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Rajiva Wijesinha_As a radical who strived to 'revolutionize' English education

Rajiva Wijesinha_As a radical who strived to 'revolutionize' English education

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Published by Mahesh Hapugoda
Rajiva Wijesinha, English education, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka
Rajiva Wijesinha, English education, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka

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Published by: Mahesh Hapugoda on Mar 17, 2013
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Rajiva Wijesinha: As a radical who strived to
English education in SriLanka
English, in the present global context, has descended from its colonial prestigious position to ahighly utilitarian level where it (English), according to Mr. Tony Reilly, the Country Director of 
the British Council, ‘has become the passport to wealth and opportunity’.
Hence the role of English today should be understood not by means of its colonial terms but in terms of its modernusefulness. The use of English expands from the global world of work to academic arenas, wherenew knowledge is produced. Today, rather than being understood as a demarcation of  belongingness, English functions as a tool of social mobilization. In a context where English wasa class signifier and
was termed ‘kaduwa’, very few people in Sri Lanka understood this
  potential global metamorphosis at least two decades back. When Sri Lanka decided to broadenits horizons to the globalized economy, there was a burning need to change the conventionalapproach towards language learning policy.
To materialize the country’s need to expand English
language education, certain radical approaches were a terrible requirement at the time. RajivaWijesinha belonged to one of those who not only could foresee the need of English for the
country’s younger generation to move forward in the global sphere of work and education but
could also produce an implementable mechanism that would pragmatically enhance the Englishlanguage literacy of especially those who emerge from non-English speaking backgrounds.Prof. Wijesinha identified two significant steps to radicalize English education in the country.The first was to broaden English language learning from Colombo based elites (and some other middle class contexts) to non-English speaking environments, where thousands of students donot get an opportunity to learn the language. To facilitate this, the second step was to produce asufficient number of teachers who could work in those areas. When Prof. Wijesinha undertook to
co-ordinate English in the Affiliated University Colleges in the early 1990s, he found goodground to experiment his initial conceptualization. It must also be mentioned here that theAffiliated Universities were also an experimental remedy to give skill oriented education to A/L passed students who were not absorbed into higher education. On the other hand, even those whoentered universities could not find satisfactory jobs for the education that they received there.There was always a mismatch in the kind of education offered in the post-colonial universitiesand the requirements in the employments. Prof. Wijesinha explored this valuable opportunity asthe Co-ordinator in English in Affiliated Universities to prepare students for future demands of employability. After two revolutions in the post independent context, the country actually felt theneed to address the controversial issue of the future place of its youth. Dr. Wijesinha as a radicalintellectual himself at that time, used to write on the subjects of politics and youth and the natureof politics that excluded youth from mainstream politics. It is a historical demand that was bestowed upon Prof. Wijesinha who unhesitantly took up the challenge to modernize Englishlanguage teaching in the existing university curriculum.His approach was simple. His want was to change the prevalent literature-based curriculum inthe English departments. Literature was considered (and still is) prestigious and contemporaryEnglish Departments did not take part in teaching general English, and it was mostly assigned toEnglish Language Teaching Units (ELTUs). Under this circumstance, however, ELTUs weredoing the most important job in catering to the basic English language requirement of theundergraduates. Numerically, when English Departments absorb even less than ten studentsannually, ELTUs taught an entire batch of thousands of students at a time. Prof. Wijesinha didnot separate these essential components in language learning but craftily amalgamated the twowithout harming their inherent essence. Very simply, he used literature as a tool of basiclanguage learning,
which challenged the ‘hegemonic approach’ to literature
. Literature then wasnot taught for the sake of literature itself and many people
who had a ‘puritan’ approach to
literature in the conventional English Departments did not tolerate this.In the universities, literature (as well as philosophy) has always been an isolated entity of non-reference. Everybody seemed to have an unwritten agreement about its unquestioning existence. No one wanted to find out what was actually going on these departments and their contribution
to the country’s development.
Literature gained its prestigious position after 1920 when it wasconsidered as a discipline of higher, literate and superior beings. It was believed to havecharacteristics that could enlighten individuals and bring them to a higher level of enlightenmentand being. As a discipline which had the potential to increase
individuals’ critical ability and
humanistic thoughts, it evolved into a higher academic position from an evening reader over acup of coffee. This thinking about literature was the exact ideological foundation for manyEnglish Departments in post-independent Sri Lanka. Under this environment, the amalgamationthat Prof. Wijesinha brought forth challenged the very ideological foundation of English teaching
in the Universities and the symbol of this hybridist child is the present English LanguageTeaching Department (ELTD) in the Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka.His Affiliated University experiment was able to produce a considerable number of Diplomaholders in English and later graduates who mostly received teaching opportunities in the schoolsystem island-wide. Their service is of tremendous significance to poor school children whostruggle with lack of qualified teachers in the government schools in distant areas. Some of themare senior teachers with more than ten years of service. Similarly, some those contemporarystudents were absorbed into university teaching, while there are also few leading journalistsworking in popular newspapers. These products exemplify the legacy that Prof. Wijesinha carriesalong with his university academic career.Though originally from Colombo, Prof. Wijesinha never hesitated to come and joinSabaragamuwa University which was located 160 kilometers away from the capital city. As theCo-ordinator for English during the Affiliated days, he went to all the Affiliated UniversityColleges around the country and sometimes undertook teaching other than co-ordinating andsupervising. Rather than simply lecturing, he always insisted on careful reading for the accuratecomprehension of a literary text. In the meanwhile, he used to teach grammar lessons which hethought useful within a literary text. He, for the first time, introduced
the ‘spot text method’ of 
evaluation to the classroom, where students had to write a brief account on something within alimited time. For this kind of test, note reading or by-hearting never helped and everythingdepended on how you handle the task effectively and creatively with least amount of mistakes.This method was challenging to those who re-produced their own undergraduate notes tostudents. Though it was initially difficult for us, this helped immensely to improve our comprehension and self-study. In this regard, for us, he was novel and challenging in testing andevaluation too. One important thing to mention here is that he never took more than one week tomark an assignment however big the number was. While travelling too, as another example of his dedication as a teacher, I have experienced that he used to mark assignment scripts when heused to run the undergraduate course for the officer cadets in the Military Academy-Diyathalawa. This was exactly the same when he was the English Co-ordinator for the SouthEastern University of Sri Lanka, Oluvil. Since I here mentioned the South Eastern University,one must remember that during the heydays of ethnic tension in the Eastern Sri Lanka, Prof.Wijesinha used to visit both Addalachchena and Oluvil complexes of the South EasternUniversity located nearly 400 kilometers away from Colombo to assist the teaching andevaluation process there, where I started my university career.I have never come across an academic who could travel like Prof. Wijesinha for academic purposes. For example, he starts his journey from Colombo with his beloved driver Kithsiri andwould come direct to Sabaragamuwa University at Belihuloya, then moving to Diyathalawa andthen to Oluvil in the same week catering to approximately both thousand literature and general

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