Addressing a gathering of literati and glitterati on the occasion of this year’s Cumaratunga Munidasa commemoration day held at Folk Art Centre Battaramulla, Minister Wimal Weerawansa is reported to have said “thank God! I did not go to university”. As he claims, had he gone to university, he would have been a chip of the traditional mould of academics who he underrated as “a worthless pro-Western unpatriotic lot”. He asserted that he was so pleased that he did not go to university. I agree that Weerawansa is cast in a different superman mould with his infinite knowledge and ground breaking discovery of Balaya fish curry but I disagree with his derogatory remark concerning the university community at large. I note that when he made this statement, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera who is a brilliant product of Peradeniya University was by his side.
Weerawansa is also on record as saying that he has never been to Sigiriya, the nation’s proud mirror wall of aesthetic skill. No doubt Weerawansa can be forgiven for not going to university because all who aspire to go to the university cannot do so, but he cannot be forgiven for not going to Sigiriya as anyone who wants to visit Sigiriya can do so at will. One would wonder why the nationalist and patriot par excellent chose to boycott the bare breasted damsels who present to the world our rich heritage and archaeological wonder that caught the eyes of billions of people from 477BC to this day.
I wrote this preamble not to enter in to an endless confrontation with Weerawansa. His statement provoked me to write this article for two reasons. Firstly my aim is to draw the attention of especially the freshers who are now in a long wait to enter a university and who know nothing of the university community or the true meaning of University education and the potential pitfalls that are hidden or not obvious to them at first. Secondly Weerawansa’s speech could convey quite a wrong signal to civil society to establish a belief that the country’s university system produces a good-for-nothing lot with pro-Western values and ideology.
It is reported that the intake of students for the current year is to be about 25,000, the largest number ever taken to the National University System. This augurs well for the country because the country has to provide more and more opportunities to its youth.
I entered the Peradeniya University, then University of Ceylon on October 14, 1969. All freshers were asked to congregate at the Arts Theatre (AT) for the welcome address following registration delivered by Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914 -1996) who was the Director of Student welfare at the time. Two of my friends and I made it a point to take seats closer to the podium for us to have a better view of Prof. Sarachchcadra who was an iconic figure in my heart since my school days. Prof. Sarachchandra came on the dot and stood before the freshers. There was pin drop silence for a moment. That was the first day many of us happened to listen to Sarachchandra, the man who made Peradeniya proud and world famous and was responsible for being the forerunner of the Peradeniya clan better known as Peradeniya gurukulaya.
He looked at the students passionately and asked:
Prof: Where have you come to?
Students: All in one voice said - “university”
Prof: Why have you all come to the university?
Students: (Pat came the reply) “to study”
Prof: “Weren’t you all studying at your schools where you all came from?
Prof: Then what was the purpose of your coming here?
Students: A number of replies came – “for higher studies”, “get a degree” and so on...
You say you have come here to obtain a degree, yes, it may be so. But is it the purpose of your coming to the university? Obtaining a degree may be one aspect of university education, but it is not the fundamental objective or the purpose of being here. If you concede that the main functionality of the university is to confer degrees to people, you are sadly mistaken. If that is the case, then the university will be a factory awarding degrees. Is it the case? Definitely it isn’t the case.
We will now see what a university is for and what the purpose of a university is.
(This article is not the verbatim of Prof. Sarachchandra’s speech but it contains the message he conveyed to us on that day. I have revisited and developed the contents to suit the current environment in line with the developments that have taken place during the last four decades.)
What is a University?
The word "university" is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means "community of teachers and scholars”. This could be very briefly explained. It has a broad meaning. Students are not there to listen to your lecturer or tutor or take notes and memorise what they say and prepare for exams as you did at your school. You are here for the discovery of new knowledge, the testing of received knowledge and the creative, responsible and effective application of knowledge. In your school your Master came to the class, taught you a lesson, you took notes, did your homework and sat for exams. Here you have come for discovery of new knowledge which somebody has not taught you or asked you to do. On your own initiative you are expected to embark on research. You are not obliged to accept what professors say.
You are supposed to dispute, disagree, amend or reject their opinion. Accordingly a university is a place of concourse; where students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge. It is a place for pursuit of knowledge.
