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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Growing up in the 21st century

By  Dr. Nihal D Amerasekera

It was in 1932 that the distinguished philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote his famous essay “In Praise of Idleness”. His words ring true today.

Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying: 'Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.' I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous– Bertrand Russell

What I remember most of all of my childhood are the hours of idyllic idleness. Watching hours of cricket seated on the grass brought me immense pleasure. Long periods of inactivity fishing in a murky pond are images from the past which even now gives me much satisfaction. Restraint and patience are incredible gifts learnt whilst idle. Doodling and day dreaming brings peace to ones soul.  We spent hours creating our own games and toys with simple household possessions like rubber bands, cigarette tins and bottle tops. We spent hours reading. We imagined the characters in books playing their roles in vivid technicolour. There was a world of fairies, Cinderella and Pinocchio. The superbly descriptive poems of Alfred Tennyson, H.W Longfellow and Samuel Taylor Coleridge helps to improve the powers of imagination. During the monsoons the darkening skies and the strong winds before the downpour had its own splendor. In the dry season the swirling winds  carried plumes of dust high into the sky. I had time to be enchanted by these acts of nature and allow my thoughts to wander free.  

Even as a kid I was fascinated by the green mountains. Its winding roads touching the clouds brought a sense of exhilaration. The gurgling streams that disappeared into the valleys below enthralled me. I feel immensely grateful for those opportunities to enjoy nature’s gifts as a child. I wish I can see its charm in the same way as 50 years ago when I could absorb so much of its magic so completely. 

On recent visits to Sri Lanka I saw the childrens’ endless treadmill of tuition and more tuition, some starting at an early age of eight. Teaching after school hours has become a lucrative occupation. Those teachers who are in a position to advice parents who should require special help have a conflict of interest. I am unaware of any attempts by schools to discourage the practice of unnecessary tuition. Perhaps they encourage this in the hope they would get the benefit of good results. I read in the South China Morning post a story of a parent who asked her daughter what she would like to do on her 11th birthday. The child spends every weekend and most evenings being ferried from one extra curricular activity to another. She wanted to spend her birthday lying on her bed doing nothing. She got a clip round the ear for being “so ungrateful” 

We now live in a material world. Mobile phones and games consoles have taken over the lives of our children from a young age. These are fascinating innovations and there is a need for them in their lives. Leisure time is being invaded by the escapist virtual worlds of the computer. They ought also to develop their imagination and this requires free time and space. Many of our children are geared young towards lucrative careers which require high grades at public examinations. Pushy Parents in their enthusiasm arrange private tuition taking away large chunks of their free time. They make their childhood full of stress, competing. Their young lives are crammed full of activities and homework. As a result they miss out  on their childhood. It is merely a reflection of the tremendous competition to enter the course and university of ones choice. This luxury comes at a tremendous price.  The suicide rates amongst children have increased just like the incidence of mental illness. I am not suggesting children should not work hard to achieve their goal and full potential. Common sense must prevail and a crucial balance has to be reached. We must allow time for them to develop their own privacy and depth. This would be their shelter from the inevitable storms of life in the years to come. 

No one wants to be poor. As a child I remember being driven through the rough, impoverished suburbs of Colombo which had a lasting impression on my young mind. I was struck by the poverty and inequality. My parents made me understand I had to make my own way in life which gave me the incentive to work hard. The crucial period for hard work is the 3 years between GCE O’levels and University Entrance. The endless tuition before this period takes away their free time for little gain. Coming top in the class is good for one’s ego. If it is the result of endless tuition you have paid too high a price. 

Money and wealth are no guarantee of happiness and is something that has to be drummed into our youth along with the encouragement to hard work. Does the child have free time for the imagination to blossom and appreciate nature, art and poetry. They must learn social skills to play with the kids down the road.  Are they streetwise? A childhood missed is lost forever. 

Policies on education by the government is part of the problem. They have introduced a series of examinations from a young age adding pressure introducing a climate of competition from the very beginning.

All parents give of their best to the kids. They spend their waking hours ferrying children from one tuition to another and then to other extra curricular activities sacrificing their own leisure. Parents want nothing but the best for them. They must also consider giving the children a happy well balanced childhood. The alternative is a high achieving child with psychiatric problems as an adult. 

John Stuart Mill, philosopher and economist was born in 1806. He was educated by his father. He learnt Greek at 3 and Latin by the age of 12. The paternal pressure made him complete his education by the tender age of 14.  By 16 John Mills was a well trained economist. At 20 he suffered a nervous breakdown that persuaded him that more was needed in life than devotion to the development of an analytically sharp intellect. It was the imaginative  poetry of Geothe and Wordsworth that helped him recover from depression. 

Streaming of students according to ability and small class sizes (30) will help to avoid extra lessons after school hours. The teachers should not move on to a new lesson until all the students have understood what has been taught. This is perhaps an over-simplification of a complex problem but indeed is a good starting point. Surely, if the majority in the class needs tuition it reflects poorly on the teacher. Is the width of the syllabus reasonable? 

The best teachers should be rewarded - the most competent, must be adequately remunerated to remain in a profession known for low pay, low status and soul-destroying bureaucracy. The teachers’ pay should be performance related. There has to be a genuine attempt to apportion credit and blame and, in some cases, target help to teachers who need to improve. There is a dearth of dedicated teachers of the kind we experienced in Ceylon in the early to mid 20th century. The teaching profession is packed with people with low morale. They in turn have no loyalty to the profession, students or to their institution. The students suffer as a result. Better pay for teachers will re-invigorate this noble profession. Do the white collar bureaucrats of the Department of Education show any concern for the problem?         One has to care to be concerned!!                                                                                  

It is never my intention to discourage tuition for those who have a dire need. It is now generally assumed that everyone needs tuition and that also from the very beginning of their school careers. This would be hard to justify and most certainly have a detrimental effect on their development.



  1. A very thought provoking and at times a tad controversial post from ND. The first few paragraphs show his great ability to "paint pictures" with words. They brought back vivid memories of my own childhood and formative years in beautiful Sri Lanka. He is understandably concerned with some of the "false values" of the Modern World. Give me the Modern World any time in most aspects, I don't want to go back to bucket toilets and oil lamps but I agree with him that we have become too material and certainly obsessed with filling time. People ask me why I don't travel more and do all sorts of things now that I have the time and some have difficulty in comprehending the fact that I get immense pleasure in doing simple things in life without the need for acquisition. As far as Education goes, I unconditionally support his view that Teachers should be better paid and given better recognition. Parents and Teachers are the biggest influence in shaping the future generation. Tuition has a place but when the class Teacher and the Tuition Master are the same, conflict of interest is unavoidable. On top of poor salaries, it is a recipe for disaster.Doctors are tempted to ask for expensive investigations and justify it by saying that it was done in the patient's interest and that to me is a similar situation. Keep contributing ND, it is always a pleasure to read them.- Speedy.

  2. Speedy
    Thanks. Comments are invaluable and shows the writer there is interest out there. As for performers it is the applause that gives them the "kicks". But the jeers help them to fine tune their performance to suit the audience.
    We need people like you to keep this Blog alive