Father of Free Education: a case of victor and vanquished | Daily News
C.W.W. Kannangara’s 134th birth anniversary fell on October 13

Father of Free Education: a case of victor and vanquished

Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara
Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara

On October 1, 1945, ironically in the very month he was born 134 years ago, when Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara as the Education Minister in the then State Council of Ceylon, implemented the Free Education Act to envelop the country in its entirety to provide absolute free education to every single child, it was hailed as a step providing ‘lasting value to the nation.’ The State Council Committee headed by him made epoch-making recommendations, such as the following, which stunned some of the members in the august assembly of State Council, when they were presented in 1943.

• Education should be free from the Kindergarten to the University

• The mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction in the Primary Schools

• English should be taught in all schools from the Standard Three

• A curriculum for the child which would develop the “child’s head, heart and hands” should be introduced. (meaning the education of emotions, education of intellect and the education for practical ability for the well-being of the child.)

Economically privileged groups

Dr. Kannangara was determined to create a new education system for the country that would ensure equal opportunity for every child in the far off village or in the central city, irrespective of the class, religion, ethnicity or the economic status of the family. He realized that the education then was not standardized even though education in vernacular schools was free with grants provided by the government and buildings, equipment and even books provided by philanthropists in some instances. As Chairman, Dr. Kannangara guided the members in the direction he envisaged with success, and received approval of the members to make those recommendations to the State Council.

But, he faced stiff opposition from socially and economically privileged groups, in his efforts to establish free education in the country. Surprisingly, several stubborn opponents were among his own colleagues in the Council, who enjoyed perks, privileges and positions offered by the British.

When the bill was debated in the Council, according to records, Dr. Kannangara had spoken for six and half hours to win the support of other members to get the bill passed. It is on record that Dudley Senanayake vehemently supported the bill, while his father D. S. Senanayake was not in much favour.

When the voting time came Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, H. W. Amarasuriya, J. R. Jayewardene, and several others were joined by Dr. N. M. Perera and Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe, the well-known Marxist leaders. Unlike nowadays, when it came to a national issue, it was a joy to note how the visionary politicians like Drs. N. M. and S. A. voted with their arch political rivals for the sake of the country and its people. While such events were taking place inside the Chambers of the State Council, public campaigns in support of the bill were launched by personalities in the calibre of Dr. E. W. Adikaram, Professor G. P. Malalasekera and Educationist L. H. Mettananda.

Free Education to all children

Despite Dr. Kannangara’s gift of Free Education to all children, establishment of the University of Ceylon as the first ever University of the country, upgrading the Pirivena Education for the higher education of the young Buddhist monks, starting up 54 Central Colleges in all districts and pioneering the independence movement with other national leaders, besides many other achievements, he lost election in his electorate immediately afterwards, though won subsequent elections and remained in active politics until 1956.

In a vastly gigantic contrast with some of today’s politicians, Dr. Kannangara when retired had no wealth, no house and property, no funds in the bank, and the survival was such an issue, that reportedly, he was compelled to appeal to the then Speaker of Parliament for a financial subsidy. Response was quick, in the form of once and for all grant of Rupees ten thousand and a monthly allowance of Rupees five hundred till his death, and he died on September 23, 1969 at the General Hospital, Colombo. Such were the last stages of life of this unique humanitarian, who gave millions and millions of children born in this country, the opportunity to become performers of the highest class, like the large majority who are now and would be in the future as well.

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