’ within, although some may have it in greater measure than others. This implies that education should bring out what is best in each person. Perfection is generally considered a divine attribute. As every person is unique, the lesson should hit a ready target- a ‘lock and key’ mechanism-, to bring out his/her uniqueness. Education is the key that opens the door to the riches within man. Education then would bring out the ‘God’ in man and not the ‘Devil’.

An ill-educated man is a menace to society. An ill-educated leader is a calamity. An ill-educated teacher is an outright criminal. An ill-educated preacher/ priest a curse. An ill-educated society of peoples is a tragedy. We have all experienced the consequences of the words and deeds of ill-educated persons in various walks of life.

The stories reaching us through the epics and literature-religious or secular, centered on heroes, who made ideal characters for the guidance of all subsequent generations. Traditional education in Asia, particularly India had been accomplished deliberately through hero-worship. These heroes stood for ethical values in life, in their positions as saints, kings, queens, warriors, teachers, jesters, commoners and even animals. The Jathaka stories, the Aesop’s fables, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Panchatantra stories, the biblical stories and the Hadiths are examples of this manner of educating people.

Does our system of education today bring out the best in us or indeed lead us towards anything more useful or worthwhile than literacy- reading, writing and Arithmetic (the three R’s) – and employment related training? Does the education system we have, yet based on its colonial foundations, suit us in terms of our cultural, religious and philosophical heritage and needs as peoples? Does our education system recognize the differences in the potential of students and cater to it?

Can a system of education created to mass produce the cogs and wheels of an industrial society which has greed and unnecessary consumption as its goals; produce a co-operative society that can contain conflict from within? Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy emphasized that when literacy becomes an only skill, ‘the collective wisdom’ of a literate people may be only ‘collective ignorance’. He also underlined that the so-called “Illiterate’ people of old had ‘Collective wisdom’. Sri Lanka and many other countries- probably all countries- now suffer from the malady of ‘Collective ignorance’. We are also the victims of the tyranny of the literates masquerading as educated. Political power bestowed on such literates inevitably makes a mockery of democracy.

Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy very perceptively asked, “Should literacy produced by compulsory mass education be the primary goal of our educational system as this literacy provides little more than the ability and the will to read newspapers and advertisements?” In today’s context the visual media and the internet should be added to this mix. This is not the kind of knowledge that should be handed out to everyone under ‘compulsion’ or ‘free choice’. Can any nation afford the needed quantity and quality of teachers, to provide the quality of education needed? The home and the society at large have to no doubt play their part. Can they in our context of having been badly educated for several decades?

We were once a co-operative society, where one was for all and all were for one and the pain of one was the pain of all. Modern education has created a society in which competition and conflict are in-built and selfishness and self centeredness are virtues. Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy referring to India said that India has nothing to offer the world except her religious philosophy, and her faith in the application of philosophy to social problems. This obviously applies to Sri Lanka too. How can we introduce philosophical thoughts we have evolved over the millennia, into our education system? However, it is important to remember that Socrates was poisoned by the rulers of the day, because he tried to teach philosophy to the youth! He was accused of poisoning the minds of youth!

In the seventh century CE, Robert Knox (Englishmen who was held captive in the Kandyan Kingdom and later given the freedom to travel the Island) said of the ‘Cingalese ‘ people that, “—their ordinary Plough-men and Husbandmen do speak elegantly and are full of complement. And there is no difference of ability and speech of a Country-man and the Courtiers”. How did we achieve this sophistication in a time before western education was introduced to us? (Please note that Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy has been identified as a ‘Cingalese’ by Englishmen of his generation, on many occasions).

In a time gone by Tamil children were taught the Tamil alphabet with a profound aphorism beginning with each alphabet. The first alphabet ‘Aana’ was taught with the aphorism ‘Aram seyya virumbu’ (Desire to do things that are harmless), ‘Aaavanna’ was taught through ‘Aaruvathu sinam (Let anger cool) etc., which were concepts that were valid throughout life. Whereas, English alphabet is taught through ‘A’ for apple, ‘B’ for bat etc., which have no meaning to anyone beyond the Kindergarten. Most Tamil students are not taught the Tamil alphabet the old way now. They are the poorer for it. Similarly, literature such as the Nalavenba- the story of Nala and Damayanthy- are not taught in schools to Tamil students in a composite manner now. A poem in Nalavenba referring to King Nala’s just rule, says, “Mathar aruhuttum paingkiliyum, ardattr parunthum oru kootil vaala ulahu” (The parrot hand-reared by maidens and the predatory eagle were able to live in harmony in the same cage). What better education can a child receive in the formative years?

