Education and Maturity

5 November 2007

The goal of education is to equip children with the ability to effectively function as an adult. I believe this process involves two things:

1) Endowing practical knowledge and skills
2) Cultivating a proper mindset

Most crises are due to a lack of the latter than the former. When we think of the former, we think of things like the sciences, humanities, arts and practical/technical skills. Arguably, our (Sri Lanka’s) education system may be deficient in dispensing these to the general population. Yet we see time and again that, even in cases where a good education is present the person tends to be deficient in other ways. In fact, one may observe that certain personality/character deficiencies are MORE common among the highly educated than the average person. This may very well be due to an imbalanced education: education where the improvement of skill and knowledge is sought at the expense of mindset.

While many educators would agree the need for both knowledge and mindset, there are differences in opinion as to what should constitute mindset. Socialists/communists/totalitarians would like to create a citizen who is docile and holds the good of the state and the ‘will of the people’ above his own. A religious dogmatist would like to create a citizen who is pious, selfless and commits himself to unquestioning servitude in the name of that particular religion’s highest good.

Therein lies the danger of this second goal of education. If we are in any way uncertain as to how we should approach it, we should not approach it at all. A purely knowledge/skill based education is better than a one that creates an improper mindset. We should avoid “mild brainwashing” at all costs.


We may attempt to discover aspects of the proper mindset by considering what the goal of education is: to equip a child with the ability to effectively function as an adult. By this, we see that one necessary aspect of the required mindset is MATURITY. The hallmark of maturity is the ability to do what one knows is beneficial despite one’s emotions; and conversely, the ability to not do what should not be done, even under compelling emotions. As children, we all learn BASIC maturity: that we cannot have every toy we see in a shop window; that we need to study even if we do not like it; that we cannot eat sweets for breakfast. Beyond this, differences of individual maturity begin to emerge. Some will refrain from cheating, even if they feel like it and opportunities present themselves; others will not; some will afford equitable treatment even to those they personally dislike (other ethnicities, for example); others will act on their dislike; some will make it their own responsibility to earn their livelihoods; others will prefer handouts, and will work only because the alternative is starvation.

One of the ways in which this country’s destiny may be changed is to endow the next generation with maturity: train them to not act on destructive emotions; teach them that nobody is fully immune from destructive emotions (e.g. hatred/dislike of other ethnicities/religions; fear of government); teach them that the discomfort of enduring such difficult emotions without acting on them is the price we pay for civilization (as opposed to living in the wild); teach them that with practice, such discipline becomes second nature and cease to feel like ‘discipline’. Perhaps then we may see and end to our ethnic crisis and our economic crisis.

“Paid Degrees”

6 September 2007

Some Sri Lankan public university graduates are in the habit of calling the qualifications of private university graduates “paid degrees”. Private university graduates in all fairness should turn around and call such people “beggars”. Entrance to Sri Lankan public universities is highly merit based and only the best get in, especially in the technical and scientific disciplines. Some of these highly intelligent students tend to suffer from inferiority complexes which turn into ‘superiority complexes’ as they begin to see themselves as the best-of-the-best and the only ones who are capable of or DESERVING of a university degree.

A tragedy of our system is that graduates who are meant to go into research and development end up being doctors and engineers. Graduates who were meant to become doctors and engineers end up as technicians or in various middle management/desk jobs. The reason: we do not have enough space in our universities for everyone who deserves entry. So we raise the bar above international standards. We get the best few but we do not have research or development. So they treat patients and work with equipment. The segment of the Sri Lankan population with an IQ sufficient for medicine or engineering ends up further below*. If some of these can afford to pay for their higher education, by all means allow them to do so.

The standards in private institutions are not necessarily too lax (not counting fraudulent establishments). The standards in public ones are too tight. Public university graduates have no right to resent somebody who has to work less hard to get his degree. The additional hard work the public university graduate has to put in is compensation for his inability to pay for what he receives.

Student union demands to regulate (or ban altogether) private universities should not be entertained in any form. A person who not only takes his gifted education for granted but also wants to deny others the opportunity to learn should NEVER be accepted into a university no matter how intelligent he is. An intelligent fool is a lot more dangerous than a stupid one.

* One of the reasons why third world professionals aboard often make their western counterparts look incompetent: we are pitting our top tier against their middle tier. Many of THEIR best people tend to be in R & D.

Nutritional supplements for school children

30 August 2007

If the government of Sri Lanka wishes to undertake any school-based nutritional programs, it must take the form of nutritional supplements rather than the wasteful “milk-and-buns-for-all” form (I’m referring to a 1990’s program). One of the vitamins Sri Lankans are most deficient in happens to be one of the cheapest: vitamin B. Beri-Beri–a disease resulting from vitamin B deficiency–is named after the Sinhalese word for it.

There are many school children who do not receive their daily allowance of calories. But it is wasteful to use a blanket program to reach such a subset. It spreads the finances too thin: the only things that can be provided to ALL school children is something as nutritionally worthless as a bun and a sugar-laden packet of flavored milk.

Sri Lankans (even affluent ones) are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals due to the nature of their diet. A blanket program should target THIS deficiency. A TARGETED program should reach the calorie-deficient group (but should be done in a way that will not subject the child to social stigma).

