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Royal College at 175: Has it outlived its usefulness to the Nation?

Jul 17, 2010 4:40:59 PM- transcurrents.com

by Panduka Karunanayake

When I left Royal, we were looking forward to its 150-year anniversary celebrations. We were rather envious of our juniors, because they were to have the privilege of directly participating in the celebrations while we were to miss it by a hair’s breadth, considering the kind of timeline involved.

My undergraduate program was due to start on a Monday in November, and I attended Royal as a prefect right until the preceding Friday – I was already missing it so much. I worked until about five that Friday evening, by which time I was the last prefect left on the premises. The school was virtually deserted and blissful. The evening cool was penetrating its massive, absorbing walls, and outside, the cacophony of crows returning to the huge trees on Race Course Avenue was building up its familiar crescendo.

The person who bade me farewell was deputy principal Mr Christie Gunasekera, the quintessential Royalist to us, who as a habit worked in his office until about five or six each day. His parting words to me still ring in my ears: "Work hard, do your best, and help keep the flag flying."

‘The’ flag? Which flag? The blue-and-gold, three-stripe flag? Or some other flag?

As a pupil, I had known of his unambiguous ways; as a prefect, I also learnt of his subtle, unobtrusive philosophical bent. I sensed there was a distinct difference between ‘our flag’ and ‘the flag.’ But this one time, my usual resolve failed: I could not muster up the courage to ask him for a clarification on the matter. I cannot remember if this was because of the emotions swelling up in me, felt palpably like a leather cricket ball stuck below my throat, or because I intuitively felt the poignancy of the moment and the significance of his choice of phrase: Was he taking me through some manhood rite, as I was venturing out?

As I rode my rickety-old Raleigh bicycle out of the narrow side-gate, across the Reid Avenue, through the Bloomfield terrace and the Jathika Pola on to the network of roads beyond, the dilemma kept reverberating in my head.

It is inevitable that – given my failure to ascertain the true answer to the dilemma – what follows in this essay is only an individual invention of an answer, built over a twenty-five-year ride. If some who rode out like me find my invention unpalatable, I would plead mitigating circumstances. For, our inventions are shaped by the landscapes that we pass and the panoramic views that we imagine, and who can tell which landscape or panorama is ‘correct’

Strategy and purpose

It is indisputable that Royal at 175 is as healthy as ever. It has resources for both curricular and extra-curricular activities, both human and material, that are the envy of its field; some of these reach international standards. By opening up to hundreds of talented scholars through an open, fair competition every year, it contributes handsomely to creating excellence out of the nation’s potential. There is every chance here that any pupil with any talent will find a niche to hone his skills and ride as high as his talent lifts him. All this was developed – not merely preserved – by the indefatigable, dedicated, committed and grateful teachers and Old Boys, at a time when the society around them was crumbling apart. It is worthy of unrestrained applause and unmitigated celebration.

But my point is that in the context of the long and illustrious annals of the institution, all that is only the strategy for a purpose – not the purpose in itself. I fear that while we have retained and strengthened the strategy, we may have lost sight of the purpose.

Change in Europe

To understand this purpose as I see it, we need to go back to Royal’s beginning (as the Colombo Academy) in 1835, and to 1818 or even 1815. And to understand fully what happened here then, we need to understand what was happening in Europe then, because at that time our nation was just starting her 133-year career as a British colony.

It was a time of great tumult in Europe then. The Industrial Revolution, which had commenced in Manchester in around 1760, had leapt across the English Channel and was swarming over the European mainland. The ‘traditional’ values that had held feudalism and communal society there intact – honesty and loyalty – were becoming uneasily admixed with the new, ‘modern’ values of capitalism and industrial society – freedom and equality.

The old Poor Law, which had taken money from the rich and given it to the parishes to look after the poor, had just been repealed. Land enclosure was just starting, handing ‘commoner’ land over to the rich as their private property; the landless rural peasants were being denied the chance to work on them and gain a living. The consequent accumulation of the hungry, unemployed masses was providing cheap wage labor for the new, mushrooming factories. Those who were caught stealing bread were simply deported to Australia. Unexpected phenomena were brewing: urbanization and its problems, brilliantly immortalized by Dickens in his novels, and the emergence of class-consciousness, deftly mobilized by the socialists.

It was from this background that Colebrooke and Cameron came to Ceylon, to respond to our revolution of 1818 and its devastating aftermath.

Change in Ceylon

The 1818 revolution was a response to the governor’s high-handed dismissal of the 1815 Kandyan Convention; the desolation it left behind was a graphic portrayal of the malign dictatorship that his powers enabled.

