14 October 2015

There are nudities that we embrace

These are days when the value of a doctorate has been considerably compromised by dubious institutions awarding such titles to persons of disrepute. The University system has not done itself any favours by rewarding mediocrity with professorships, relaxing what was previously a strict system of qualification and thereby enabling those with hardly any publication worthy of the title ‘academic’ to strut around as though they are of equal standing with men and women of eminence in their chosen field of study.

We hear today of obituaries and appreciations published in newspapers being tagged onto portfolios submitted for consideration by committees in Universities appointed to recommend promotions. Articles in refereed journals or books put out by reputed publications are rare in these submissions, I am told.

All that matters is to get the ‘marks’ as laid out in the point system against which one’s claim is assessed. This is what Sasanka Perera calls the Nava Marksvaadaya or the New Marxism (k not x), tongue in cheek.

These are not days when one’s work is one’s best advertisement. These are days where non-work is bandied around as work, anthill accomplishments are talked as though they required effort akin to Everest-scaling. These are package-and-packing-is-all days.

These are days of skin-tone and eyewash, cleansing days of delicately removing the residue of mediocrity and emptiness. These are address-changing, name-altering days.

Yesterday I wrote a story of two doctors (see Daily News of October 12, 2010). It was about a senior lecturer trying to impress on first year medical students the importance of dressing well. The man, to my mind, went beyond the parameters of reason which an academic and doctor who was earlier the Secretary of the Sri Lanka Medical Association, Ruvaiz Haniffa kindly outlined to me in an email. I summarize as follows:

“I disagree that inculcating in young doctors the necessity of proper attire and proper communication are a waste of time in the context of the profession. To clarify this point let me give a quote I use at my lectures-You must not only treat the diabetes in Mr Piyasena but should try and treat Mr Piyasena who has diabetes. We at Colombo try to impress that Medical students and future doctors should dress appropriately. There is no compulsion on students to follow this dress code though they are encouraged to do so. We at no time insist that students are attired in the best possible clothing imported from the UK or some foreign land but we do insist that they ‘dress appropriately’ while they are within the Faculty premises attending to official academic activities.’

I am not disagreeing with the above position. What I objected to was what I felt was a crazy and uncalled for fixation on European clothing preferences. My word-giving friend Errol Alphonso also emailed me just a minute ago and he put things in perspective:

‘People carry themselves not on account of their clothes, but in spite of them.’

To get back to title and name, i.e. in terms of the opening thrust of this essay, I am wondering why 
people do not understand that in the final instance and for the most part they carry themselves not on account of their titles or their names but in spite of these, and moreover that any attempt to place trust on the reverse diminishes them in the judgments that count.

The ‘doctor’ I wrote about in that article, I was told this morning, was not a doctor. He is no physician, has no medical degree. This is no crime and is not a disqualification to teach medical students of course since the curriculum includes subjects to teach which one does not necessarily have to have such a degree. Biochemistry can be taught by someone who does not have any clue about diagnosing a disease or prescribing medication. Physiology, Anatomy and other disciplines too, I am sure, can be taught by non-Medical persons provided they are qualified and skilled.

I am merely stating my ignorance regarding the person’s educational background and apologizing to him and to others who might be offended by being bracketed faculty-wise and discipline-wise with him.

Here’s what’s objectionable though and for which I will not seek pardon but express sadness and sympathy. The man is ashamed of his name. Let us assume that his name is Pannipitiya Arachchige Jinadasa Pitigala. His near and dear call him Victor. Why? A pet name? I think not. A person who is ashamed of the name his parents gave him is essentially kicking his parents and their memory, is spitting on his ancestors and teaching his children to do likewise; i.e. kick him and spit upon him.

I am astounded by the extent to which name and title and what’s implied therein can impact a man’s values and conduct. Even admitting the pernicious and persistent negatives attached to certain social categories, there is a sense in which a human being can rise above these distinctions he/she is born into and which, in the final analysis, are totally arbitrary.

People do this all the time. They rise above the labels of ‘lowerness’ and rise above labels of ‘higherness’ too; yes, the latter too is handicap to those aspiring to be better human beings tomorrow than they are today or were yesterday.

Labels diminish us, especially when we use them on ourselves and believe we are naked if we do not.
Titles and names are not clothes that are necessary to cover nudity and conform to acceptable minimums in the matter of social intercourse.

They are frills. We shouldn’t make too much of them, I think. Some do, though. They think these are the clothes and knowledge and wisdom the frills. They don’t know they are naked.

First published in the Daily News, Ocotber 13, 2010