20 February 2015

If there's to be 'university' in the university

My batchmate and present editor of The Island, Prabath Sahabandu has a peculiar sense of humour. The year was 1990.  He was in his final year at Peradeniya.  I remember him accosting a fresher at the library.  There was an elderly person at one of the book shelves.  Browsing. Prabath drew the attention of the fresher to this person. The following is an English translation of the brief conversation:

‘Do you know who that is?’

‘No, Honourable Senior’ the fresher replied.  ‘Jyeshta Uththamaya’ (the term used) was obtained from ‘Hnourable Senior’ I was told, but I doubt if the original is used at all now. That’s a story in itself, but we shall let it go.

‘That itself shows how ignorant you are!  That’s Ediriweera Sarachchandra. Have you heard of him?’

‘Yes, Jyeshta Uththamaya.’ 

‘Do you know what he’s doing here?’

‘No, Jyeshta Uththamaya.

‘He’s studying for a repeat (exam)’ (repeat ekak goda daaganna paadam karanava).

This was followed by a lecture on the importance of attending lectures, submitting tutorials and studying: ‘He is in his seventies and he still hasn’t completed all his repeats; do you want to end up like that?’

‘No, Jyeshta Uththamaya!’

Prabath was having fun, but what he was saying was not funny.  Student don’t take university seriously or as seriously as they should. They don’t take themselves seriously either. A few days after we entered university we were told about a ‘truism’ by our seniors: craamanta class nehe (those who cram do not get classes). There was and still is an anti-scholarship culture that is deliberately nurtured by those who engage in ‘politics’ and by the intellectually challenged; especially in the social sciences and humanities. 

This is not to say that the university system has produced generation after generation of morons.  Scholars and scholarship has emerged despite this anti-intellectualism fostered by certain students and a socio-political-economic overall that appears to reward and celebrate the sophomoric, the pedestrian and abysmal, intellectually speaking.  That’s because certain students rise about the conditions of their studentship, which includes, sadly, a faculty of lecturers where the voices of sanity, scholarship and integrity are drowned by sophomoric cacophony. 

Sasanka Perera of the Sociology Department, delivering the key note address at a felicitation of Siri Gunasinghe, elaborated on this situation.  He observed that Siri Gunasingha had gone against the grain at Peradeniya, both as writer and academic, and contended that this was because the conditions at the time allowed it.  Where there was space for free inquiry, the unfettered expression of ideas, a culture of criticism, value for humility, and all this underlined by academic honesty, there was space for the ‘maverick’ and the conditions for what begins as ‘marginal’ to become ‘mainstream’. 

Sasanka laments that academe has lost its critical edge.  It has been replaced by an unabashed slide towards a culture of sycophancy, a happy readiness to genuflect before political reality at the cost of doing justice to the salary one gets. 

Recently we had vice chancellors supporting a presidential candidate.  They did not make it clear that they were doing this in their personal capacity.  Their designations were mentioned.  The relevant academics did not correct the error, if indeed it was erroneously reported.  Some academics howled in protest, but I am convinced that this had more to do with the candidate who was supported than the act of supporting.  It was not the first time that academics have endorsed candidates or parties.  There were not protests; no whines, no whimpering. 

Universities are not politics-free and should not be. Indeed, that’s not even possible.  On the other hand politics is more than loyalty to particular party.  It is about being compelled by logic. It is a decision to defend the truths one subscribes to. It is about being prepared to debate, being humble to acknowledge error.  It is about engagement.

Sasanka said there’s a new ideological strain in the university system. I heard him say ‘A new Marxism’ (nava marsvaadayak).  He was punning. He had taken the term from ‘mark’ and ‘marks’ and not ‘Karl Marx’.  He was referring to the ‘points system’ or ‘marks’ that someone in the university needs to get in order to become a ‘professor’.  There must have been some logic to this new system of dishing out professorships, but what we have today is a gross devaluation of that title.  The kind of intellect, intellectual curiosity, discipline, scholarship, dedication to the noble vocations of research and teaching etc that one assumes goes with the title is clearly (and sadly) absent in many of the (Neo Marxist/Marksist) Professors in our universities today. 

I am not particularly educated about the situations in the fields of engineering, medicine, veterinary science and agriculture, but the arts faculties, most discerning observers would admit are not exactly turning out men and women who are capable of making waves in the theoretical fields of their choosing.  There has been very few articles or books that can claim to have expanded the overall understanding of a given phenomenon or social process.  It is certainly pitiful when ‘academics’ attach articles they’ve written to newspapers (including appreciations and obituaries as well as comments totally unrelated to their subject) to obtain the necessary ‘marks’ for promotion.

Sasanka made another observation.  He said that if things are to change, then there should be a recognition of the fact that this ‘marksism’ is not a good thing.  The truth, sadly, is that very few people are unhappy about the way things are today. 

According to Sasanka, there is little chance in the university system for someone like Siri Gunasinghe to emerge.  I disagree.  Things happen because certain conditions are amenable to their happening and things also happen in agitation against the status quo. Tougher.  Not impossible.  That however is for the future to pass judgment on.

The universities are not like schools. The drop-out rate is very low.  Sarachchandra didn’t have ‘repeats’ to deal with and I doubt if any current student would at the age of 70 + have ‘repeats’ to worry about. People graduate, sooner or later.  The question is: how are we to assess the worth of this ‘graduation’ when the worth of those who impart the knowledge and assess the students is under question? 

The Ivory-Tower Syndrome is not specific to Sri Lanka of course.  There is a certain insular and even incestuous streak in the whole academic business. Academics prefer the security of close-door engagement and when they do venture out, it is for a limited ‘outing’, slipping back into the arrogant shell called ‘I-am-a-scholar’ at the first sign of threat.  Still, in Sri Lanka, even within the closed doors, there seems to be very little conversation taking place.  Outside of crass party politics, that is. 

I remember S.B. De Silva explaining why the Senior Common Room of the Arts Faculty, Peradeniya was empty most of the time: ‘they are in Polgahamulla’.  Polgahamulla is a place where people give tuition to external students.  Nothing wrong in that.  Nothing wrong in academics turning into consultants for I/NGOs to earn a few more bucks.  What’s sad is that all of this is turning them into lazy creatures who are, moreover, extremely averse to doing the job they are being paid to do: teaching.   Oh yes, they teach, but there teaching and teaching.  A good teacher has to update him/herself with the latest developments in the particular field.  This will not happen if they are not interested in reading and engaging and these two seem to be low-priorities. 

Something has to be done about the encouragement of mediocrity via Marksism.  There is a need to overhaul the entire system of instruction and scholarship and if we wait too long, we won’t have the necessary human resources. They would all be dead.  The sophomoric, even with the best of intentions, would not be able to sort things out.   We would have to wait for some messiah.  We should be able to do better than that. 

In 1986, Desmond Mallikarachchi of the Philosophy Department, Peradeniya, addressing students at Dumbara Campus, Polgolla, insisted that ‘the university has left the university’ and that the struggle should be to recover identity. 

Who is going to bring the university back?  Not Marksists, certainly.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  This was first published in May 9, 2010 in the 'Sunday Observer'.