[Dr. Deepika Udagama]
The following is an excerpt from the Deshamanya Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda Memorial Oration 2014 “We the People”: Reflections on Governance and Civic Engagement in Sri Lanka, delivered by Dr. Deepika Udagama, Head of the Department of Law at the University of Peradeniya. She was the founding Director (1989-2007) of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights of the Faculty of Law at the University of Colombo and served as a member of the Human Rights Commission (2003-2006) and the Law Commission (2004-2009) of Sri Lanka.
Why Focus on Civic Engagement?
My objective here is to engage in a conversation with you about how we in Sri Lanka view our role as citizens—i.e. our civic rights and responsibilities and whether we adequately engage in shaping decisions on matters of common concern to us. If we do, then what are the reasons that animate us? If not, what are the underlying reasons for civic disengagement and apathy? The purpose of this proposed conversation is to discuss with you certain observations on the topic and to nudge all of us into collective thinking and action. With those caveats let me proceed.
One could very well question the need to focus on the citizenry of Sri Lanka and how we participate in governance, when all important political decisions are made, and indeed political mischief is committed by those in control of centres of State power. So, why not continue to study what politicians do and unearth the reasons as to why they do what they do? It seems to me that that approach is precisely the problem with our politics and our political culture.
For far too long, we have been obsessed with the study and analysis of the doings and the idiosyncrasies of the political elite. We thoroughly scrutinise their public statements, autobiographies (though there are very few in Sri Lanka) and biographies and so on.
Just as much as history is written and seen through the prism of elite actors, so also in our study of contemporary politics our focus is almost entirely on the political movers and shakers. Will politician A fall out with politician B? If so, what will happen to the government and the making of policy X ? That is how our political discourse goes. It is almost by chance that we discover that they are nothing but political creatures of our own making. We have voted for them, sometimes lionised them and acknowledged them (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) as our political leaders who can show us the way forward. That they are our political representatives who are there to do our bidding is, well, mostly a secondary thought.
“When the war ended five years ago, on the balmy shores of the Nanthikadal Lagoon, most Sri Lankans thought that it was a political watershed that would bring about change and a new beginning for a pluralist and democratic Sri Lanka. That moment has yet to come. We are not only dealing with unresolved issues from the past but also with new demons such as religious bigotry. As we face the political crossroads we are at today, it is imperative that we reflect on our role as citizens and decide on whether we are going to wait for change, or recognise our power and worth as citizens and be the driving force of the new beginnings we wish for.”
What all of the above means is that the sense we have of our own political agency is minimal.
As the analyses we make is premised on democratic governance, is it not equally, if not more, important to turn the searchlight on us, the citizens, in whom sovereignty lies under our Constitution? Is it not pertinent to ask ourselves the question as to what extent we fashion policies through democratic participation? Do we have faith in our democratic entitlements and powers? Do we have the confidence that we can positively change policies and practices that affect us through the use of those powers?; Do we possess the necessary knowledge and skills for such purposes?; Or, are we content to be mere political instruments that are occasionally cajoled into taking sides during election time by those who nurse political ambitions?
Those are important questions we have to address if we are to deal with the idea of a meaningful democratic future for Sri Lanka. As the purpose of this address could be misunderstood, let me state categorically that shifting the focus on the citizenry and on civic values and engagement is not to exonerate public representatives from abuse of authority or relieve them of their sacred duty to govern in a democratic and decent manner. Indeed, if any politician were to maintain by way of defence, that abuse of authority and misrule by the political establishment takes place because of a weak citizenry, such a position must be dismissed as cynical and irresponsible nonsense. Anyone holding elected office, or who is expecting to seek such office, should know better.
Education to the rescue?
I do believe there is broad agreement that something is radically wrong with our political culture. Some people call it the “political rot”. But, as I stated at the beginning of this address, mostly we focus on the venality and callousness of the political establishment. Perhaps, just a few of us acknowledge the linkage between civic disengagement and the crisis in democracy in the country. Be that as it may, there are many solutions suggested to correct the problematic trajectory of governance in the country.
Almost all of them pertain to constitutional or legal reform, be it the abolition of the executive presidency, the re-introduction of the Seventeenth Amendment (to the 1978 Constitution), power sharing and reform of election laws. Even though a student of the law, I am very skeptical that constitutional and legal reform alone would succeed in democratising our political system. Of course, good laws are essential.
But laws, after all, are interpreted and implemented according to the socio-political ethos of a society. We see how laws, including the Constitution, are so blatantly violated with impunity today. So, without a change of the mindset can we expect deeply rooted change? I do not think so.
That is why I would put my stock in education. Real change can come only in the long term. As a society that has passionately invested in education as a social good, I think education has to be used as the primary tool for democratisation harnessing existing democratic traditions. It is education, whether formal or informal, that can attempt to foster a relevant value-base or sharpen an existing one. In well established democracies the goals of the education system generally tend to go hand-in-hand with the country’s political and constitutional ideals. One can think of the models of education in the USA and Scandinavia as examples.
