The Curious Case of the Pessimistic Public:
A great myth of our time and society is that the quality of education in Sri Lanka has fallen. This myth is paraded in the newspapers, on radio and TV, in the speeches of influential individuals and opinion makers, and in popular conversation. The myth, in fact, is not supported by evidence. Every indicator of education access, and nearly all the indicators of education quality, show positive progress over time. Enrolment rates have increased, survival and completion rates in basic and secondary education have risen, learning outcomes are improving, and a higher proportion of students are pursuing senior secondary and higher education. University graduates are more skilled and technically competent than the graduates of earlier generations, and in a wider and expanding range of subjects.
Education also continues to generate strong economic and social benefits. Men and women enjoy high returns to their investments in human capital. Education promotes social mobility, both within the work-cycles of individuals, and across and over the generations. Gender empowerment and development are facilitated by education. The health of families and of children are improved by the education attainments of their parents, especially their mothers. Households with educated workers are substantially less likely to be poor than households with uneducated workers. And all these economic and social benefits of education can be demonstrated, and indeed have been demonstrated, through scientific studies.
The myth of declining education, it appears, is generated by several factors. First, there are unreasonably romantic views of the scope and potential of education. If only, according to this romantic view, people are properly educated, they would be virtuous and good. A further fallacy contained within this romantic view is a reference to one or two admired individuals of the past, juxtaposed against the behavior of the average, or even less-than-average, person of the present. “ There were moral giants in those days “, says this romantic fallacy, “ and today we have only moral pygmies. “
This romantic position, unfortunately, is simply not true. Education can and does make people more cultured, more competent and more skilled. But education does not, as a whole and on the average, make people more virtuous. Schools and universities cannot play the role of the temple, the kovil, the mosque and the church. And one could plausibly argue that even the temple, the kovil, the mosque, and the church, appear to have a limited impact on the fundamental moral and ethical nature of human beings.
The comparison of a few moral giants of the past, with the average or
even less-than-average person of the present, is incorrect. In every
age and generation there are a few exceptionally great and good men
and women. But comparing the peak of past generations with the average
of our times is a logical fallacy. Either we need to compare the peak
of past generations with the peak of our time, or we need to compare
the average of past generations with the average of our time, or we
need to compare the less-than-average of past generations with the
less-than-average of our time. And on any of these comparisons, there
is parity between our time and the past.
A second factor that contributes to the idea of a decline in the quality and standards of education is purely the herd instinct. It has become normal, in the newspapers, on radio and TV, in the speeches of influential individuals and opinion makers, and in popular conversation, to state that the quality of education has fallen. It is what everyone seems to be saying, and hence it is what everyone says! But of course, like most ideas generated and propagated through the herd instinct, it is simply not true.
A third factor, and the only piece of empirical evidence advanced to support the notion that education quality has declined, is the widespread and growing prevalence of tuition. Ironically, though, tuition is actually the result of an education system which has improved faster than the country’s economy. More and more individuals are being educated. But the higher education and economic opportunities available for these educated individuals are not expanding that rapidly. Hence, an increasing number of individuals are competing for a limited number of opportunities. And tuition becomes an additional resource in the competition for the limited higher education and economic opportunities.
A fourth factor which contributes to the idea of a fall in the quality of education is that there has, in fact, been a decline in the relative position of the economy of the country. At the time of Independence, in 1948, Sri Lanka was one of the richest countries in Asia. Many economists at the time thought that Sri Lanka would become an economic success story and, in the due course of time, join the club of the world’s rich nations. Sadly, the country chose for many years an economic path which may have promoted a degree of equity, but sacrificed growth and performance, with the result that many nations in the developing world caught up and overtook Sri Lanka.
When a country’s relative position in the world economy declines, the interest and respect of other countries for its culture and institutions declines. We see this time after time. Intellectuals do not look at modern Greece or Rome for inspiration, in the way the world once looked at Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. India no longer influences the world as she did in the days of the Gupta Empire and in the days of the Mogul Empire. And the culture and institutions of the United Kingdom no longer influence the world as they once did, when Queen Victoria sat on the throne of England and the sun never set on her Empire.
When the economy of a country declines the institutions of that country, including its education institutions, become less influential. Then, even if the quality of education is rising in absolute terms, the respect and influence accorded to the education system falls. For instance, in the heyday of the British Empire, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were pre-eminent in the world. Today, although these universities continue to produce great academic work, the center of intellectual gravity has largely shifted across the Atlantic to the universities of the modern superpower, the U.S.A. It is also significant that the rising economic powers of East Asia have begun to develop strategies to establish “ world-class “ universities of their own in the future.
This relative decline in the economic position of Sri Lanka has affected the perception of the country’s institutions, including her education system, in the eyes of the world. Once, when Sri Lanka was a relatively wealthy nation among the developing countries, it was possible for the University of Ceylon to be a respected and admired institution. Today, there are universities in Sri Lanka which produce scholarship equal to, and in some disciplines perhaps even better than, the University of Ceylon in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. And the school system, taken as a whole and on the average, is certainly superior to the school system of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. But the universities and schools of Sri Lanka no longer command the respect and admiration of the 1950’s and 1960’s, because the country is no longer at the forefront of even the developing nations, let alone a member of the club of developed countries.
Whatever the reasons for the perception of a declining education system, it is simply not correct. And it is important that the community of education specialists and policy makers engage with the general public to correct this delusion.