It is Time to Move on

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 31 2021
Echo It is Time to Move on

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

Sri Lanka is passing its seventh decade as an independent State; to be precise 73 years of independence from British rule. In retrospect of Sri Lanka’s 73 years of history, what can we experience? Is it a stabilised state in its economic, political, social, and cultural aspects that we experience as citizens?

Within these seven decades have we created and implemented our own operational systems, methods, or policies suitable and practical to the local context with regards to the country’s economic, political, social, and cultural aspects? Or, are we still continuing with the administrative and operational systems, policies, legal frameworks,and so forth introduced to us by colonial rulers?

Has the 73-year-old independent nation which is now known as Sri Lanka, finally got rid of the colonial mindset, or are they still embracing colonial thinking? Recent social science research and dialogues are of the view that we are still too embraced in the colonial mindset and are not yet ready to shed the old clothes. 

Our education system still reflecting colonial rule

When it comes to the country’s education which plays a vital role in our development, it seems that the education system is quite losing its strong foundations. Social science researchers believe that this could be due to the fact that the education system that still exists in Sri Lanka, was introduced during colonial times, and has undergone very few reforms. If we look at in which context this education system was implemented in Sri Lanka(then Ceylon),it was to address a completely different sociocultural and political scenario that was prevailing in the island. 

Education was a major game-changer, but now?

Museologist and research fellow HasiniHaputhanthri questions whether this same education system that has served us for the past century, can serve us for the next five decades or not. Our education system has been a great game changer and played a key role in ensuring social mobility in Sri Lanka. She also said that this system which was introduced by the colonial rulers was a result of the industrial revolution that occurred in Europe. The basic structure of European schools followed the structure of industrial factories – the building layout and the production of batches of students to cater to the masses and so forth. This system worked well in that scenario, “But will this sustain the future and address future needs?” she questioned.

Understanding the objectives of the past

The British introduced schools in Sri Lanka during the late 19th century to address their needs, as a support to their administration but not for the wellbeing of the citizens of Sri Lanka. It was mainly to create a group of people that speak English, follow Christianity, and embrace British ways of life. The results were the birth of a social class that followed the British ways and those who were obedient and submissive to the colonial masters. This made their work as rulers much easier. 

During these times, natives who were mainly Buddhists and Hindus also sent their children to these Christian schools as they had no other option to educate their children. However, these schools were not accessible to all natives nor did they satisfythe masses. This was when first Buddhist and then Hindu, religious and community leaders stepped forward to establish schools (education centres) that were ‘local’ and accessible to all. Pirivena education sprang into life during this time. Buddhist and Hindu schools were established all over the island. In no time, universities and technical training colleges were also established. Nevertheless, the foundation of these institutes was ‘colonial’.

The conflict between Christian missionaries and Buddhist monks who established pirivenaswas a rising issue in then-Ceylon. Most of the then-established local schools, as well as pirivenas, reflected shadows of these conflicts. 

It is clear that this system was introduced or was given birth as a result of the existing political, and sociocultural situation. It was first introduced by the rulers and then the oppressed citizens who rebelled against the system. They created a system as a reaction to what the rulers did as well as to be beneficial to the natives. However, although this education system was successful for that time, served well, and produced brilliant intellects, it was never a fully-localised education system. Hence, it started failing. The minor flaws it had, has now become major flaws. 

This is a global crisis

Haputhanthri explained that this failure of our education system is not only a local scenario but rather a global crisis. Many countries, especially the Scandinavian countries, have identified issues in their education system and taken it seriously. Therefore, they are taking measures to make changes and improve their education, making it suitable for the new era. Unfortunately, we still haven’t taken measures to do so, nor have we identified the issues in our education system. We have not understood the need to change and improve our education system. She further said that the education system in Sri Lanka is failing as we fail to give ‘cultural capital’ to children and then to society. This means that the education system is failing to produce citizens who are capable of facing a new era and facing life challenges successfully. 

What is cultural capital?

What is meant by cultural capital? French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu invented the term in his 1973 paper the Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction, co-authored by Jean-Claude Passeron. 

Cultural capital is known as the non-economic resource that enables social mobility, which includes knowledge, skills, education, and behaviour. According to social scientists, cultural capital gives people power. It empowers citizens as it helps them to achieve goals, success, and upgrade their living standards, especially without necessarily having wealth or financial capital. Therefore, cultural capital is identified as an asset through which a person can demonstrate their cultural competence and social status. Research also says that cultural capital could be exchanged with economic capital and social capital.

