By Liyanage Amarakeethi
Last two months have been educational for me as, I am sure, they have been for all of you. During our trade union action last year, many of us in our generation, those of us who are mid-career academics in this university, learned from our seniors how to stand up for our rights.
This time it is our generation that has had to take up leadership in this trade union action though we did have the invaluable support of our teachers at every step.
Even though I was active in politics in my teenage-years, guided by my uncle who was the Kurunegala District Secretary of the Sama Samaja Party, and though I have been active individually in politics all along after that, for the last 20 some years I have stayed away from getting involved in any kind of party politics. The same is true of most of us who make the leadership of Peradeniya teacher associations.
Critical distance from political parties
We may have intellectual engagements with the positions of different political parties, but as academics we have kept a critical distance from all parties. More importantly as academics we also keep a critical distance from the centres of power such as the state.
We know very well that the state is an institution that is all too easily tempted into assuming that it has limitless power. Therefore, the institutions of civil society, including universities, have a responsibility to keep it in check, watched, and critiqued. To meet that responsibility of universities is our duty as intellectuals. So, we keep our distance from government. We have learned from the greatest intellectuals of our time that our duty as intellectuals is to speak truth to power. Genuine intellectuals speak truth to any centre of power. That is our duty. We have re-learned that lesson during our struggle.
Things I have learned during the last two months have been much more than what I learnt during the years of political activism in my youth. Today, I want to speak very briefly of some of those things. Before that, however, I want to recall what we have been up to for the last two months.
For the last two months, we have been united. No matter what our opponents and critics have said we have remained united. As intellectuals, we are men and women of ideas. We think. We rethink. We disagree. We debate. We rethink. That is our life, that is what we value about our life. Although each of us has his or her own ideas about things, we have come together to fight for a common cause because we know that many of the problems we face in our academic life have resulted from lack of funding allocated to our sector, to universities, creating conditions that made it difficult and sometimes impossible for us to teach and to do research. These things are our life. We come to life when we are busy at these things.
We come to life in the presence of our students in classes, in lecture rooms and in labs. We come to life when we encounter great thoughts in the library. We get goose bumps when we see a new truth related to our subjects, to our fields. We know the pleasure of encountering a new idea. We know the pleasure of discovery.
We know the pleasure of creativity. We know the pleasure of seeing our students thinking with us, learning with us, debating with us. Every day we find at least some children of our country learning something new with us, and this makes us look forward to what they will learn with us tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
Legacy of Free Education
To see everyday that in what we do together we are passing the legacy of free education to the next generation is also a pleasure for us. That is how we feel that we are in the middle of the stream of history in our country and the world, and it is a joy for us.
That is also why we have chosen this life. That is why many of us have returned to this country after completing higher studies in much richer countries where better opportunities were available to us.
We did not take them because our conscience told us to return to join the history of our own country, to take part in making the history of our own country, to remind ourselves that own individual destinies are inseparable from the destiny of our society, of our people, of our country.
These are all things that nourish our intellectual life, our creative life.
But of course, our salary is also important. Salary is fundamental for us to live with dignity, to achieve success in our academic endeavours, to live up to our responsibilities for our children and our families.
We don’t have to shy away from demanding a respectable salary, a salary that will keep us interested in what we do, a salary that will sustain us through long hours of research, thinking, and writing and a salary that is enough that we do not have to turn away from our chosen and proper duties to eke out supplements to our income that we need to support our loved ones. We need a salary that is just enough that we do not have to go behind politicians to look for extra money. Our true vocation is to create knowledge and share it.
For that we need a great deal of independence. For that we need a better salary than we now have, a much better salary. Therefore, the demand for an adequate salary for teachers has to be an integral part of the excellent universities that we dream of, and which we are trying to create for this country.
Academic freedom and autonomy
But we have realised that no amount of money can safeguard the academic freedom and autonomy that are also integral parts of excellent universities. We don’t want a better salary at the price of academic freedom. We want a salary increase but we don’t want the politicization of universities to be the price that is paid for it. We want politicization to stop.
We want to to remove the political interference that has already taken root in universities. That is why our demand for better salary is only one part of our struggle, and that this is so is why our struggle is the most wide-ranging, the most socially-significant trade union action this country has ever seen.
For the last two months our struggle has not being limited to securing our own financial interests or even our own dignity, but we have dignified ourselves by drawing attention to the larger socio-political issues related to every aspect of the education sector of this country.
By doing so, we have transformed our struggle into a much larger social force. That is the secret of our success. Within two months, the sign “6%” has become a symbol of justice, of fundamental rights, and of democracy. It has become a visible sign that our goals transcend certain boundaries that we have often taken to be untranscendable.
When others have seen in “6%” the sign of all that we are doing, they know that we have renewed our contract with society, to use once again the beautiful Gramscian phrase used by my friend Sumathy Sivamohan to describe what we do in her address last year at the public seminar organised by FUTA.
