Teach Children Well

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The events in Sri Lanka at the end of March, the powerful expression of public frustration, are largely being fuelled by the energy of the younger generation. Intelligent, articulate, computer literate and with access to social media, they know they deserve a more rewarding future than the one which they now face. 

74 years of inadequate governance have increasingly short changed them, and the society in which they are growing up is in many ways a broken one: economically, socially, and also morally. Corruption is so endemic; and short-term thinking and self-serving, opportunistic behaviour on the part of political and corporate leaders both in the public and private sector, is so widespread, that it is no wonder that many young people are forcefully protesting. 

Many who can afford to do so have already left the country, at a time when the value of Sri Lankan currency is at an all-time low, and the cost of living and studying overseas for most families is prohibitively expensive. The brain drain today is worse than it was 50 years ago. 

Sri Lanka had adopted, along with its ‘Sinhala Only’ policy, an inward looking perspective, which in many ways saw international activity, particularly in the Western world, as disruptive and damaging of traditional Sinhalese culture. Yet, as the country’s economic situation has worsened in the past several years, this insular attitude has been shown to limit the opportunities of the younger generation, not only to study and work overseas, but to conduct their professional lives within Sri Lanka at international standards of capability and effectiveness.

The current local syllabus in English falls far short of international standards of competency, and myriad tutoring establishments are run for profit, with the emphasis being on passive rote learning, rather than critical thinking or individual development. 

The Great War

The ad hoc education resulting from this approach to learning leaves little room for teachers to be role models or facilitators of moral instruction. Standardised testing and cramming for exams further breaks down any joy or sense of personal adventure in the education process, as young people seek to establish a foundation for their lives and professional futures in an increasingly depersonalised and isolating environment. 

WWI, known in its time as ‘The Great War’, is described as causing the loss of ‘the flower of a generation’ in Europe, a hundred years ago. But the current economic crisis, and its political and social impact, is the equivalent of that war, for Sri Lankan youth, whose ability to gain qualifications and access fulfilling careers, and achieve expression of the potential they carry is constantly blocked and impeded by the chaotic governance of the country. The country’s ongoing loss of citizens of calibre and commitment is immeasurable. 

As in any war, as we count casualties, there comes a time when we realise that we have to start being grateful that more lives were not lost: that many who were injured, will recover, once peace is restored, and go on to live productive lives. Miracles have occurred, amidst the terrible times, in which people have been able to make it through the wilderness, and take others with them. 

The LMSV (Little Minds, Strong Values) campaign was begun, founded by the renowned singer and composer Rukshan Perera through the support of Rotary, with the hope that the moral values needed for the proper functioning of society – ethics, integrity, social responsibility, empathy, tolerance, moral awareness and consciousness, and all the qualities of leadership – can be instilled in children from a young age, through the medium of music and song. These were values which were taught both at home, and at school, but as the structures of society have deteriorated and not been uplifted, through war and tragedy and its aftermath, active intervention now must take place to ensure that children today understand how important their personal engagement is, in constructing the society in which they live and work. 

The need of the hour is ethical and effective leadership, and the development of an informed and educated citizenry, who fully know their rights as well as their responsibilities.

The Centenary Movement

In answer to this need, people have created leadership initiatives to equip the younger generation with the skills and knowledge required to govern the country in the future. The Centenary Movement, the most prominent of these initiatives, was begun two years ago, and its first cohort has now graduated. 

The shallow consumerist culture of the past 15 years is giving way to a more serious mindset. Many young people in their twenties and thirties, who have created a social media platform and a strong following, are now realising that the best power derived from their influence lies in its intentional use for social transformation, at a time of urgent need in the country. 

Ayesha Ratnayake, who has just graduated from the first intake of The Centenary leadership programme, says:

‘The Centenary Movement is investing in the best hope for Sri Lanka’s future – an educated citizenry. Capable youth from 25 districts are being provided with education in the areas of politics and governance, economic reform, diversity and inclusion, education, health and wellbeing, and the environment. This education is being provided at zero cost to the students and in all three languages. As a member of the first cohort, I am deeply impressed by the calibre of expert facilitators who have conducted sessions, and I am vastly inspired by the movement’s noble vision.’

Members of The Centenary Movement made a statement last week, as part of a press briefing, listing the requirements and recommendations they see as mandatory if a positive outcome is to be reached, for young people in Sri Lanka.

These requirements include:

• Daily bulletins and updates on Government actions.

• Rejection of all future social media bans, which suppress people’s right to be informed and aware.

• Clear communication of the specific actions taken by the Government to achieve the goals they have undertaken to meet, and a realistic timeline for this to be realised. 

Underlying these requests is the strong belief of this generation in the real value of participatory democracy: that for the public to be engaged, and to make the best political choices for themselves and their country, they must be educated, informed and aware. 

People who have self-worth and self-respect demand proper representation. So key to the requests presented are that political representatives of the future must be appropriately educated and skilled, and capable of performing their specific duties in their portfolios. And all representatives of the people must be accountable for their actions and inactions, and cleared of all charges or suspicions of unethical behaviour, as a prerequisite for service. A higher bar of ethical integrity must be applied to those who are entrusted with the sovereignty of the people, to uphold the rights of those they serve. 

In past years, Sri Lanka’s people were known throughout the world for their talent, dedication and professional capabilities. With proper infrastructure and processes of governance in place, this time with a conscious focus on ethnic and gender inclusion, the dynamic context in which this productivity can flourish will certainly be created.

By Dr Devika Brendon