It is the centre of trade, the supreme court of fashion, the empire of rival talents, and the standard of things rare and precious. It is the place for seeing galleries of first-rate pictures, and for hearing wonderful voices and performers of transcendent skill. It is the place for great new thinkers, great orators and great pioneers of new knowledge.
It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge. It is the place where the professor becomes eloquent, and smart juniors go pass the senior professors.
It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, an Alma Mater of the rising generation. Knowledge is something that you gain that cannot be taken away from you. (sora sathuran gatha nohena) It is also something that you continue to gain throughout your life until your last moment.
Such is a university in its idea and in its purpose.
What is a University for?
Part of university education is the obvious training for a future career; various subjects and tests that all lead to the university degree, which brings career prospects, opportunities and higher pay. Knowledge of certain subjects and a degree is beneficial to have in terms of a successful future. Great emphasis is placed on this perception of what society considers success. If success is having plenty of money to buy material items, a degree can certainly prepare one for that.
If success is measured in terms of the amount of knowledge acquired in certain subjects, a university education can also help one to achieve success. However, a university education goes beyond that. It is more than memorizing books and facts. It is more than a framed certificate on a wall that can be used to impress future employers.
We all have identities away from our careers. If the objective of a university education is more than gaining the knowledge necessary to pass tests and get a degree, what is the true purpose of university education?
University education must prepare people for one important thing. It must produce refined men or women who could face up to and take over the future of the country. Look at some of those people who claim to be intellectual elites who do not know what they are talking about or make any sense...such persons have no difficulty in contradicting themselves. A university education will prevent this from happening.
An educated person will know what they are talking about and not go through life looking like an idiot. With an education that encompasses all aspects of knowledge, one will be able to be well-informed in any situation.
A university education also enables one to honestly face modern issues in society. What is important is this, after attending a university, one will not be merely dazzled by phenomena or be gullible. You must learn to look at things in their proper perspective. People will have the knowledge and ability to consider issues in a fair and honest way.
A university education does not have to separate the head from the heart. This is very important. There is a vast treasure of culture and heritage that our forefathers have handed down to us.
That culture and heritage has to be taken from generation to generation. Put your head and heart together and ask yourself do I love my country, my religion and rich culture sufficiently? University education is intended to prepare students for this and prepare them for the rest of their lives, not just academically, but in a way that will enable them to love this country continually whilst engaged in the quest for new knowledge and not sell yourselves for a few dollars.
We have now come to an important juncture. If you survey the history of Western universities, you will be told that the world’s first university is the University of Bologna. This is the popular myth to be inculcated in our minds. Do you accept this as a fact?
Oldest Universities in the world
Have you heard of the world famous Universities of Taxila (TakshaShila) and Nalanda. Taxila is the oldest university in the world and situated in Punjab. More than 2700 years back a huge university existed in that ancient India where over 10,500 students from all across the world came for higher studies. Students from all across the world came to attain specialization in over 64 different fields of study like vedas, grammar, philosophy, ayurveda, agriculture, surgery, politics, archery, warfare, astronomy, commerce, futurology, music, dance, etc. There were even curious subjects like the art of discovering hidden treasure, decrypting encrypted messages, etc.
Some of the students who graduated from Takshashila university included the great political master Chanakya (also called Kautilya/Vishnugupta) who not only authored the world’s finest work till today on political duties, statecraft, economic policies, state intelligence systems, administrative skills and military strategy, called the Artha Shastra which consists of 15 books, but who also guided Chandragupta Maurya as a mentor who founded the Great Mauryan Empire, and also served as the Prime Minister of the Mauryan Empire. Books like Panchatantra and Charakasanhita were written by the scholars who were products of University of Taxila.
The Nalanda University complex was built with red bricks and its ruins occupy an area of 14 hectares. At its peak, the university attracted scholars and students from as far away as Tibet, China, Greece and Persia. Nalanda was ransacked and destroyed by an army under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193. The great library of Nalanda University was so vast that it is reported to have burned for three months after the invaders set fire to it, ransacked and destroyed the monasteries, and drove the Buddhist monks from the site.