We can create something extremely important, a history making dialogue, something no political party could even think of. Many of the things that we have learned through this struggle about the importance of education, about democracy, about emancipation, and about freedom are things that are way beyond the consciousness of all of our political leaders.
That is why the FUTA leadership is already regarded as harbingers of a new social reality. By talking to people on streets, by writing to the newspapers, by marching on roads, even by attending meetings like this, we have all added to that new reality.
FUTA does have a message. Every day that message grows in meaning as each of us adds to it. Every day that message reaches areas where such messages have never reached before.
What is that message? It is the message that free education at every level has been the most important factor for social change in the history of Sri Lanka and we must pass it on to our children and their children. The sense of social justice that the idea of free education brought into our society was unprecedented. Nothing like that has happened before and its importance continues.
Its work is not yet done. That message needs to be heard in every village in this country. That message needs to be taken to every neighbourhood in this country. It needs to be shared in every slum in every city. That message needs to be passed to every citizen of this country, not just in Sri Lanka but wherever Sri Lankans have gone abroad to work, it has to be repeated.
Only then will a social consciousness about the need of state- funded education will grow and grow and grow. We don’t want this consciousness to grow only for our jobs to be secure; we want the ideals of freedom we hold dear to us to be safe. Some may have other opportunities that education offers, but many like us will continue to have access to education only at these universities. We realised this was our last chance to take this message to our people. We were right. It seems that many people have forgotten the significance of free education.
But, when we talked to them on the streets, at public rallies, the preciousness of free education, its absolute social value returned to their minds like the words of a beautiful song that they used to know. Now many of them remember the entire song. They will sing it. We will sing it with them. That will be the song of our victory!! One day, very soon, we will sing that song together!!
Though some of us may like to think that academic ivory towers are possible and they are there, and we can live in them in a peaceful independence, all of us know that the moment we go out of this beautiful university park we see poverty, we encounter social marginalization all around us. We see schools are closing down. The school at Uda Peradeniya, where our former vice chancellor received his primary education faces the risk of closure.
It might have already disappeared from the map of that village if not for the poor children who still attend it. During our struggle we realised that hundreds of rural schools are disappearing. They are disappearing from the consciousness and memory of the people who no longer remember those schools as centres of excellent education and the conditions of social improvement.
During our struggle we saw how those memories were being systematically erased. Systematic cuts to funding to rural schools has undermined the very foundations through which the free education was once delivered.
I know that some of you thought that we went beyond the mandate of a trade union by talking about these issues by making them our own. But please consider: the very school system that made you educated citizens, that made it possible for you to be here, might not be able to produce anyone like you any more.
That school system might not be able to send us students from every corner of our country who can join with us in the joy of true academic pursuits. All these issues appeared in front of us, when we reflected on how we could protect the state education sector in a way that will in turn protect our own academic lives.
There we found that free education has been the greatest social leveller in the modern history of our country. That is our inheritance, let us make it our legacy too. For various reasons our society may need all kinds of private education institutes, but it is the state education sector that can guarantee for all a sense of social equality, which was philosophical and political foundation of free education.
For the last two months, we have been fighting for the preservation of our inheritance, this legacy. We are happy that many people have gained a new understanding of that invaluable inheritance. That was why our Colombo rally was the greatest ever public rally on education.
During the last two months, we have been able to put aside minor divisions among us. We have not not succumbed to factionalism. We have put aside personal ambitions.
Deans, heads of the department, professors all put aside institutional hierarchies and we have marched alongside each other like equals. That in itself was a transforming experience for many of us. In that we discovered our shared humanity, we understood the value of humility. Our struggle made us all more human and humane.
The most crucial days of our struggle have arrived. These are days that will test our courage, our dedication. Perhaps, this September will bring us the greatest challenge that many of us have ever faced personally. But, as someone who participated in that awesome rally in Colombo and in the very enthusiastic action committee meeting after it, I can tell you that we shall overcome, we shall overcome and someday soon. After being without salaries for two months, our spirit remains unbroken; our courage keeps growing. The government may want to break us and to get us to their feet.
We will not give them that pleasure. We are academics. We are the four thousand people in this country with an important role to play in this country. We are men and women who can shake governments and mobilise people with the visions of the future that we can create and share. We are academics, we are Peradeniya academics. Very soon, we will walk back into our classrooms with our heads still held high.
I am not a big leader of the FUTA but I trust my leadership. By the time we return to work in a few weeks, we will have won a significant number of our demands, as well as all our overdue salaries. And we will have reminded the people as well as the government the true meaning of free education. We will have created a public consciousness on education that will last for many years to come. We will have taken our places in history. Let’s stay united so that we get to see what we have set out to do become reality very soon.
Let me end this speech by quoting the title of one my favourite books. This is how two of the greatest educationists of the 20th century, Paulo Freire and Miles Horton named their book: “We make the road by walking.”
Ladies and gentlemen. let’s finish this walk and make the road that will take our people to the land of educated citizenship. Let’s make that road to freedom.
(Excerpts of a speech delivered at the Arts Theatre, University of Peradeniya, on 29th August, 2012).