I am, of course, not an expert in the philosophy of education. But as an academic and also as one who has both studied and taught in Sri Lanka and overseas, I wish to share some thoughts with you in that regard. When I say that the education system in Sri Lanka should be used as a change agent, I do not mean the formal education system as it exists today. The current education system, it seems to me, is the very antithesis of democratic education. Meeting the demands of the economy and the related employment market is the key goal, we are told. Science, Mathematics, English and IT are emphasized with the social sciences downgraded as being almost irrelevant to the market. Fostering democratic values and a civic consciousness are, if at all, very peripheral to the major objectives.
What is promoted now in World Bank parlance are “soft skills” (e.g. skills relating to communication, team work, organising and also promoting ethnic harmony). Such skills are taught more through extra-curricular activities than as integral parts of the curriculum. The Social Studies Curriculum at secondary education level has some lessons on the political system and the Constitution.
Teaching is generally top-down and the classroom is still not an open space for challenging ideas and debate. Students spend a major portion of their time at cram shops—there’s hardly any time for anything for them other than a tele-drama or two at the end of the day. Life’s worth is determined by exam results, even when you happen to be in Grade five. Examinations are largely traumatic events, both for the students and the parents. But everybody banks on expecting to achieve the ‘Sri Lankan Dream’.
Among those deemed the best and the brightest (based entirely on exam results) and who gain admission to our public university system, knowledge of current events, whether local or global is appallingly weak. Very rarely does one come across a student who reads a daily newspaper or who is a keen observer of current events who can give you an informed analysis on a public issue. One gets blank stares when one refers to major public happenings such as the impeachment of the Chief Justice or the CHOGM conference. In one class of about 65 students it seemed that most had not heard of the Burgher community of Sri Lanka. When a question is asked about the political system of the country, there are many students who would say “but we don’t know; we didn’t study political science for A Levels”. There is hardly a system that educates for life, leave alone democracy! The youngsters are bright and have tremendous potential. But the system has let them down, together with the country, very badly.
In contrast, I found the US education system to be one which encourages experiential learning; is inter-disciplinary; is based on the Socratic method of deliberation in the class room; encourages free thinking; rewards unorthodoxy and outspokenness, volunteerism and civic duty; and assesses a whole range of skills before judging a student’s academic performance. Education is not the dreary process one has to go through for social advancement. The Constitutional principles of government, civil rights and civic obligations are brought to the attention of students at a very young age. As for Indian citizens, the moment of Independence from British colonialism and the founding of the new republic and its value base, is a defining core theme in the lives of US citizens.
Recently, our Department of Law joined via video link a global conversation with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice of the US Supreme Court. When she was asked for her thoughts on what a young lawyer should do to start up his/her career, I think she surprised a good section of the global audience. She advised that one of the key things to do is to join as many community organisations as possible and make oneself relevant to the community. That way, she said, one learns a lot about governance as well.
“I do believe that there is broad agreement that something is radically wrong with our culture. Some people call it the “political rot”. But, as I stated at the beginning of this address, we mostly focus on the venality and callousness of the political establishment. Perhaps, just a few of us acknowledge the linkage between civic disengagement and the crisis in democracy in the country.”
The influence of John Dewey on the US education system has been profound. Dewey (1859 – 1952) was the most influential US thinker on the philosophy of education in the twentieth century. In his authoritative work Democracy and Education (1916)-he advocated the need to make democracy the central focus of the educational process. Education must address the individual as part of society and impart the necessary values and skills to strengthen that relationship.
The idea of experiential learning, as opposed to theoretical learning, also stems from Dewey’s philosophical thought. I also do believe that liberal arts education widely held in high esteem in the US has played a key role in advancing a democratic ethos within US society.
It is also worth noting that in The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive Nation released in 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences emphasizes the need to focus on and invest in education in the humanities and the social sciences in order to sustain civic engagement and democratic leadership in the US while meeting modern challenges of all types.
Sri Lankan policy-makers on the other hand keep reminding us of the futility of “arts education” as arts graduates are not employable. What a narrow vision of life, society and our collective future!
Finally, it does seem that democratising the individual and a society is a whole process—not just about introducing a subject or two on civics and political science and tinkering with an already-tired and socially-irrelevant education system. We do have a lot of thinking to do on that score.
When the war ended five years ago, on the balmy shores of the Nanthikadal Lagoon, most Sri Lankans thought that it was a political watershed that would bring about change and a new beginning for a pluralist and democratic Sri Lanka.
That moment has yet to come. We are not only dealing with unresolved issues from the past but also with new demons such as religious bigotry.
As we face the political crossroads we are at today, it is imperative that we reflect on our role as citizens and decide on whether we are going to wait for change, or recognize our power and worth as citizens and be the driving force of the new beginnings we wish for.