Cultural Renaissance, Educational Reform and the Study of History – The Island
(Part of this article was deleted due to a technical error last week. It is reproduced in full today. We regret the error.)
By Uditha Devapriya
(with Uthpala Wijesuriya)
Most accounts of educational reform in British Ceylon focus on civil servants and administrators, rather than the people on the ground and the historical forces they had to deal with. Very little, if any, effort is made to situate the reforms in a broader historical context. Works like Ranjit Ruberu Education in Colonial Ceylon (1962) and the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs Education in Ceylon: A Centenary Volume (1969) explore these areas, but these remain more the exception than the norm.
Whether scholars have gone beyond a colonization-centric reading of educational reforms in 19th-century Ceylon is of course debatable. But the need to go beyond such a frame of reference is quite obvious. Paying attention to official accounts, we tend to view these reforms through the prism of colonial administrators, whose intentions may not have been as clear as their biographers would have us assume. On the other hand, we also fail to note the socio-cultural forces that shaped these reforms, including nationalist agitation, religious revival, and progressive forces within the administration itself.
The truth is that, like the society in which they were applied, these reforms were full of ambiguities and contradictions. Thus, while colonial authorities might reject vernacular education in the early 19th century, events like the 1848 rebellion led their successors to view it less favorably.
At the same time, the administration distinguished elementary education from secondary education, limiting vernacular education to the first. The government made efforts to expand the facilities, but these were in keeping with the imperatives of confining higher education to a westernized middle class. As Swarna Jayaweera has observed, “British policy has consistently emphasized quality over quantity in secondary education”.
Perhaps more than anything else, colonial reforms bequeathed a set of elite secondary schools to the country. The Donoughmore Commission noted this when it said the island was blessed “to possess a remarkable number” of such institutions.
These schools were run by the state, Christian faith-based organizations, and other private interests. Many of them had been established between 1835 and 1860, while schools founded by Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim revivalists were established in the latter part of the century. It was not until the Donoughmore era (1931-1947), when ministers wielded more power over their areas of specialization and a radical left entered the legislature, that the facilities that made the reputation of these institutions were extended to the poorer masses.
It is from this perspective that we must assess the contribution of cultural and religious revivalists, progressive educators and historical forces to the educational and curriculum reforms of late 19th British Ceylon. As the evidence shows, these figures and forces helped to reform the face of education in colonial society, even if they did not cause, let alone foster, a radical change within that society.
Concerned with the question of the country’s finances, the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission recommended the establishment of a public school in Colombo, the reform of public schools, and the creation of a Commission to administer the educational reforms. Created in 1834, this last body collapsed seven years later due to various disagreements and clashes. This was followed by another commission in 1841, which in turn gave way to a more prosperous institution, the Department of Public Instruction, 28 years later.
At that time, the colonial administration of Ceylon was guided by two opposing ideological impulses: utilitarianism and orientalism. On the one hand, colonial administrators prioritized reforms that were feasible and consistent with the goal of creating a Westernized elite class. On the other hand, many of them found themselves drawn to the history of the country they governed. These developments became intertwined with the tenor of educational reforms and the Buddhist revival of the late 19th century. Their effects will be felt more at the beginning of the 20th century.
Probably the most crucial development at this time was the excavation of Anuradhapura. After centuries of neglect, the restoration of the country’s ancient capital has left a deep impression on people, evoking memories of a lost civilization and lost grandeur. It awakened nothing less than a desire to reclaim a national heritage.
Fittingly, the publication of an archaeological commission of inquiry in 1870 fueled a clamor to learn more about the country’s past. Ceylon’s story, as it came to be known, quickly preoccupied officials and elites, leading to the formation of groups like the Ceylon Reform League and causing much debate among educators.
These debates were about a rather pressing issue. From their inception, secondary schools had a literary bias, with curricula that emphasized the classics at the expense of other subjects. Long noted as a weakness by civil servants attached to the Ministry of Public Instruction, very little has been done to change the situation.
The teaching of history, in particular, limited the child to Europe and India. At the Colombo Academy in the period in question, for example, the two textbooks in use were John Murray’s Guide to India and John Marshman’s Brief Survey of Ancient History. The situation remained much the same elsewhere, with the exception of the schools established by the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS), where the revivalist aims of the organization became intertwined with a personal interest of foreign teachers and principals in the local culture.
