Bang Bang – Colombo’s first modern shopping center – The Island

By Aruni Samarakoon

A month ago, the university I am attached to circulated an email to faculty scholars asking them to submit details of their research and publications for 2017-2021. The email mentioned that these details were required by the National Audit Office of Sri Lanka. The objective was to collect information to quantify the research results of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. The email simply asked for the number of works rather than their subject or contribution.

This story is emblematic of a deep methodological tension around the definition and analysis of the results of teaching and learning in the social sciences. George Stephenson Brown, a professor of education from Australia, asserted that the aims of social studies are “to elicit in students an active interest in all matters relating to the community in which they live, to train them to think clearly about public matters and to equip them with good judgment in the future by a complete study of their surroundings”. By definition, the contributions of the social sciences are therefore not easily measurable. However, currently, our administrative authorities of higher education ask us to analyze quantitatively the results of the teaching of the social sciences, that is to say by the number of undergraduate students “produced” (for the labor market) or research publications.

This experience led me to recall the two challenges mentioned by Sivamohan Sumathy in Kuppi’s very first article in The Island a little over a year ago, on 02/03/2021: the education crisis and the education crisis. This article will take up Sumathy’s argument and build on it to present a new reading of these two challenges. I intentionally limit my argument to the social sciences due to my knowledge and work experiences as a political science scholar.

A crisis “in” the teaching of social sciences?

I agree with Sumathy that “the crisis in education is the disempowerment of education itself, its institutions, its subjects, teachers and students, and the erosion of its principles by forces that are entirely external, market forces”. As Brown proposes, undergraduate social science students should be able to identify social problems and propose solutions for them. Today in Sri Lanka, however, social science learning and teaching at university seems to have taken other directions due to the impact of neoliberal market forces.

The politics of transforming public goods, ie universities, into for-profit, market-oriented institutions – elaborated earlier in this column – challenges the social sciences in at least two ways; making ’employability skills’ the primary focus of social science teaching and learning and designing social science courses for market needs.

Neoliberal proponents from backgrounds other than the social sciences, who dominate decision-making in higher education institutions, support curriculum revisions to supposedly improve the employability skills of social science graduates. English language proficiency and proficiency in information and communication technologies are identified by the administration as the most needed skills of social scientists. Therefore, English hubs and ICT camps – funded by World Bank projects – are implemented to develop the “skills” of undergraduate social science students to enable them to be part of the workforce.

A broader question is where, even after these trainings, these graduates can find job opportunities in the Sri Lankan economy. World Bank projects are designed to train undergraduate students for an aspiring upper middle class economy, despite the dire economic situation in Sri Lanka where the government is now struggling to meet even the most basic human needs. A more sinister result of these formations, and the general direction of higher education, is that the view of education as a democratic process that empowers the people is obscured, which brings me to the notion of Sumathy d an ‘education crisis’.

A A crisis “of” the teaching of the social sciences

What is the education crisis? Sumathy mentions in his article that “the crisis of education is that of the loss of sight of its democratic potential, the double task of empowering the socially marginalized and of re-articulating a vision of the world in a mobilization for greater democratization. It is about the content of our education and its objectives. Who do we serve as educators? “.

What reflections can we see today in our students or graduates in the social sciences? Have we taught them to think about public concerns? What activities do they engage in within their communities? Do social science curricula enable citizens to think critically? to defend oneself, to denounce the violence, the murders of other ethnic communities; respect cultural diversity; oppose nationalism?

In our universities, students confine their knowledge to textbooks and exam papers, leaving little time to build solidarity with others or respect diversity.

Solidarity is further weakened by ranking systems that designate the “best” learner/reader/student. In this way, universities create docile labor market workers who lack the ability to organize into a powerful workforce that can stand up for rights, equality, and justice.

When these graduates enter the workforce, they would like to be excellent performers, not critical thinkers. When these high achievers or “credit holders” enter the administrative bodies of the university, they too can focus on increasing the quantity of academic results, i.e. the number of graduates, the number of works, rather than the quality of undergraduate programs. They can encourage competition among undergraduates, intensifying isolation and alienation, leaving little time for solidarity work.

Are universities creating spaces for undergraduates to think critically about nationalism? Or propose answers to difficult questions, for example the national question? When I joined the university as a temporary lecturer in 2010, I experienced the events organized by undergraduate students and professors of the social sciences stream at my university to celebrate the victory of the war on the countless civilian deaths in the North and East. The first thing that crossed my mind was how a human could celebrate the murder of another human being? However, some academics went to congratulate the president on the war victory.

After a decade of war victories, some of my senior colleagues are still convinced that war was the only way to resolve the national question in Sri Lanka. In 2019, during a field visit to Jaffna, one of my senior colleagues said in public that the Tamil National Alliance had no intention of calling for a unitary state. These prejudices among academic staff may well cause nationalistic thoughts among undergraduate students and engender distrust of other communities. Measuring social science education in numbers eludes what is really going on in our universities.

In conclusion, quality and quantity are two different analytical elements. Quantitative analytical evidence cannot be used to analyze the teaching and learning outcomes of qualitative subjects such as social studies. Today, our undergraduates are not equipped to think critically about society due to the education crisis that has turned into an education crisis. Measuring output or the number of “products” for the labor market will not democratize society or solve national problems. Having a degree will not create jobs in a country where people are struggling for their daily bread. What we need are decent citizens who are sensitive to community issues or to the interests of various ethnic and other groups.

(The author is attached to the Department of Public Policy, University of Ruhuna)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy taking place on the fringes of the amphitheater that simultaneously parodies, subverts and reaffirms social hierarchies.


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Peggy P. Gilmore