To Colebrooke and Cameron, the hinterland would have shown a feudal, tradition-laden picture with a lot of potential for modernization and progress (or exploitation and profit, depending on how they looked at it). The maritime provinces, on the other hand, had already been under European powers for over 200 years and had acquired a more western, mercantilist contour with a strong elite, most of whom were Europeans.

The gist of the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms was an attempt to take Ceylon from that status to that of a ‘model colony.’ It commenced the journey from a traditional, feudal society to a modern, industrialized society (although the conventional industries themselves were not established, and instead only an ‘industrial’ form of plantations, in the sense that they were incorporated with the global market, was introduced).

Executive and legislative councils were formed to advise the governor – and although their members were neither truly representative nor their advice binding on him, this at least helped ensure that he could no longer repeat 1818 behind closed doors (except under Marshall Law, as in 1848). The benefits of the new economy were partly passed on to indigenous entrepreneurs, gradually replacing the old European (Portuguese and Dutch) elite with a new local elite.

Change in education

The reforms served the British selfishly and overwhelmingly, but they also served Ceylon. This was where the Colombo Academy and the other educational institutions that were established around this time, come in.

First and foremost, of course, these educational institutions helped form the anglicized, second-tier, local elite necessary to administer the colony – and this is what gives them a bad name in the minds of some. But again, they also began the process of transmitting the modern way of life from Europe to Ceylon – and that has been ardently embraced even by most of those who consider Anglicization despicable. They also began transferring the elite membership from Europeans to Ceylonese, however slowly or unjustly.

The transformation in education must have been amazing to watch. Just imagine: the Colombo Academy was set up in 1835, was affiliated to the Calcutta University in 1859, and before the end of the century was preparing students for the London University matriculation and external degrees. The trend was such that by the 1870s, we were ready for our own modern, post-secondary institutions: the medical, law and technical colleges.

G.P. Malalasekara called the Colombo Academy the centre of higher education in Ceylon at that time. As the school song says referring to 1835 (not without much amnesia about our pre-colonial past), "…thenceforth did Lanka’s learning thrive." If not for the World Wars, we would have had our own university college before the 1920s and the university itself well before the 1940s.

But the true significance of the Colombo Academy was evident in something else – and this is the crucial point. The Portuguese and the Dutch had also needed a local, second-tier elite, and they had handed over the task of producing it to their religious missionaries. Even our own indigenous response to these took the form of religious revivalist movements. In contrast, the British – in establishing the Colombo Academy – took the bold, genuinely ‘modern’ step of setting up their flagship educational institution on a secular format, offering as equal an opportunity as the times allowed, even in comparison to English society.

This was not a tunnel-vision institution serving sectarian, elitist interests. It was a bold, broad-minded stroke on the canvass of nation building, launching it into the throes of modernity and human inclusivity. We were taking our first steps ever, no matter how tentative, towards egalitarianism and a meritocracy. Its motto – "Learn or Depart" – epitomized the essence of the learning society, 175 years before this became common knowledge.

Surely, it must have been no accident that the nit-picking British called it an ‘academy’ rather than a school or college – the Academy was the name of the public park in classical Athens where Plato and his followers met, germinating free inquiry in the West. This should tell us something about the remit and purpose of the Colombo Academy.

The journey

To my mind, our subsequent failure as a nation has to do with our own elite’s inability to share power with the masses. Education is the great leveller. It can transform, imperceptibly and painlessly, a sleeping, feudal society into a dynamic, modern society. The United States is what it is today because President Lincoln boldly implemented the Morrill Act in the 1860s, while we are what we are today because our elite stealthily undermined the Kannangara reforms of the 1940s. Our nation did not have the skill to share.

In the midst of this national misfortune brought about by a national sin, Royal too has changed and suffered. Is it today an epicenter of an egalitarian, modernizing national journey? Or has it been carried in the same direction that the elites carried the nation in?

The beginning ends

On its 175th birthday, has Royal College outlived its usefulness to the nation? Or might those embracing, impressive walls still have enough strength and ardor left in them to help – indeed, to guide – our nation to complete its egalitarian journey? Are we to be content with a powerful strategy without a national purpose, or might we seek out the purpose once more?

Tracing back my steps to the dying moments of that Friday evening, it is inconceivable to me that Mr. Gunasekera – the most widely read and open-minded educator I have come across so far – was either unaware of, or insensitive to, this history. He must have left the identity of the ‘flag’ undisclosed, because in the end each one of us must find it out for himself.

And so, I think, must Royal – at 175, with so much to do and so much strength to do it.