Ancient Universities of Lanka
In ancient Sri Lanka there were two well-known Universities in the kingdom of Anuradapura, although they were not specifically named as such. Maha-Vihara and Abhayagiri-Vihara were Universities which maintained their own academic traditions and identities. Maha-Vihara tradition distinctly differed from the Abhayagiri-Vihara tradition.
The Chinese traveller Monk Fa-Hien (399-414BC) who visited the “Country of Sinhala” (Fa-Hien referred to the country as such) states in his-travelogue “Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” (this record was originally written in Chinese language and later translated in to English by James Legge) that Maha-Vihara and Abhayagiri-Vihara had 5,000 and 3,000 monks respectively.
It could be reasonable to conclude that these numbers relate to the residential monks in the two Viharas. The Monk Fa-Hien also provides an eyewitness account of the cremation of an Arhath of Maha-Vihara with the patronage of the king of the land. These Universities provided courses in a variety of disciplines including medicine and surgery, engineering, architecture and sculpture.
The Aukana Buddha statue provides unmistakable evidence of the feat of Sinhala engineering that these universities provided to the nation which no other country can boast about. It is said that the degree of alignment of the serene Aukana Buddha statue is such that rain drops on the nose would drop straight down to a small depression carved between the toes. Avkana Buddha statue is a masterpiece not only in respect of its skilful and amazing sculpture but also of the delicateness of the massive creation that reflects the supreme spirituality of the Buddha.
The foregoing examples were cited with a purpose. There has been a foregone conclusion that university education in this country is of Western origin. It is not so and was not imported from the West. It was a thing that we had for two thousand years, but conveniently forgotten by the Westernized elite through their hypocrisy. Can we believe that the system of ocean-like great reservoirs in the Rajarata would possibly have been constructed without engineering know how? Who provided this know how? It was Maha Vihara and Abhayagiri Vihara that provided the unique technology. This is a unique feature to our country because such reservoirs are not found anywhere else in the Indian sub-continent. Researches have now established that ancient Sri Lanka had an unparalleled civilization known as Hydraulic Civilization. Westernized elite who write in the English language in our country and who are hell-bent in selling us the Judeo -Christian ideology; hypocritically avoid unveiling the existence of Hydraulic Civilization beginning from the Anuradapura period.
You are entering the university at a time our country is passing a difficult period in its history. Our nation, language and religion are under threat. The enemy is from within as well as from outside. You have to guard against this threat.
At times it is difficult to make out who the real enemy is. You have to be careful of the pitfalls at the university. These pitfalls are not obvious to you at first. They are present in the university as highly recognized scholarly presentations to students. One such presentation is the organized vicious campaign against our great chronicles Mahawamsa and Chulawamsa. This is being done with a definite aim to belittle our cultural heritage which our ancestors handed down to us at the cost of their lives.
Party politics that is imported to the university is the other scourge that destroys you.
It is waiting to make you a cat's paw to achieve their goals by getting on to your shoulder. They would make you a slave, suck your juice and throw the waste, destroy your personality and take you out of the fundamental purpose for which you entered the university. Never let that happen. Do not fall prey to that scourge. Be watchful of every step you take or else it can destroy your personal goal and thereby obstruct the fulfillment of national aims.
Always remember to make full use of the library and other facilities that are provided to students.
University as a strategic engine
Many individuals wonder what the ultimate purpose of university education is. It is a platform for young adults to pursue their passion and hone their skills, utilize their creativity and drive innovation. University shouldn't be a platform for political cynicism. If you do not make your own assessment of these pitfalls, none of your objectives can be achieved. I believe the university's main functionality is to work as a strategic engine for advancement of its products i.e. you, and fulfillment of national aims.
Who are the leaders of a nation?
How would you do this? At the outset I mentioned that many people do not know what they are talking about. Some people talk but without any substance at all. Some cannot fruitfully engage in a conversation for even fifteen minutes without digressing. Similarly many people do not have the ability to think independently. People simply imitate others. They haven't got their own views on the subject at hand. They think for the sake of thinking. You have to be your own master and not be influenced by what others say or dazzled by phenomena. Who are the leaders of a society? People who can think independently in their chosen fields and act accordingly are the leaders of a nation and our universities are trying to make you such a Leader.
Courtesy - Daily News by Jinadasa Bamunuarachchi