Two developments have contributed to extending the teaching of these subjects to the island’s elite schools. First, the governors in charge at that time, especially William Gregory, became interested in studying the country’s past and creating institutions for that purpose. Indeed, people like Gregory not only directed funds to dig up ancient sites, they also funded the establishment of institutions like the Colombo Museum despite the reluctance of their more fiscally conservative colleagues. Under Gregory, moreover, the teaching of science and the arts was a priority, though progress remained frustratingly slow.
Second, as Buddhist schools saw their share of teachers dedicated to the study of local history, around the turn of the century other schools also began to employ such figures. Chief among them was WG Fraser, Principal of Trinity College for 20 years. Described as “the finest colonial manager of his day”, Fraser oversaw the teaching of Sinhalese at Trinity and abandoned subjects imported from England.
Less known than Fraser, but no less important, was Charles Hartley. A master of classics and languages who taught at several English state schools, Hartley was principal of Colombo Academy, now renamed Royal College, for 16 years. During his tenure, he oversaw several reforms including the start of Sinhalese and Tamil language classes on Saturday mornings at “a fee of Rs. 2 per month. Anne Blackburn notes that the school employed Hikkaduwe’s brother Sri Sumangala Thera as its first Sinhalese teacher.
Hartley’s experiments were successful, and in 1908 “vernacular teaching was instituted in the lower form calendar”. Despite his classical training, he also took an interest in science education, beginning physics courses for Technical College students in 1907. That same year he introduced the history of Ceylon “in three higher forms”.
Such reforms continued to influence students even after Hartley’s term ended. In 1913, at the College, for example, two prizes were awarded for the history of Ceylon, indicating a growing enthusiasm for the subject. While Oriental studies had been neglected at the beginning of the 19th century, at the beginning of the 20th century these subjects were taught with great interest. Specifically, towards the end of the 1920s, the results of the Cambridge examination began to register impressive improvements in history.
Seeing these accomplishments, in 1930 a group of students and teachers sat down and presented a proposal to the principal that led to the creation of a historic association. For its inaugural meeting, the Association invited GC Mendis to speak on “The study of history with particular reference to Ceylon”, highlighting the interest in local history which had led to the founding of the society. Predictably, other public schools followed suit: S. Thomas’ College, for example, formed such an association in March 1936.
These years and decades saw the publication of a number of history books. They included Ceylon and the Portuguese (1913) by Paul E. Pieris and The Kingdom of Jaffnapatam (1920), A Short History of Ceylon (1929) by H. W. Codrington, History of Ceylon by LE Blaze (1933) and The Early History of Ceylon by GC Mendis. (1940). Needless to say, they had a profound influence on the local curriculum, even in elite secondary schools.
To say this is not to exaggerate these works. For the most part, early historians favored a chronology that divided the past into a series of dynastic periods. It was much later, in the 1960s, that a new generation of historians departed from these frameworks and immersed themselves in the material basis of society. In its own way, however, it is a testament to the influence of early historians that our schools still adopt their chronology, with the curriculum focusing on ruling dynasties and clans. Whatever the limitations of such an approach, it is undeniable that it has penetrated the classroom today, as it did in their time.
These developments were the product of the political, cultural and social forces that came together in colonial society at the end of the 19th century. While the work of civil servants and colonial commissioners, who had their own particular motivations in the area of educational reform, has been noted and cannot be denied, the work of other individuals, including educators and revivalists, is more important than they are. given credit for.
What should be noted in conclusion is that the reforms overseen by these individuals reflected the ideological impulses of British colonialism. As long as they did not conflict with the broader goals of the colonial project, these reforms generally won official support, albeit reluctantly, although often granted. It is not as surprising as it might seem: not even in the 1930s, on the eve of the Donoughmore reforms, did the most ardent revivalist imagine a Ceylon falling out of British orbit. It is this, essentially, which has guided the educational reforms, within the framework and the limits of a plantation colony in Asia.
(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations specialist and columnist, reachable at [email protected] Uthpala Wijesuriya is a student and outgoing president of the Royal College History Club, reachable at [email protected])