Forming a Sri Lankan cultural identity

By Dr. Indika Karunathilake

The current tragic situation in Sri Lanka has powerfully and emphatically highlighted the need for us to unite, think, and act as Sri Lankans. It has also shown the dangerous consequences of segregation and extremism.

Education plays a vital role in forming the identity of the Sri Lankan nation. Having a consistent and progressive education system is vital in preventing the infiltration of extremist views. An education system should provide room for the acquisition of different skills, and cultivate creativity and innovative thinking. Such skills would never be achieved without freedom for critical thinking.

This article discusses the role of the education sector in nurturing young minds and forming the Sri Lankan cultural identity.

History of education in Sri Lanka

Education in Sri Lanka has a history of over 2,500 years. Buddhism brought a renaissance of art, language, and culture. Since then, an education system evolved based around Buddhist temples and piriven (as monastic colleges). During the colonial occupation, Christian missionary societies became active in education, with The Theosophical Society later added to the educational landscape of the country.

By the 1940s, Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara proposed the concept of free education from kindergarten to university, with the establishment of central schools, change in the medium of education to national languages, as well as introduction of student welfare measures.

A formal system of government schools commenced after the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission in 1836. It started with the establishment of the Royal College in Colombo, leading to the formation of several single-sex schools constructed during the colonial period. Some of these schools were affiliated to the Anglican Church.

These included S. Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia and Trinity College in Kandy.
Royal College, Colombo, established in 1835, remains an example of inclusiveness and integration in education.

In 1938, the free education policy was formally introduced and implemented. Then Minister of Education (late) Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara was the pioneer of this initiative. Through this process, the government established “madhya maha vidyalayas” to provide education to all – in either Sinhala or Tamil mediums.

At present, there are an estimated 10,194 government schools in Sri Lanka. Government and private schools fall under the purview of the Ministry of Education. Non-government schools include private schools which follow the national education curriculum and international schools which prepare students for UK examinations.

Madrasa Islamic schools have existed in Sri Lanka for at least the last 10 years, where the preferred modality of teaching and learning has remained predominantly prescriptive and proscriptive, rather than discursive and analytical. The scholars that madrasas produce, the Ulemas, are considered prestigious among ordinary Muslims and they are the chief communicators to transmit Islamic knowledge.

What is the Sri Lankan cultural identity?

The culture of Sri Lanka mixes modern elements with traditional aspects and is known for its regional diversity. Sri Lankan culture has been predominantly influenced by the heritage of Theravada Buddhism and Sinhala language. South Indian cultural influences are pronounced in the North and East of the country. The history of colonial occupation has also left an impact on Sri Lanka’s identity, with Portuguese, Dutch, and British elements having intermingled with various traditional facets of Sri Lankan culture.

Islamic culture too has influenced certain aspects of Sri Lankan culture. This rich culture and diversity calls for inclusiveness and integration as opposed to exclusivity and segregation. Many positive examples of integration can be found within the Sri Lankan Christian community.

Religious influence on schools

At the same time, The Buddhist Theosophical Society established Buddhist schools to foster Sinhala students with an English education rich in Buddhist values and to bring Buddhism to life. Most of these schools were established in the capitals of the major provinces of Sri Lanka.

The first of these were Ananda College in Colombo and Dharmaraja College in Kandy, followed by other well-known schools in Galle, Kurunegala, Kandy, and Colombo.

Sri Lanka also has many Methodist schools; the earliest of which included Richmond College in Galle, Jaffna Central College, and Wesley College in Colombo. Others were established by the Methodist Church.

Zahira College in Colombo is considered to be the oldest Muslim school. All of these schools are now within the mainstream education system of Sri Lanka and accept inclusiveness and integration. There are 749 Muslim schools and 205 madrasas which teach Islamic education in Sri Lanka.

The influence on language

During the British colonial period, Christian missionaries opened English-medium schools in the major cities throughout the country. The privileged within the Sinhalese and the Tamils were largely absorbed into that system since English had become essential for the upward social mobility under colonial rule.

Rural and underprivileged Sinhala and Tamil communities continued to be disadvantaged. However, the Muslims resisted education in English medium for a long time and continued to follow their traditional system of religious education.

This led to a situation where the progress of the Muslims in secondary and higher education was not satisfactory. Even at the beginning of the 20th Century, university-level education was uncommon among Muslims.

However, the situation gradually improved from 1930 onwards due to the steps taken at national level by the Government to promote education in the country. The positive steps taken by the Muslim political and intellectual leadership drastically increased the number of the school-going Muslim students and it became the fashion to the upper-class Muslims of the urban areas to send their children to English-medium schools.

In 1945, the national languages – Sinhala or Tamil – were made the medium of education in all primary schools. One interesting fact to note is that the Muslims, who first rejected English education for a long time, now insisted that English should continue as their medium of education as it was essential for their progress. Currently, the medium of instruction of all government schools is either Sinhala or Tamil with the exception of some English-medium classes. Students from all ethnicities and religions attend these schools.

Positive examples of integration

There are many positive examples of integration from all communities and ethnicities in Sri Lanka. Way back in 1959, highly-respected Muslim intellectual A.M.A. Azeez correctly identified this need.

“The counsel of wisdom as well as safety is for the Muslims to have complete identity of interests with the other communities in the matter of language. The Muslims must, therefore, adapt themselves to this transition; the alternative involves a swift and sure penalty – isolation and consequent denial of their rightful place in the country.”

Dr. Azeez (1911-1973) was the Muslim leader who called for the need for integration with the Sri Lankan culture.

National leaders such as C.W.W. Kannangara, W. Dahanayake, T.B. Jayah, and Badiuddin Mahmud pushed for a swabhasha policy. The Hindu Board of Education went a step further when they decided to introduce Sinhala as a compulsory subject in all their schools. The true nationalists of the time believed that bilingualism would be an ideal force for national unity. Albeit being a delayed decision, Sinhala or Tamil as the second language is now compulsory in government schools.

Issues with segregation

Sadly and unfortunately, there is a tendency towards segregation as well. Many religious schools have recently sprung up with concerns regarding the impact on childhood education. While some religious schools are evening or weekend schools, there are others which function as mainstream schools from grade six onwards (e.g. Madrasas).

The evening schools have progressively younger children following religious education, sometimes from grade one upwards. The curricula of these religious schools are very diverse and have not been approved by the Ministry of Education.

The pertinent questions arising in society are what is the importance for children to have a religious education at such a young age and what are the objectives of such religious education? If they teach good habits such as “don’t steal”, “help the poor and needy”, or “don’t hurt anyone”, then yes, it is necessary. However, it is not acceptable if children are being taught segregation and an exclusionary identity in those institutions from a young age.

Arabic as a language may be required for Muslim clergy. But the question arises as to what degree it is necessary for the common Muslim in Sri Lanka. Arabic can be a tool to recite the Quran and pray.

The understanding and interpretation of the language is not essential for practice. Incorrect and different scholarly interpretations have resulted in confusion and divisions of many religious groups and sects.

These different teachings could confuse and hinder the healthy development of the child. It is time to rethink how much of religious education is needed for children!

The next article will further discuss examples of integration and segregation, their impact on Sri Lankan culture and the nation, and the possible way forward.