Cultural capital for children

As Haputhanthri emphasised, our education system fails to provide cultural capital for our children, but why and how is cultural capital important for children?

According to social science research, cultural capital is all about providing children experiences and opportunities to assess their progress and gain success in their lives (socially and financially). The question is, does our prevailing education system provide this to our children? There is no doubt our education system has been brilliant for decades, but it has started to display signs of degradation. 

As many would point out, our graduates fail in today’s world’s competitive job market as they are not suitable to fulfil the demanding jobs of today’s era. The greatest flaw in our education system as many would point out is the backward attitudes many possess which do not actively contribute to the country’s social and economic development. This is when we can fairly question, as Haputhanthrisaid, the education system we have had which was a result of the then sociocultural, political, and economic background; hence how suitable is it for the present and the future?

According to interpretations of cultural capital and its connection with education, it seems that cultural capital is linked with educational inequality as children from privileged backgrounds tend to possess more cultural capital compared to those from lesser privileged backgrounds. The ‘free-education system’ in Sri Lanka is a solution for this educational inequality and it provides cultural capital for all, regardless of their backgrounds, and helps them to enhance their quality of life. 

There are six key areas of development that are interrelated and contribute to building a student’s cultural capital. These are;

1. Personal development

2. Social development, including political and current affairs awareness

3. Physical development

4. Spiritual development

5. Moral development

6. Cultural development


The question is, does our education system (primary to tertiary education) improve a student’s above said six areas sufficiently? Haputhanthri said that our education system is rather focused on preparing students to face exams and merely by-heart theory and it seldom focuses on practical learning. 

Arts integrated education can be successful

According to Haputhanthri, implementing ‘arts’ into our education system, preparing our students to face the future by equipping them with soft skills, language fluency, technology training, and so forth  is important. Exposure to many cultures, learning many languages, and exposure to many forms of arts such as literature, great paintings, and classical music immensely contributes to improving a child’s personality development. This doesn’t mean merely teaching arts subjects to learn the arts; this means, an arts-integrated education that is based on learning through the arts or with the arts. It is important to invest in funding school trips and international exchange programmes for students, invest in technology training, teaching many foreign languages in schools, exposing children to classical music, literature, cinema, theatre, arts, and so forth.

What we have in Sri Lanka’s arts education is a completely divided ‘arts stream’ or aesthetic subjects which are ‘optional’. Also, these subjects are often demeaned and considered ‘boring’ or less in demand in the job market. First of all, these attitudes should be changed. It is important to note that an arts-integrated education is not to make children learn about Picasso or by-heart Shakespeare but to improve their critical thinking, creative thinking, problem-solving skills, and so forth.

It is time to move on

Another major problem with our education system is that it has not been upgraded or reformed, making it suitable to a local context and it is not compatible with the new era. As Haputhanthrisaid, the idea of being a global citizen was already in Sri Lanka since the 2nd century BCE and hence, it is not new for us. However, from time to time we have moved away from the right track and the education system we have now seems to be not capable of producing compatible and successful global citizens. This once again points out the fact that this education system was created to find solutions in a colonial society that existed decades ago and their goal was not to provide an education to create ‘global citizens’. 

Another point highlighted by Haputhanthri was that in our local education system ‘dividing’ is way too much. Schools and classes based on gender, race, religion, language produce citizens who find it hard to live in harmony as they are used and trained to live dividedly. It is interesting to note that ‘divide and rule’ was a policy of the British colonial rulers of then Ceylon. 

It is evident that the prevailing education system of Sri Lanka urgently needs reforms before it completely collapses. Producing more and more graduates, opening more universities, or implementing English medium to the existing system are not at all solutions. They will only create more disastrous results. We need to reform our ‘outdated’,‘colonial’ education system into a system where the objective should be solely providing education and producing free-thinking, skilled, global citizens within a local context.  

(Haputhanthri shared her views at a session hosted by the AwarelogueInitiative on 20 July 2021 where she spoke under the topic, ‘Cultural Capital: Enhancing Arts and Education in Sri Lanka’)


By Ama H.Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 31 2021

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