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Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby

The tragedy of Tamil medium education in schools
Northeastern Herald, 20 September 2002

It is now a generally accepted fact of Sri Lankan history that the Jaffna Youth Congress in its search of ‘poorna swaraj’ for the entire country put forward the revival of the national languages, and education in the national languages, as one of its basic demands. Taking the cue from the Gandhian School, it did much better than in India and made ‘swabasha’ indispensable in the country’s struggle for independence.

Meaningful steps were taken during the State Council and the early days of independence for a gradual shift towards the learning in ‘swabasha’ and ultimately to a vernacular medium of education. Even in the worst of times, education for the average Sri Lankan child up to the 50’s was first in the vernacular. It was only after completing the third standard in the vernacular school curriculum that the child went to an English medium school.

This acknowledged at a very basic level, the realisation of the need to begin education in one’s own language. As mentioned in a previous article, the adoption of free education in the vernaculars led to radicalisation in the country. It is however unfortunate that what began as a symbol of equality and democratisation, has now become one of the bitterest areas of heartburn and muted resistance from among the Tamils.

At the university level, teaching in the Tamil medium has not suffered despite difficulties the Tamils face in gaining university entrance. It is true there are certain university courses, which one cannot offer in the Tamil medium. But this does not mean Tamil as a medium of instruction has been incapacitated in university teaching.

What has happened at the school level is a different story. Today, except for the teaching of Tamil as a language, and Hinduism as a religion, the use of Tamil as a medium of instruction is limited. Teaching social studies, science and art in Tamil has become a major problem.

This article attempts to delineate how this situation has arisen and to describe the status of Tamil as a medium of instruction.

Before the state took over schools, the shift to vernacular education did not face many problems. There was a generally accepted syllabus written by various authors prescribed by the government. Schools used their discretion to choose texts from this syllabus which they felt suited their needs best.

It should be mentioned however, there was greater depth and breadth of teaching in state-assisted schools than government schools at that time. (Royal College, though a government school, was an elite school. This article refers to mainly to the bulk of government schools in the island).

When the state began taking over schools in 1961, it wanted take away undue advantages enjoyed by some and equalise education opportunities. But as we now know from half a century of hindsight, it only led to the bureaucratisation of education and the non-accountability of the bureaucrats.

The 1961 action created the need for a common curriculum for teaching in schools and perhaps an equal level of teaching everywhere. Around the 1960s the educational publications department, which was originally started for translating texts for A/L and university curricula, gradually moved towards writing texts for schools.

At this juncture the Sinhalese and Tamils faced similar problems. These were the early days of the implementation of Sinhala Only and the administrative machinery was not fully Sinhalised. The emphasis of school education was on extending to the Sinhhalese and Tamils the benefits of western education.

I remember the work of enlightened administrators such as K. D. Ariyadasa, Kamala Pieris, S. Velayuthampillai and others working from the education publications department to create a curriculum suitable to the cultural background of the student. There was open discussion and any important committee on curricular change or designing, included Sinhala and Tamil scholars.

Despite Dr. P. Udagama being secretary, ministry of education under the 1970 government, there started a tendency of Sinhalising the ‘swabasha’ process. This was first manifest in the language and history readers published by the education publication department, which were openly communalistic towards the other communities. This was the conclusion of a study (if I remember right) by Reggie Siriwardene done in the 1980s. On the other hand, while this going on in the Sinhala medium readers, the Tamil medium readers were very efficiently supervised and designed to have a multicultural outlook.

It was in the writing of history textbooks that the slant began to appear in educational textbooks. Nevertheless it could said other disciplines like science etc., were not so badly affected. And teams consisting of writers in Tamil were devising and preparing these texts.

The next major milestone in this trend was President J. R. Jayewardene’s decision to arrogate to the state the writing and distribution of textbooks, thus throwing out private booksellers from the secondary school market. This did not apply to the highly competitive A/L examinations however, which was ultimately taken over by the parallel body to the country’s government-run education system – the tutories. Here too, Tamil students took the lead, which Sinhala students later took over.

After the Jayewardene decision for state involvement in writing and publishing textbooks, not only planning, but also transmission of education became a state monopoly. It was in the mid-1980s that the National Institute of Education (NIE) was founded and was given the charge of being the main nerve centre designing and writing of textbooks. It is at the level of the NIE that school-level Tamil medium education has suffered worst.

Theoretically speaking, because of the country’s basic position of teaching ‘swabasha’ from the Kindergarten to the university without any discrimination to the students, it is bound to have machinery that caters to both languages equally. In other words, in any activity, equal weight-age should be given to both languages. Unfortunately this has not happened.

If one takes most of the subjects other than the Tamil language and perhaps Hinduism, one does not see an expert from the Tamil medium of education in the consultant’s group – who basically, design the what is to go into the book – or in the writer’s group – those who write the various chapters. This seems to be so in the most sensitive of all the subjects taught – history and social studies, in spite of at least two or three academics of non-Sinhala ethnicity, teaching history in local universities. Their absence might not have been felt if at least those Sinhala academics of history who are known for their objectivity were included among the consultant/writer’s groups. The only person of non-Sinhala origin who comes into the picture is either a translator or a junior officer working in the NIE.

