When I put together, last year, my book on ‘English and Education: In Pursuit of Equity and Excellence’ I thought of it as my last word on the subject. I little knew then that I would be called back into harness again, though in a very different field to those described in that book. But in introducing a range of new perspectives now into the field of Tertiary and Vocational Education, I thought back to the days when I had pioneered changes in University Education in English.
I had begun to write about this when I was putting together a book to celebrate the 75th birthday of the house in which I live. That was back in 2012, and the book, called ‘Lakmahal: 75 years of Social Change and Political Flux’, was launched in January that year at the British Council. I had worked there from 1984 to 1992, a period described in the last section of the book.
But the book had covered only 45 years, for I had not been able to write up the next 30 years, after I left the Council and went back to working for government.I thought however that, since I am now working in a different field but one in which some of the changes necessary are similar to those I introduced two and more decades back, that I should look at those too. I have long realized that one of our problems is that we do not maintain records and register what happened when we try to move forward. I feel that reflecting on those days will also prove useful in developing policies to ensure that the education system – and not only those areas for which I am now responsible – gives a better deal to students.
After I left the British Council in April 1992, I had a few months of travel, including to Jamaica for the triennial conference of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. The Head of Literature of the Council in London had agreed to sponsor me, and they stood by the offer even though I had resigned by the time the Conference took place.
I took advantage of the trip to get to Cuba, and also to Guatemala. It was not possible to get a visa for that country in Miami, but I was told to go to Belize (one of the few Commonwealth countries that did not require a visa from Sri Lankans) and try my luck. But in Belize City they said the same, and then, seeing my disappointment, suggested I try at the Guatemalan Consulate on the border.
The Consul there said that he could not possibly give me a visa, but he took me to the border post and told the guards there to let me through. So I managed to see the Mayan pyramids at Tikal, and I then went on to Guatemala City and Antigua Guatemala, falling further and further in love with Latin America. I should note thought that I had been less successful in Cuba, though I enjoyed the decaying grandeur of Havana. I could not travel into the country since the queues in the bus stations were impossible.
With all that I only joined the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in October 1992, as a senior lecturer in the Department of Languages. English was taught at USJP only as one component of a General Degree, ie students did only one third of their papers in the subject, two a year in those days, out of six altogether.
All students in all Faculties were also supposed to do General English, which was looked after by the English Language Teaching Unit. Nominally under the Department of Languages, it functioned under its own head, who was generally one of the senior members of the Unit. These were almost all women, who were constantly bitching against each other though they tended to unite against any outsider. Continue reading