Thursday, 8 August 2002  
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Not My Business : The Blackboard Jungles

Time was when schoolboy high jinks used to be confined to the Big Matches and that too of the more fashionable schools. In post-prandial orations old boys, now grown into pillars of society used to recall with a warmth compounded by generous doses of brandy how they in their time had scaled the walls of Ladies' College or some similar girls school and had been repulsed by a stern head mistress (more often than not the forbidding Miss Opie).

Today of course it is a different kettle of fish. Students of five schools in Colombo and the suburbs have been guilty recently of fighting one another having invaded their rival schools and even caused damage to property. Most of these conflicts are said to have originated in school buses and a senior Police officer is on record as having said that the main cause is that students demand Kappam from fellow students for the purpose of buying drugs.

It is easy to dismiss these episodes as reflecting yet another breakdown in a society where that holy of holies Parliament itself is not immune from unseemly behaviour. In fact it could be a vicious circle because during the recent parliamentary fisticuffs it was reported that an agitated Sergeant-at-Arms had to order that the schoolchildren should be removed from the public gallery.

But affecting as it does the future generation this new phenomenon of schoolboy violence should cause deep concern all round. While society at large has to carry some of the blame the roots of such aberrant behaviour lie obviously in the home and in the school.

While the home in Sri Lanka has not been eroded to the extent that it has happened in the west yet there are disturbing signs of imminent damage.

In the towns in particular the extended family no longer remains (perhaps it being economically not feasible) and the overarching protection given to growing children in the past by grand parents, unmarried uncles and aunts: in the old scheme is by and large no longer a proposition.

What is more caught as they in the rat-race and the scramble for the pot of gold, parents belonging to all classes no longer extend the same care to their own children either. The exodus to the Middle East of lower middle class women has also aggravated the situation.

The school too is being eaten into from within. Some of the urban schools are so big that it is just one big blackboard jungle. Schools have become impersonal places where faceless and nameless figures in white come and go. Teachers themselves reserve their best efforts for the tutories while poor pay and poor social standing have robbed the teachers of much of their dignity. What is more a new generation of tuition masters has emerged for whom teaching is a means of social climbing.

All this is compounded by the popular culture which is beaten relentlessly into us by the electronic and to a lesser degree by the print media.

This is a culture which has reduced everything to its lowest common denominator. Its heroes are film stars, singers and any kind of celebrity while celebritydom itself is determined by the media. In this hall of mirrors Amaradeva can wear the same face as Michael Jackson while Nanda Malini might appear like Abba.

What is the way out? Obviously diagnosis is much easier than therapy. However, it is clear that what we are confronted with is a mighty task of social engineering. It is nothing less than the inculcation of wholesome values to counter the insidious influences which have carried us to the edge of the abyss.

While nobody can tell parents how to bring up their children the salvage operation can start from the schools. We must see that schools cease to be blackboard jungles peopled by faceless phantoms and become true centres of both learning as well as healthy civic values. Easier said however than done.

Ajith Samaranayake

Sampath Bank

Crescat Development Ltd.

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