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De Bunking Sri Lanka's history

by Lorna Devaraja - Daily News Friday April 19 2002

In the early 1970s history as a separate subject was banished from the school's syllabus and subsumed in the wider discipline known as Social Sciences and history became a minor component in the Social Sciences syllabus.

The result is that generations of students have come out of school with no knowledge of Sri Lanka's ancient traditions, let alone that of the rest of the world. With no understanding of the past, the country's youth have no vision of the future and live in an impoverished and uncertain present. History has also lost the exalted place it once occupied in academic circles.

Our Universities have failed to inspire even a small group of studies or even nature some kind of enthusiasm in history which is considered the most humane of the humanities. In this age of commercialization history has succumbed before the job oriented courses like accountancy, management and commerce which hopefully offered promises of a secure job at the end of a three year course. Political Science and International Relations are attracting many undergraduates. But can a study of Political Science and International Relations have any meaning without a background knowledge of history?

History if properly studied embraces the whole of mankind and mankind's activities. We are used to thinking of history as a chronological list of kings and their activities, wars and violent uprisings. It is true that political history forms the backbone of history, yet all mankind's magnificent achievements, literary, cultural, artistic and spiritual are important components of history. Hence historical education forms a part of general culture and to be lacking in a knowledge of history is to be lacking in a knowledge of general culture.

Many other countries in the world attach great important to the teaching of history. In the United States, which has only 200 years of history even medical students have to offer two papers in American History and we with 2000 odd years of history choose to ignore it. Japan, despite its technological advancement attaches great importance in its school curriculum to the teaching of Japanese and world history.

In the United Kingdom, history has regained its importance and while it is studied as an independent subject it forms a major component in the multi disciplinary projects. The Indian Prime Minister, who had a passionate love of history said, "The present and the future invariably grow out of the past and bears its stamp and to forget this, is to cut off the roots of national growth".

The reverse trend has taken place in Sri Lanka. In 1967/68, fifty three per cent of all undergraduates in the faculties teaching social sciences and humanities followed one course or other in history. In 1984 just 17 years later, less than 300 students studied history in all our universities. The number seems to have increased slightly in the recent past but this is no justification for complacency. The situation in the university is of national importance for it is from here that the future generations of teachers emanate. Further the university entrance requirements determine the curriculum of the senior classes in the secondary schools.

A vicious cycle has been in operation during the last few decades - few undergraduates offering history in the universities - few history graduates pass out who could go back and teach history in the schools - very few students could therefore offer history at the "A" Level Examination and fewer still will opt to do history at the university. In a very prestigious leading school in Colombo a student wished to offer history for the "A" Levels. He was told that he would have to take private tuition in history because there was no teacher competent to teach the subject in school. If this was the situation in such a prestigious school one can imagine what it is in lesser institutions.

That the Sri Lankans more than any other people in the sub-continent had a sense of history is proved beyond doubt by the existence of the chronicles, the Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa which give an unbroken record of the country's history from legendary beginnings to modern times. The well-known German Orientalist Wilhelm Geiger remarked. "There is hardly any corner of the Indian subcontinent of whose history we know so much as we do of the island of Ceylon". The Sri Lankan chronicles have even helped scholars to unravel knotty points in Indian History as well.

Alas! We Sri Lankans have chosen to cut off the roots of national growth. A modern historian writes, "Damn our history talk, or if we do not condemn it, lets box it in, hold it at arm's length and move into the 21st century pragmatically without the sort of history talk that is now a millstone around our necks." Has any other historian from any other nation spoken like this with regard to his/her country's history?

The ignorance of the Sri Lankans of their own history has given pseudo scholars the opportunity to distort Sri Lanka's history to suit their political agendas. Consequently, even educated people have found it impossible to counter the fictitious claims made by bogus intellectuals in public forums here and abroad. In the light of current political developments one wonders, whether debunking history is a conspiracy that is being hatched to keep the youth unaware of the country's history and culture and specially Buddhist culture.

However, the children's chapter compiled by the Ministry of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Social Welfare and the Department of Probation and Child Care Services, in article 18 states:- "It shall be the duty of every parent or guardian or every educational institution in which children are being educated to initiate and develop love for the nation and make them grow up as patriotic citizens".

How do you think, a citizen can develop to understand his/her country if he/she does not know its past?