The B complex of vitamins and vitamin C are safe for un-prescribed mass distribution. Overdoses are not absorbed by the body due to water-solubility. These two vitamins are essential for the proper functioning of many bodily functions, including the immune system and the nervous system. Among the many symptoms of deficiency are increased susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections, reduced alertness and lethargy. Vitamins B and C are extremely cheap, easy to transport and store (compared to food items).

I am skeptical of government-sponsored programs with good intentions. However, every administration wants to undertake them. Therefore the best taxpayers can do is at least demand that they attempt the proper program. Iodine supplemented salt has demonstrated some success in fighting hypothyroidism. The benefits of daily vitamin B and C supplements may be even higher. On the long term, savings in public health care costs may help offset part of the program’s costs.

Remove nationalist indoctrination from school syllabi

24 August 2007

State schools teach the basics of political/ethnic prejudice in the process of teaching history. National pride is not something that can be TAUGHT. It’s something you grow into by yourself. When you try to TEACH national pride, what you end up teaching is prejudice.

National history of every country should explicitly start with the following: We’re NOT the greatest nation on Earth. We’re NOT the most righteous people on Earth. We’re not the most clever. We may be ahead in some areas, behind in others, but we’re just another group of people just like everybody else.

Avoid things like: Glorification of past, bloody battles: History books meant for young children depict Dutugemunu as a hero in the Elara-Dutugemunu war. The same treatment is given to a number of other less-than-righteous kings.

If memory serves me, a Grade nine school history book mentioned with barely concealed glee, two notable defeats of Portuguese/British at the hands of Sinhalese militia. It specifically mentions how a certain lake/marsh turned red with the blood of the foreign soldiers: hardly an educational fact.

Many other interactions with foreign races have been recorded in our school history books in neutral sounding language, but with a definite Sri Lankan slant. The school books have been partially sanitized of most of the wrongdoings committed by Sri Lankans.

As Bertrand Russell says, if every country taught their own imperfections and non-superiority to their young, they will be less likely to approve state aggression against other ethnicities or groups. But such a public is a disadvantage to a power-seeking regime.

More on “free” education

7 June 2006

RE: The myth of “free” education

Education costs a LOT of money. Most Sri Lankans cannot appreciate the amount of money it takes to put a student through one year of school, because of a lifetime of unpaid-for education. We take education for granted precisely because it’s free.

I remember once taking several teaching assignments at a certain organization. Employee participation was voluntary. I liked the subject and I told my contact that I’m willing to do it for free. He was grateful to hear this, but insisted that I accept the pay. He explained that each employee will be paying for himself and that they’re charging not because it costs anything, but because what is given free is not valued. How right he was.

Feedback: A reader makes a valid point about introducing student loans for tertiary education (the student is expected to pay back his tuition fees in installments after he/she finds employment).

However, in a country like this, we can expect the rate of default to be very high — just look at the number of educated professionals who sign bonds to receive state sponsored education and then disappear overseas. If we can come up with ways to curb defaults, this is much better than subsidies.

The myth of “free” education

2 June 2006

Abolish free education and introduce need-based subsidies.

Education should not be free precisely because it is a great necessity and a noble profession. The more valuable a service is, it is all the more important that those who provide it be compensated in full, and those who receive it pay for what they receive. That is the theory.

In practice we have an objection: if education must be paid for, does that mean education is only for those who have the means to pay? In theory, yes — nobody can be forced to support anybody other than his/her own family.

In practice, living in an educated society is in everybody’s interest — an educated society is usually a civilized society. Even when my tax money is paying for non-tax-paying family’s education needs, I ultimately benefit.

Need-based subsidies

But why should the student who comes to school by bus and the student who comes to school in a BMW both be educated free of charge? The latter can clearly afford it. And then there are middle class families that can afford a portion of the cost. This is why subsidies should be NEED-BASED. Blanket welfare programs unnecessarily and unfairly burden the taxpayer.

Subsidize a percentage off a student’s tuition fees based on his family’s gross income. For very low income families this will be 100%. For most school children in public schools the typical value will be above 50% — perhaps something like 70%.

Higher income families will get only a small subsidy. We use GROSS income because a low net income after a BMW doesn’t mean that the family can’t afford tuition. It means that the family has its priorities wrong, for which the tax payer cannot be held responsible. If a family feels that a public school is not worth the subsidy, they may choose a private one.

Maintaining confidentiality about the subsidies is important. An adult need not be shielded from the social consequences of his status, wealth or background. Those are realities. But a child, whose personality is still forming, must be protected from them.

As an adult, I can tolerate being the poor man in a rich group. As a schoolboy, it would have hurt me and contributed to the development of an inferiority complex. Payments made directly to the department of education and not to the school may solve the problem. I’ll leave the other issues for some other time.

Encourage Private Schools

8 May 2006

By all means, allow and encourage the establishment of private schools and universities. Students whose families are willing and able to pay tuition should not be taking up space in public schools and universities. And as for the concerns about the quality of education provided by private institutions, I have two answers: one, that’s why we have a concept called accreditation. Two, do you seriously think that the education provided by the government is of high quality?

I suggest that we develop a minimum required curriculum for each year in school, along with a set of criteria for accreditation. An accreditation board will evaluate each private institution and grant or deny accreditation. A school is free to include additional subjects in the curriculum, provided that they meet minimal curriculum requirements (such as math, language and science) and don’t violate any accreditation criteria. Of course, knowing our countrymen, we should also devise some methods to minimize corruption. We wouldn’t want somebody paying off the board to get an accreditation they don’t deserve.