Ragging and the assurance of learning

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( February 11, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) I wish to refer to excellent article entitled “Deplorable Conditions in Sri Lankan Universities” written recently for the Sri Lankan Guardian by Darshani Wimalasuriya. Ms. Wimalasuriya, in her well structured and analytical essay provides extremely disturbing reports of recent incidents of ragging in Sri Lankan universities, and at a point says: “According to the 2011World University Ranking Sri Lankan universities have a lower position and some African countries with low literacy rate than Sri Lanka have far more better educational ranking than the Sri Lankan Universities”. I do not doubt the veracity of this statement. She also says that the universities deteriorated within the span of the past 40 years.
As a student in the University of Colombo some 30 plus years ago, I could agree with this statement because just 10 years before I entered the Faculty of Law, my brother was a student in the same faculty and his milieu was entirely different from mine. The difference between our two eras was clearly the Sinhala medium, whether it was in the Law Faculty or the Arts Faculty. When I entered the Faculty of Law, we had such excellent teachers as Professors T. Nadaraja, G.L. Pieris, Savitri Gunasekere and Anton Cooray, and perhaps the only persons who were sent overseas to study were the children of the Prime Minister and a handful of cabinet ministers. But still, standards in terms of ragging were despicable, particularly in the context of the Sinhala medium seniors in the Arts and Law Faculties (I was not much exposed to the Science Faculty) and therefore I do not believe that there is a correlation between the quality of university teachers and the quantum of ragging.
I must say the seniors in the English medium in the Law Faculty were a pretty decent bunch who gave us “freshers” some mild chores which we performed with some ease and the minimum loss of dignity. However the Sinhala medium students shouted obscenities at us and there was no discrimination between the genders. I soon figured out the reason for this anomaly by piecing together the questions that were posed to me, while one day I was in the process of removing my pants in public at the insistent request, nay command of a particularly raw vernacular senior. I was asked in Sinhala such questions as “how many cars does your father own”? Did your father drop you off by car today”? In which part of Colombo do you live? 7, 5 or 3?” My first visit to the washroom (if it could have been be called that) was even more revealing. The first slogan I saw on the wall (etched in charcoal) was “Unta Biththara, Apita Karawala” (They have eggs while we have dried fish). It was a revelation to me that there was a stratum in society that considered an egg a luxury food!!
All this might give the reader the impression that I came from a rich home. On the contrary. My parents did not own a car and I came from Colombo 9 (Dematagoda) which by no means was the “posh” area of Colombo. However, I was fair in complexion, fairly globular (which certainly meant that I was well fed), reasonably well dressed and entered the University from a private school in Colombo. Most of my contemporaries in the Sinhala medium were dark in complexion and this, for some inexplicable reason, was another reason for an inferiority complex which earned me the nick name “Law Facultiyé Sudu Bada” (The fair fatty from the Law Faculty) from the the Arts Faculty. Of course it was pronounced “Low Pacultiyé Sudu Bada”.
Later, once the rag period of two weeks was over, they all became my close friends (with whom I dabbled in Student Council Politics) and who received me well. Therefore, and in retrospect, I began to feel that the rag was just a “psychological catharsis” where students from downtrodden areas were exposed to the upper class bringing to bear a serious rift between the self proclaimed “Haramanis” element with the “Kulturs” who wielded the “Kaduwa (English Language). The result was a surge of pent up resentment against the privileged class who spoke a different language and ate different food. My experience in the university was that when most found that my Sinhala was as good or better than my English they warmed up to me so endearingly.
Bruce Mathews, in his excellent article University Education in Sri Lanka in Context: Consequences of Deteriorating Standards (Pacific Affairs. Volume: 68. Issue: 1. Publication Year: 1995. Page Number: 77) states that arguably, ragging in Sri Lankan universities, which is cruel and indecent, is a result of an admissions policy that suddenly throws students from widely different social backgrounds together. He observes that, in a country like Sri Lanka, where the hierarchical nature of society, either as caste or class, is very pronounced, giving those from underprivileged backgrounds power to “initiate” new students (especially young women and those from the great schools) can be problematic. He also says that the issue is deeper than this, for ragging is also a form of protest against authority of any kind – university, the law, even traditional social norms and customs.
There is no such bizarre complexes and torture in the university which my child attends in Montreal (and in most, if not all other universities in North America) arguably because all speak the same language, are equally well dressed and well fed and, if they come from disadvantaged families they are given student loans by the government. At the Montreal universities, the “freshmen” are treated on consecutive days by the seniors to hot dogs, beer and blaring hip hop music in the quadrangles of the Colleges where they dance till the wee hours into the morning. I must hasten to qualify this by saying that by no means am I saying that there is absolutely no instance of criminality but this happens mostly when acts are perpetrated by the criminal elements. In other words, there is no culture of ragging here in Montreal or in most of North America.
I believe another reason for the malaise in Sri Lankan universities is what I call the lack of “assurance of learning” (AOL) at the high school and pre university phase. AOL is what schools emphasize in North America to students from elementary school through high school to universities in preparing them to go out into the outside world. As a university teacher (part time) , I have to practice AOL even with my post graduate students. AOL is a shift from the traditional mode of measuring the success of teaching techniques per se to the level of assurance a university or lower educational institute has that the student has learnt what was expected before that student graduates and seeks employment. Major determinants in AOL are communication, ethics, analytical skills, and the ability to use information technology, multiculturalism and reflective thinking.
Largely because of AOL, one does not find in North American cities (particularly in the capitals, and I am not talking “boondocks” here) teenage boys seated on parapet walls casting lewd comments at innocent girls and women waiting for a bus on the street. There are no school boy “louts” in buses ridiculing and denigrating school girls. There are no separate “ladies only” compartments in buses or trains. Above all, there is strict enforcement of the law, irrespective of whether the offender is the son of a cabinet minister or not.
The imposition of legislation against the harassment of the innocent is an effective deterrent. Legislation introduces legal certainty to a society as an integral element of the rule of law. It makes people aware to a great degree of precision the manner in which the law will impinge on their conduct. Therefore laws have to be coherent, specific and set out in advance with clarity so that the citizen has a full understanding of the law. Criminal laws are enacted on the basis of values that are considered acceptable to a society which are institutionalized through the legislative process. As a follow up to this process the rule of law requires that judges make specific decisions that enforce the laws concerned.
Although ragging can be cruel and indecent, the legislation must be drafted with the consideration in mind that there has to be a harmonious balance between recognizing the innocent as against the guilty as the offence would involve young persons of a certain age who may not necessarily be hardened criminals. Particularly in instances of arrest, the legislation must insist that the arrest be legal and can be supported by cogent evidence. This would provide a safety net to protect the innocent “seniors” who may otherwise be perceived to be guilty in an instance of ragging where a whole group of students are involved and it is difficult to decipher a specific offence and determine the culprits.
Ragging is a culture in Sri Lanka which students bring with them as a corollary to their own depravity, poverty and deep seated resentment against the haves. It is a complex that can be eradicated if decency, respect and dignity for the human being are inculcated at school level.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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