Coming to NIE-authored textbooks, it is true the mistake of an earlier era of brandishing every Tamil ruler as a vandal in not there any more. But there some very interesting political overtones in the textbooks that need to be analysed. The current textbook for social studies for grade eight, speaks of Sri Lanka as a centralised monarchy with a single king ruling the entire Island (page 86). One also comes across the term ‘central government’ (maththiya arasangam) and army (iranuvam) that are bones of contention in the Tamil-speaking areas. [The word iranuvam is a contemporary term for the military and refers to the security forces].

It is also interesting to read references to the Kingdom of Jaffna. It is referred to not as the ‘Kingdom of Jaffna’ but as the ‘Kingdom of the Jaffna region’ (Yalppana pirandhiyam). And Sapumal Kumaraya is said to have defeated the King of Jaffna to reassert the unitary state in the country. Evidently, the translator’s inability to express clearly the ideas in the original text adds to the confusion. One hopes this type of imbalance is rectified and the Tamil student is taught history, which is real and objective.

The NIE seems to be however learning through its past mistakes. The previous editions of the textbook used for arithmetic (ganitha) in grades seven, eight and nine used terms to refer to the northeast, southeast and southwest directions that were transliterations of the Sinhala: ‘isana,’ ‘agni moolai’ etc. Of course this is the way directions are referred to in the Hindu temple tradition. But though this might be comprehensible to the Hindu, it was unfair by the Christian and Muslim children. I understand the terms ‘isana’ and ‘agni moolai’ are no longer in use and the common term is used instead.

Is it not the duty of the State education organisation, which under the Constitution has the sole right to design, devise and write the curriculum (it has to be noted this power is not given to the provincial councils) takes at least minimum care to see it does not make such mistakes? The NIE, surely, cannot argue there are no objective, eminent, Tamil and Muslim scholars who would be able to correct such indiscretions? And if the NIE is reluctant to appoint them to any substantive committee, it could at least refer the written drafts for comment.

It is also saddening to see there are no Tamil and Muslim teachers of eminence serving on the consultant’s committees for textbook preparation in science, arithmetic / maths. I believe the problem lies in the staffing. As it stands now, the NIE does not have, besides the Director of Tamil Textbook Writing, any Tamil or Muslim educationist at a senior administrative position. In other words, no system has been devised by which a senior officer is made accountable for what appears in the textbook. One might also recall representations made by the Ceylon Tamil teachers Union (CTTU), which is a trade union body, in this regard.

Unfortunately, the problem does not end here. In certain subject areas there is complete neglect in reflecting the traditions of the Tamils and Muslims. I refer here to the syllabus for art at the GCE (O/L). There are no references at all to the aesthetic traditions of the Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. One should be very careful when handling areas of cultural studies. The objective of the course of study should be enable the student to know their own culture and familiarise themselves with other cultures so they do not develop a sense of superciliousness.

There are also instances of educational intrusions. Almost one-third of bharathanatiyam syllabus for the GCE A/L is on the Sinhala dances (called desiya natum). The local folk-level dances of the Tamils do not come within this ‘desiya.’ It is no doubt welcome that many Sinhala students are learning bharathanatyam and doing well too, but defusing a bharathanatyam syllabus is something entirely different. It should be remembered even by the Tamils that bharathanatyam is not all Tamil as it stands today; the Telugus, Kanneries and Malyalies share it. It should also be understood working for national integration is one thing, but this type of dilution is entirely different.

It is a pity our educationists lack the vision of teaching the Tamil or Muslim child Sinhala culture in Tamil and the Sinhala student Tamil and Muslim culture in Sinhala. One regrets to dwell so much on the NIE. I do accept it does good work, but being the sole authority of educational and pedagogical dispensation in this country, it should be aware of its responsibilities. What has really happened is the Tamil medium schools are losing faith in the NIE. But there seems to be no one to save it.

The system does not allow any feedback and our Tamil and Muslim educationists are afraid of being labelled as communalist to criticise the work of the NIE. Worse still, Tamil MPs seem neither seem to know or voice these concerns meaningfully.

The administration of education today is a matter for the provincial councils. Therefore, administratively too, Tamil medium education has suffered in implementation outside the northeast. For instance, in many of the schools outside the Northeast Province the non-teaching staff, including laboratory assistants, is mostly not conversant in Tamil. There are also instances where Sinhala teachers are appointed as heads of Tamil medium schools. I cannot understand the North Western Provincial Council’s response to the call of the CTTU to appoint a Tamil as the head of the Kurunegala Hindu Tamil School.

Alienation in education can be very costly to the unification of the country. If there is anything at all we learn from Tamil youth militancy it is this.



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