Education in its true sense is explained by the following equation:

Education = Knowledge + Culture + Wisdom

Knowledge- is, at the basic level what we learn to achieve literacy and life skills. This should in turn create a thirst for more, deeper and wider knowledge.

Culture- Involves refinement of mind, morals and taste. This comes about through exposure to religion, literature, arts, philosophy, diversity and cultured persons. Culture involves learning of the profound and distinguishing it from the profane. Culture should be imbibed from ones surroundings and sought beyond it through books and travel. Culture involves the senses and dictates the way of life.

Wisdom- is the ability to think and act utilizing knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. The knowledge component includes what one learns in his/her own life time and of the accumulated wisdom of past generations. Discriminative / selective learning, which is erudition, is a vital aspect of wisdom. A wise person has to be also a cultured person. A wise person is the ‘Educated’ person.

We mistakenly think that those who hold higher degrees are more educated than those who have only qualified at the lower levels. The former, may have accumulated more knowledge, but may lack culture and wisdom. The latter, may have less knowledge, but more culture and wisdom. Modern education tends to produce masses with various levels of knowledge and skills but very few with also culture and wisdom. Literacy makes everyone think they are educated! This has been modern man’s tragedy, despite the unprecedented progress we have made in science and material wealth creation (multiplication of wants and greed).

Are our education system and social environment designed to produce educated persons? Do these draw out the best in us? Do our educational system and social environment teach us to think critically? Do our education system and social environment teach us to seek the truth behind what we hear, see and read? Or are these designed to produce a range of stuffed sausages that accept everything at face value and react without understanding? In a society of stuffed sausages, lacking in the ability to think and ask questions at the individual and collective level, can reconciliation and harmony come about? Can bigotry and jingoism that seed conflict be contained or preferably weeded in a nation of peoples confined to their own mental and attitudinal wells (remember the frog in the well story), when the education system does not afford an opportunity for them to come out, learn, experience, interact and see the world as it is- beautiful in its diversity and as a mosaic.

The education system in this country should be overhauled at all levels to incorporate components of our heritage and culture in greater measure. The education system should embrace the dedicated institutions, the home and society. The best from the west should be incorporated, but not permitted to diminish or blow away what is ours and makes us what we are. The story, poem, song, arts, aphorisms, morals, proverbs, values and meaning that have come down to us from generations past, should remain essential parts of who we are and should be cherished. Further, the menace of private tuition in school subjects should be eradicated to provide the child the time to learn other things of value in life.

An education system that can make us a cultured, wise and thinking people can make us reconcile, and become a harmonious society. This is the challenge. The opportunity is right now, in the aftermath of decades of conflict and overt war that have spread nothing but misery all around, cost us many lives and scarred us beyond imagination, but not resolved our problems. Are we capable of using this opportunity and meeting this challenge? I have my doubts whether we have the collective wisdom and will to do this with the urgency and objectivity required, over the long haul. To achieve these we have to have educated persons leading us, educated persons rearing us, educated persons preaching to us, educated persons teaching us, educated people around us and an enlightened media focused on promoting harmony.

However, the aftermath the prolonged conflict and wars have produced- the gaping wounds and a searing pain- in our society, cannot be ignored. This pain will be with us for a long time, as we are yet not thick skinned. The wounds and pain have touched a national nerve. The lessons of past failures have hit our very soul with a force that hurts and cannot be ignored. We and the generations to come will not forget these lessons easily, as they have been painfully learned. These lessons- practical education- will pave the way for national reconciliation faster than the ability of the education system to reform and respond. The political leadership has to respond to this lesson and solve the fundamental problems that led to a bloody conflict and social schism. The people will be with them.

(Paper presented at the National Conference on,” the Role of Education in Reconciliation” organized by Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS), Sri Lanka, on 13th March ’2012. The author can be contacted at:

About noelnadesan

Commentator and analyst of current affairs.
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