By Uditha Devapriya
(with Uthpala Wijesuriya)
Most of the accounts of educational reform in British Ceylon focus on the officials and administrators, rather than the people on the ground and the historical forces they have had to contend with. Very little, if any, effort is made to place the reforms in a larger historical context. Books like Education in Colonial Ceylon (1962) by Ranjit Ruberu and Education in Ceylon: A Centenary Volume (1969) by the Department of Education and Cultural Affairs explore these areas, but they remain more the exception than the norm.
Whether academics went beyond a colonizing-centric reading of nineteenth-century Ceylon educational reforms is of course debatable. But the need to go beyond such a frame of reference is quite obvious. Paying attention to official records, 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 believe. On the other hand, we also fail to note the socio-cultural forces that shaped these reforms, including nationalist turmoil, religious revival, and progressive forces within the administration itself.
The truth is that, like the society in which they came to prevail, these reforms were riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. So while colonial authorities might reject vernacular teaching in the early 19th century, events such as the rebellion of 1848 made their successors view it less unfavorably.
At the same time, the administration makes a distinction between primary and secondary education, limiting vernacular education to the first. The government made efforts to expand the facilities, but these met the imperatives of confining higher education to a westernized bourgeoisie. As Swarna Jayaweera observed, “British policy has always emphasized quality over quantity in secondary education”.
Perhaps more than anything else, colonial reforms left the country with a set of elite high schools. The Donoughmore Commission noted this when it declared that the island was fortunate “to have a remarkable number” of such institutions.
These schools were run by the state, Christian faith 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 at the turn of the century. It was not until Donoughmore’s time (1931-1947), when ministers exercised more power over their areas of specialization and a radical left entered Parliament, that the facilities for which these institutions had acquired a reputation was extended to the poorest masses.
It is from this perspective that we must assess the contribution of cultural and religious revivalists, progressive pedagogues and historical forces to the educational and curriculum reforms of late 19th British Ceylon. As the evidence clearly shows, these figures and forces played a role in reforming the face of education in colonial society, even though they did not bring about, let alone foster, a radical change within of this company.
Concerned about the country’s finances, the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission recommended the creation of a public school in Colombo, the reform of public schools and the establishment of a Commission to administer education reforms. Created in 1834, the latter 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 Ministry 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 favor reforms that are achievable and consistent with the objective of creating a class of Westernized elites. On the other hand, many of them found themselves drawn to the history of the country they ruled. These developments mingled with the tenor of educational reforms and the Buddhist revival of the late 19th century. Their effects were to be felt more fully 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 the people, evoking memories of a lost civilization and lost grandeur. It awakened nothing less than a desire to reclaim a national heritage.
Rightly, the publication of an archaeological commission of inquiry in 1870 fueled a clamor for more about the country’s past. The history of Ceylon, as it has come to be known, quickly preoccupied officials and elites, leading to the formation of groups like the Ceylon Reform League and provoking much debate among educators.
These debates focused on a rather urgent problem. Since their inception, high schools have exuded a literary bias, with curricula that emphasized the classics to the detriment of other subjects. Long considered a weakness by officials attached to the Ministry of Education, 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 at the time, 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 has remained much the same elsewhere, with the exception of the schools established by the Theosophical Buddhist Society (BTS), where the revivalist goals of the organization mingled with a personal interest of foreign teachers and directors in the local culture.
Two developments combine to extend the teaching of these subjects to elite schools on the island. First of all, the governors in charge at this stage, in particular William Gregory, were interested in studying the country’s past and in establishing institutions for this purpose. Indeed, people like Gregory not only earmarked funds for excavating ancient sites, they also funded the creation of institutions like the Colombo Museum despite the reluctance of their more tax-conservative colleagues. Under Gregory, moreover, the teaching of science and art took priority, although progress remained hopelessly slow.
Second, as Buddhist schools saw their share of teachers devoting themselves to the study of local history, around the turn of the century other schools began to employ such figures as well. The most prominent of these was WG Fraser, Principal of Trinity College for 20 years. Described as “the best colonial ruler of his day,” Fraser oversaw the Sinhalese teaching at Trinity and abandoned materials imported from England.
Less well known than Fraser, but no less important, was Charles Hartley. A master of letters and languages having taught in a number of English public schools, Hartley was Principal of the Academy of Colombo, now renamed Royal College, for 16 years. During his tenure he oversaw several reforms, including starting Sinhala and Tamil lessons on Saturday mornings at “a rate of Rs. 2 per month.” Anne Blackburn notes that the school employed Hikkaduwe’s brother Sri Sumangala Thera as the first Sinhala teacher.
Hartley’s experiments were crowned with success, and in 1908 “vernacular education was instituted in the timetable of lower forms.” Despite his classical training, he also took an interest in science education, starting physics classes for students at the Technical College in 1907. In the same year, he introduced the history of Ceylon “to the three higher forms” .
Such reforms continued to influence students even after Hartley’s tenure ended. In 1913, at the College, for example, two prizes were awarded for the history of Ceylon, testifying to 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. More aptly, towards the end of the 1920s, the results of the Cambridge exam began to record impressive improvements in history.
Noting these achievements, in 1930 a group of students and teachers spoke and presented a proposal to the director which 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 company. As might be expected, other public schools followed suit: S. Thomas’ College, for example, formed such an association in March 1936.
These years and decades have seen the publication of a number of history books. They included Ceylan and the Portuguese (1913) by Paul E. Pieris and The Kingdom of Jaffnapatam (1920), A Short History of Ceylon (1929) by HW Codrington), History of Ceylan 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 high schools.
To say that is not to overestimate 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 to immerse themselves in the material basis of society. In its own way, however, 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 limits of such an approach, it is clear that it has entered the classroom today, as it did in their time.
These developments were the product of 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 motivations in the field of educational reform, has been noted and cannot be denied, the work of other individuals, including educators and revivalists , is more important than what they are. credited 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 contradict the broader objectives of the colonial project, these reforms generally won official support, reluctantly although it was often granted. This is not as surprising as it sounds: not even in the 1930s, on the eve of the Donoughmore reforms, the most ardent revivalist imagined a Ceylon emerging from the British orbit. It was she, for the most part, who guided educational reforms, within the framework and limits of a plantation colony in Asia.
(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations specialist and columnist, who can be contacted at [email protected] Uthpala Wijesuriya is a student and past president of the Royal College History Club, who can be reached at [email protected])