Free education and the LSSP

Lanka Sama Samaja Party celebrates 75th anniversary
| by Carlo Fonseka
(December 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The history of free education in Sri Lanka is the history of an aspect of the class struggle in our country. The LSSP came into existence on 18 December 1935, as a party of public intellectuals who were inspired by the ideas of the political philosopher Karl Marx (1818 – 1883). Marx regarded ‘social class’ as a necessary category for understanding the distribution of wealth and power in a given society and the struggle between classes as the main motor of history. The founding fathers of the LSSP were all born in the first decade of the 20th century. Phillip Gunawardene (1901); Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe (1901); Dr. N. M. Perera (1905); and Dr. Colvin R. De Silva (1907) were all greatly influenced by the heroic Russian Revolution of 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin. They all received their higher education in western universities. In the 1930s they returned home as radicalized young men and plunged headlong into politics and began to talk revolution to the masses. They introduced the concepts of social class and the class struggle into the vocabulary of political discourse in the country. So pervasive was their immediate impact that these concepts came to be used even by politically conservative leaders in their public speeches. Perhaps the best example of this trend was CWW Kannangara, widely regarded as the Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka. Here is what he told the State Council in May 1944: “…We have two classes of society in this country, divided by English education. The affluent, the rich, the influential, those that can afford to pay, attend one kind of school imparting the higher education which is given in a foreign tongue… the official language of this country is English… and no one without a knowledge of English can fill any high post…”. Again, in March 1947, in an address to the Inter-Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi, Dr. CWWK presented an analysis of the socio- economic situation in Sri Lanka that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century which necessitated the reforms he initiated. He said that “…in Ceylon education in the Christian schools was the passport to office and material prosperity…[He spoke of] the division of society into…two classes, namely the English educated classes who were given posts of varying administrative importance under the government and the rest of the country who spoke their mother tongue… [and of] the vast gulf developed between that section of society that had the privilege of learning English and had adopted an alien faith, and the rest of society who used the mother tongue and who had resisted proselytization”.
Analysis, Diagnosis & Remedy
It is easy to see that the medium of education (English) and religion (Christianity) were the two characteristics which Dr. CWWK used to define the classes he recognized. The underlying assumption is that language and religion created the privileged classes. In their propaganda, the LSSP leaders endeavored to explain to the masses that ‘social class’ is a category determined mainly by the share of the material wealth of the society that members of a given class own. In this view, at one end is the propertied class (the haves) and at the other end the un-propertied class (the have-nots). In Sri Lanka by and large, it was the propertied class who were educated in English and professed the Christian religion. The LSSP agitators for social reform pointed out that social class based on property was the crucial factor that created the language and religious distinction. While it is true that differences in language, religion, dress and even caste served to sharpen the class distinction, the fundamental difference between the classes derived from the possession and non-possession of wealth. Based on his analysis of class differences, Dr.CWWK arrived at his diagnosis of what was wrong with education in the country. He concluded that (1) it is English education that is dividing the people of the country into two classes and (2) that poor children cannot get a good education because their parents cannot pay for it. In line with this analysis and diagnosis, the logical remedy suggested itself:
1. replace English with Swabasha as the medium of education.
2. make education free from kindergarten to university.
Lessons Learnt
Basically this is the remedy that successive governments in this country have implemented since Independence. The Free Education Scheme began in 1945. Education in Swabasha commenced in 1946. In due course these measures certainly served to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth and power in the country. Free education in Swabasha reduced inequality. Many children from less privileged social classes were empowered to improve their social and economic status through a higher education received in Swabasha. However, over the decades it became clear that in the modern world an education received exclusively in and through Sinhala or Tamil prevented children from rising as far as their natural talent could take them. In the event what a monolingual education in Swabasha enabled students to attain was an equality of educational degradation. Dr. CWWK had called free education in Swabasha ‘a pearl of great price’. The more perceptive students receiving this education gradually realized that Dr. CWWK’s ‘pearl of great price’ was in fact a cheap imitation and not a genuine article. Therefore, they began to demand a quality education currently available only to children of the wealthy. Since this was not forthcoming immediately, many of the underprivileged children who have only acquired an equality of degradation seem to be hell-bent on preventing the wealthier children from acquiring an education of superior quality. This is basically the stage of the class struggle in the field of education we are currently going through. Needless to say, providing a quality education to all eligible students would require a more equitable redistribution of wealth in our society than obtains at present. In plain English, government will have to allocate a much higher proportion of the country’s GDP to education. As we know, the country’s outlay on education has never exceeded 3% of its GDP. For its part, throughout its history of 76 years the LSSP has consistently advocated the allocation of a greater proportion of the countryGDP to education. Its record of advocacy on education bears recapitulation.
Free Education & the LSSP
The truth is that the Father of Free Education in this country Dr. CWWK did not conceive the idea of free education. The idea of free education was conceived in the head of Mr. A. Ratnayake, the member for Dumbara in the State Council (1936 – 1947). As Sir Ivor Jennings has recounted in his autobiography, ‘The Road to Peradeniya’ the Special Committee on Education in the State Council headed by CWW Kannangara had met and deliberated 87 times and were ready to sign the Report at its final 88 meeting. It was at this final meeting that the Member for Dumbara had asked whether the Report provided for Free Education. When the answer was no, Mr. Ratnayake, supported by many others had urged that the Report should be amended to provide for free education. It is on record that initially Dr. CWWK was in favour of a scheme of generous scholarships to bright students from poor families and not for a scheme of free education for all.
However, after the policy of free education was democratically decided by the Committee, Dr. CWWK supported it to the hilt and worked untiringly to make it a reality. He had to do so because important members of his own party including its leader did not favour the free education scheme. As it happened, the principal advocate of the free education scheme was Dr. NM Perera, a leader of the LSSP who was a political prisoner in jail at Bogambara at that time. He wrote a little book called ‘The Case for Free Education’ which was published in 1944. Its impact was probably crucial in tilting public opinion in favour of free education. In fact he went so far as to say that the decision to recommend free education from kindergarten to university is “the one redeeming feature in the Report of the Special Committee on Education”.
Tragic Irony
The free education scheme introduced in 1945 did not have an immediate impact on the ordinary people of the country. All it did initially was to waive the fees in English schools. These fees were being paid by the wealthier parents and they were the ones who benefitted immediately from Dr. CWWK’s free education scheme. The full impact of the free education scheme would necessarily take 20 to 30 years to manifest and the public were not far-sighted enough to appreciate this fact. Moreover, free education is essentially a socialist measure and Dr. CWWK was identified with right-wing conservative politics. Adam Smith, to my knowledge, never advocated free education. What is more, influential members of Dr. CWWK’s own party were well-known public opponents of free education. So, it came about that in the public eye the LSSP activists were perceived by the electorate as the more authentic and genuine advocates of free education. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Dr CWW Kannangara, the Father of Free Education who introduced this scheme in 1945 was rejected in 1947 by the Matugama electorate in favour of Mr. Wilmot A. Perera, a socialist supported by the LSSP. That was, perhaps, in the fitness of things. After all, free education was one of the ten reforms passionately urged by Karl Marx himself in the famous Communist Manifesto published in 1848! And history has finally shown that the free education scheme introduced by Dr. CWWK has not turned out to be the pearl of great price that he claimed it to be. The struggle now is in search of the genuine article advocated by the LSSP.
The people of Sri Lanka clearly prefer Evolution to Revolution!


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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