Spiralling into ignorance
EDUCATION: One of the problems about trying to understand the new
History syllabus that has been perpetrated by the NIE is that it has
been made available only piecemeal.
Unlike last year, when transparency was of the essence, and all
syllabuses were made publicly available on the website as soon as they
were approved, this year's crop is difficult to access.
I am therefore not certain whether it has been prepared through a
scoping document that covers the entire grade span.
This certainly is necessary if overlap is to be avoided, else we will
have the situation that Savithri Gunasekara deplored when she said that
interviewees for international Scholarships could only think of
Anuradhapura and the extended family when asked what they could
celebrate about their country.
The NIE however will doubtless argue that endless repetition, of
these two old favourites, and a few other basic notions, is intended as
part of what it terms the spiral approach.
Since this does not seem to be understood by several people in the
NIE who mouth the jargon, let alone the teachers they are supposed to
train, or those who write textbooks, what happens is that students learn
the same things over and over again, without the conceptual capacities
that the spiral approach should encourage.
An example of the lack of intellectual coherence is provided when you
compare the few documents that are currently publicly available, the
syllabuses for Grades 6 and 10. In Grade 6 students learn 'What is
History?' and 'The use of Learning History', in Grade 10 they learn
'What is History' and 'Advantages of Learning History'.
In addition, in this Introduction in Grade 10, after they have
already been learning history for four years, they are introduced to
'Historical Sources', both 'Literary Sources' and 'Archaeological
I would assume that students were in fact introduced to some of these
earlier, and did not have to rely only on the wonderful video the NIE
has planned to make. But the omission earlier suggests that they are not
going to be asked to think about relevance and value and reliability
from the start.
Instead therefore of encouraging thoughtful study, I suspect the way
the syllabus is designed will ensure mere rote learning, and the
forgetting that entails, when the mind is not engaged.
After beginning then with their famed spiral, students go on in Grade
10 to a second theme that seems to be new, unless indeed it was studied
in Grade 7, long after students had got to the end of the first
millennium with regard to Sri Lanka in Grade 6.
With regard to India, in Grade 10 they start from Aryan settlements
(ignoring the Indus valley, though in Sri Lanka they start spiraling
from pre-history in the same year).
They go through the Sixteen Mahajanapadhas and the Mauryan Empire up
to the Gupta period, and then, later, as part of Mediaeval Asia, they
study the 'Spread of Islam and its impact on India' (from Western and
North-Western India to the Uitayamagara Empire).
They do not seem to study anything else about Islam in this year, so
one can only hope justice is done to that conduit of world civilization
during the spirals of the intervening years.
Again, Mediaeval Asia is to be studied in terms of this aspect of
Islam, the 'Impact of Buddhism and Hinduism on Asia (China and Japan and
Korea excluded) and Relations between Sri Lanka and South-east Asia.
Trade, science and culture and demographic movements do not figure,
perhaps not surprisingly since one of the principal designers of the
syllabus had no idea who the Mongols were.
One other aspect of India does however figure in the syllabus, with
the isolated topic 'South Indian Inventions' in the theme 'Historical
Developments of Sri Lanka up to the end of the Polonnaruwa period'.
The idea that there was a rich civilization there, and that
interactions with Sri Lanka, not merely inventions or invasions,
continued in all historical periods seems to have been forgotten.
India is not mentioned again, either under the theme of 'Sri Lanka
from 13th century to the end of 15th century' (when cultural influences
and migration were particularly important) nor in 'Sri Lanka and Western
Powers' when 'Relations of Kandyan kingdom with Portuguese, Dutch and
Erqlitls' (that splendid Swiftian race, doubtless) are learned.
Meanwhile I can only hope that the famed spiral has already been in
operation for World History, because otherwise students in Grade 10 will
go completely mad, studying all European history from Feudalism to the
Since only the bare bones of the syllabus is available, perhaps the
absurdities that abound can be explained, but as it stands one wonders
why these poor students should study about the Expansion of Belgian and
Danish power, or learn about Humanism in relation to the French
Revolution, rather than earlier.
This preposterously unscholarly approach seems even sadder when
contrasted with the intelligent approach of the syllabus committee last
year, where earlier history is systematically covered up to Grade 9, so
that study of the modern age can begin in earnest in the Ordinary Level
At the same time students were required, without any particular
ideological bias, to develop their critical senses, and to think more
deeply about what they had learned in the past, through comparisons and
project work, comparing defence mechanisms of earlier days, social
formations and concepts of nationhood, agricultural systems and economic
But then, last year the committee consisted of historians of great
intellectual distinction, whose publications are considered seminal.
Prof Nira Wickremesinghe and Dr. Janaki Jayawardene could bring to bear
new concepts of historical study, while Profs Siriweera and Pathmanathan
represented the elite amongst established historians.
This time round however, as used to be the practice in the NIE before
higher standards of expertise were demanded, we have no one from
Peradeniya, and the team seems to have been led by retired Professors
from Colombo and Sri Jayewardenepura and Ruhuna, who are doubtless
bright intellects, but would never be described as at the cutting edge
of historical scholarship.
Their own scholarship seems to have led to a broad enough education
for their own children, to get them jobs abroad. Contrariwise, their
recipe for the children of our people now seems to be to restrict
opportunities and development so that they will never be able to aspire
to similar heights.
It seems indeed that their main qualification seems to be an
old-fashioned chauvinism, extending to membership of the Patriotic
National Movement (certainly not part of the President's agenda), that
privileges the Aryans, those Teutonic heroes of the 19th century, who
figure large in their archaic imaginations.
They also rather hanker after the Great Man view of history, with
three of the eight themes in Grade 6 dwelling on a single individual,
Pandukabhaya and Devanampiyatissa and Dutugemunu.
Even at the top of the spiral in Grade 10 these great names occur,
whether positively or otherwise, including Kashyapa (who was for some
reason omitted in Grade 6) and Agbo II and Mahinda IV and Mahinda V.
None of this will inculcate the knowledge or develop the thinking
skills that will help our students deal with modern society. But that
does not matter to old fogies feasting, as Patrick Fernando put it, on
self-celebration, of their own authority and their race.