|Wednesday, 27 November 2002|
I would go without shirts or shoes
The Storm's Eye by Prof.Rajiva Wijesinghe
Kipling has long been one of my favourite authors, and 'Kim' one of my favourite books, though I never thought the day would come when I would feel a sense of identification with the character. That however has begun to happen of late, with the refrain of having two sides to my head reverberating at increasingly frequent intervals.
It occurred again last week when, less than a week after a meeting of Asian and European liberals in Korea, I found myself in Mysore at a conference on 'Asian Identity in Literature', organized by the English Centre at Dhvanayaloka. This was set up half a century ago by Prof Narasimhaiah, the doyen of Commonwealth Literature in India, and indeed the conference marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of his literary journal the 'Criterion'.
It was not a large conference, the only international presence apart from myself being provided by a large contingent from Singapore. There were however participants from all over India, and they delivered a wealth of papers that spanned the whole continent, from Japan to Jerusalem, from the letters of a Javanese princess to the epics of Kyrghiztan - which I discovered was only a couple of hundred miles north of New Delhi, no further than Mysore was to the south. We had the usual lively discussions, with all the Indians arguing with each other while being impeccably polite to the Singaporeans and myself. And I learnt an immense amount, which one does not get much of an opportunity to do in Sri Lanka, except on one's own, since we rarely have the resources to arrange such events ourselves.
I am of course a great believer in the value of such conferences, and have been delighted to find that my younger staff have also made a practice of attending them when possible. A couple of years ago we hired a couple of junior lecturers who had qualified in India, and they have maintained their contacts and regularly presented papers at conferences there, and indeed elsewhere.Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case with other subjects.
Perhaps there are fewer such opportunities in other fields, but contacts seem to be less, and there is also of course the language problem. Many of our lecturers can manage to teach in English, and indeed they have to, since we offer all subjects in the English medium too, but the capacity to present a paper and indeed participate actively at an international conference cannot always be found readily. Indeed I myself was informed, having sent one of our party organizers to a workshop for young liberals, that he had not been able, because of language constraints, to contribute quite as much as his own intelligence and commitment would have warranted.
Clearly we are losing out in this respect. And though my Indian colleagues also drew attention to declining capacities in English at universities in general, they still have a large enough pool of proficient English speakers to ensure the continuing development in all subjects that tertiary education now demands.
We however need to take radical measures if we are not to have exponentially declining knowledge and communication levels in most fields in the future.The National Education Commission, and indeed most planners in this field, have drawn attention to the need to develop English skills in young lecturers, but despite some excellent efforts in this field - led by Prof Ekaratne and his dedicated team at the Staff Development Centre in Colombo - there is need of much more, and in particular of making such skills requirements for not only promotion but even permanence (assuming, that is, that permanency on traditional lines is necessary, which I vehemently contest).
And going beyond this, there is need of developing English skills at school, not just in terms of second language skills, but through the study of subjects as Tara de Mel introduced during her short time at the Ministry of Education.
Now to do both of these satisfactorily, there is a crying need for English reading materials at appropriate levels. We need to produce not only satisfactory textbooks for schools, but also a mass of simple supplementary material that those wishing to read English at various academic levels can use for practice.
And we need to extend this to those entering university, and indeed those who qualify, so that they can break into the reading cycle and develop the speed and understanding that will enable them to read the reference materials essential for the up to date knowledge base they must command if our education system is to move into the 21st century.
In order to achieve this there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead of producing materials ourselves, we can easily make use of the expertise of established publishers, in particular Indian ones who cater to a market not too far removed from ours, but also western ones who have realized the potential in these fields.
And instead of purchasing books printed abroad, we could invite them to set up production units in this country, which would ensure that some of the costs would be those incurred locally. Not only would some employment be generated, but there would also be training of higher level staff, who could in time run such operations themselves.
I had suggested all this to Tara de Mel, who acted promptly and set up meetings with potential partners, a number of them so as to ensure the competition necessary if consumers are to benefit. Unfortunately she was out of office before we could proceed, and the follow up letter I had prepared had to be submitted to her successor.
He was given it last January and, having declared that he needed advice on the subject, he presumably passed it down for comment. That was the last I heard of it, despite a reminder. Telling the Minister proved equally useless, though he at least seemed to understand the concept.So it was not only the fact of attending two very different conferences within a couple of weeks that prompted my thoughts of Kim. It was also that, while in Mysore, I was editing the Year 6 Social Studies text, while also producing simple reading materials for my students at university, for whom we have introduced one hour of subject specific English in every introductory course. And on the way back, in Bangalore, I had to meet publishers to try to interest them in the project, without any certainty that it would receive the official support it deserved.
Like Kim, I wonder why I have to do all this. Have to is perhaps a misnomer, because of course one could opt out if one wanted.
But, given the realization that academics in other subjects have greater difficulties, it is not so easy to opt out. Even with the realization that, unlike Kim, the dispensation within which one works is volatile and diffuse, one still has to continue. But it does get more tiring with the years.
Produced by Lake House