Mind over matter | Daily News

Mind over matter

Encourage  reading habit from younger days.
Encourage reading habit from younger days.

The initiative of the Library of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, to draw children all over the country into the world of books and songs and into having fun with English, prompts further thought of how easy it would be to spread both learning and enjoyment. A key to this lies in what its Librarian said at the launch I attended, that you did not need money to take things forward if you had ideas. Closely allied to this is the concept I cited, of E. M. Forster, that we had only to connect.

The Librarian told me that there are libraries in every Division, which reminded me of what Maithripala Sirisena had pledged in his Presidential manifesto, which he forgot the moment he was elected. He said that he would make the Division the centre of service delivery to the people, something I took forward in my own Presidential manifesto, which of course no one read because there is little interest in ideas. This was to specify the responsibilities of divisions, which should include cultural activities.

This was in line with something I proposed soon after I became a Member of Parliament, when I thought it was my business to initiate socially useful activities, before I came to realize that the principal function of MPs was to get themselves re-elected, and that society had nothing to do with their projects for benefits. I wanted to set up cultural activity centres in every Division, and was mandated by the Parliamentary Consultative Committee to take the idea forward. I then got a wonderful design from Milinda Pathiraja of the University of Moratuwa, for a building that could be used for many purposes and also added to by Divisional officials who wanted to do more for those they were supposed to work for. I even got the then French Ambassador, a good friend, to agree to consider funding such a centre in a division in the North. Unfortunately Cultural Affairs was then in the hands of a Minister who thought in terms of cement rather than people, as most politicians do, for reasons my father put eloquently thirty years ago. He dodged the meeting I had arranged with the French ambassador, and was not at all interested in taking things further, perhaps because he could not understand what I had suggested. Thus, when I asked about establishing a National Theatre, on the lines of institutions in India and England that train youngsters and have regular productions, his reply was that we had theatres aplenty. What went on in them was of no interest to him, the human resources that we neglect so that the cement remains unused to its full, or even half its potential. It is that mentality that has led to the Nelun Pokuna hardly being used except for extravaganzas, whereas what should have happened was the establishment of a troupe of performers there, brought from all over the country for training, with provision for regular performances.

Primary students performing at an English Day concert.

I hasten to add that failure to develop cultural activity on these lines is endemic. Many years ago, when Premadasa took over the Tower Hall, he appointed the absurd A. J. Ranasinghe to head it, and when the Belgian Government provided a consultant to help develop theatrical activity, Ranasinghe drove him away. So we continue with moribund buildings, and no effort to promote meaningful activity in them.

For politicians are not interested in making use of resources we have – except for their personal benefit. So just as my idea of cultural centres lapsed, so did my suggestion that we set up English classes in every division, free for students after the Ordinary Level Examination, which would also help in making English compulsory for University Entrance. But those who took over Higher Education from me in 2015 were interested only in commandeering vehicles I had tried to get rid of – 14 I was told I could use – and that was the end of innovation in Higher Education.

But perhaps there is hope now given the synergies that Madhubhashini Ratnayake’s ideas have generated, with the Library system, and with the Northern Province which has a leadership prepared to innovate. Thus there could be further connections made, for instance to introduce this programme to higher levels in the regions through collaboration with the Regional English Support Centres. These are no longer as dynamic taken as a whole as they were when British Council consultant David Woolger ensured productive activity in all of them. But I know there are still some innovative individuals in place, and I have no doubt they can extend this sort of learning through enjoyment into primary classes as well.

For as we know Primary English is a complete mess at present. There was something called Activity Based Oral English for the first and the second year in schools before English began properly in the third year. But that has been a disaster, not least because a good textbook was replaced with a bad one, and teachers are not trained for the purpose – and of course the primary teachers who are deployed for this are not given English at training colleges where in any case speech in English is almost completely ignored.

It would be very easy to initiate through the RESCs training for these teachers in the materials and the methods the English for Fun project has produced and which it deploys, which have already been introduced in the Northern Province. But unfortunately, unlike at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, where decision makers are prepared to accept innovations and give able people the freedom to work on them, the Ministry and the Ministers are stuck in a groove. The NIE has, despite pronouncements about the need for change, not been able to think radically outside the box, and I suspect far from taking advice from those who can think, they will think first and foremost of safeguarding their unproductive primacy.

But perhaps one should not dream of such opportunities being extended nationwide. That takes a Kannangara or an Aluvihare at the top. Instead one must hope that, unless and until we change the system of appointing decision makers for national institutions, a little bit of what has started will spread elsewhere and there will be benefits not just in the Northern Province and in select libraries round the country to those in distant areas who have no access to the learning and the fun that the more fortunate are exposed to.

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