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 Post subject: Prof. Neloufer de Mel on English Teaching
 Post Posted: Thu Aug 11, 2005 8:41 pm 
Prof. Neloufer de Mel on English Teaching

"I want to take the example of what is happening in the field of English language teaching in Sri Lanka today" said Professor Neloufer de Mel at the very beginning of her address as chief guest at the prize giving of Bishop’s College, Colombo 7, on Tuesday 19 July. At present Head of the Department of English, University of Colombo, Professor de El is a past pupil of Bishop’s College (BC).

"There is pressure on all of you to learn English and the reasons are obvious. It is the dominant language of the globalized world we live in today. As of now, English language is, in fact, one of the key factors that make the globalizing process possible. It connects people from all over the world through computer information technology, through advertising, and the consumption of goods for the goals of commerce and labour. In Sri Lanka, it is looked on as a ‘link’ language, as one possible cure for the ethnic divisions that have entrapped this country `85 So educationists, politicians and parents unite in the view that children should learn the basic grammar and vocabulary of the English language and gain competence in understanding, reading and writing English for various reasons.

laudable and welcome

"This is laudable and welcome. To speak a dominant language fluently means the acquiring of power. You may be familiar with the local slang for English — kaduwa. This was a term introduced by university students in the 1970s. Knowledge of English is a double edged sword depending on which side of its blade you are on. Those wielding the kaduwa have power to mow you down. If you have it yourself, you can mow down others. It gives you that competitive edge `85.

"The sole purpose of teaching English language seems to be to create the massive workforce needed to service the virtually inexhaustible needs of global economics and cultural systems of today."

Professor de Mel then went on to elucidate the importance of teaching literature and other arts subjects, long subjugated to science and commerce in school curricula.

"The progression to a higher level of competence in the language, to levels which involve creative conceptualization, critical thinking and imaginative exploration are not given the high profile within training curricula. The question to be asked is, is the progression necessary to the next level of language, beyond the merely practical need of it? This involves every aspect of life — social, cultural, political, religious, etc. These aspects are present in what we call the ‘literatures’ of languages.

critical perspective

"The study of English beyond its utility value assures our ability to think about the world we live in, to understand what goes on, to take a critical view of it, and suggest new ways of doing things. Novels, films and plays almost always deal with a conflict broadly between good and bad `85 We learn a critical perspective. Hopefully you can see my view when I argue that literature and the arts are discouraged in the globalized world we live in for they foster critical thinking and make us look at alternate ways of doing things."

What Professor de Mel elucidated gave me a new perspective to the importance of including literature in the curriculum — whether English, Sinhala or Tamil. I already had the idea the literature of a language was good for school children since it increased their sensibilities, gave them pleasure unlike dry bones accounts or physics. I knew it had the benefit of honing one’s critical faculties, but did not really relate it to every day life as Neloufer did. Now I do so. In this globalized world; in this age of electronics, information and communication technology; knowledge accessible at the touch of a button as it were; various modes of entertainment; and consumerism ruling people’s lives, children have to have their discernment and critical faculties sharpened. They need to stay above and beyond dehumanization by scientific fact and mathematical calculation; beyond the strangling reach of imitation; safe from drowning in consumerism with a sharper eye focused on all the advertising that surrounds them, impressionable as they naturally are, and inexperienced at their tender age.

Our local ALs compartmentalize students severely into arts, science and commerce streams. The OLs affords a better chance of mixed choice of subjects. The International Baccalaureate insists on at least one science subject, one arts subject, two languages with literature included, and the theory of knowledge is introduced as a non-examination subject. I believe a math subject too has to be offered, producing a good balanced mix, though the number of subjects offered is six or seven as against three in the local and London ALs. A dissertation of original research is also mandatory. This definitely gives students on the threshold of university education a much better and more enjoyable preparation.

Professor de Mel addressed her observations in a very informal, almost chatty manner to the Grade 6 and above school girls assembled to receive their awards in academic studies, sports and co-curricula activities such as elocution, guiding, short story writing and extempore speech making. Her manner was easy but the substance of her address weighty and profound.

Fulbright Scholar

The Principal, Mrs. Hemamali Bibile mentioned in her welcome address and the Head Prefect, Gayani Dassanayake, in her vote of thanks, that Neloufer de Mel was a distinguished past pupil of BC, having topped her AL batch and gone on to obtain both academic and professional qualifications and positions of distinction. Apart from her chairing several committees and working in groups, mainly concerned with women’s rights, she was recently appointed as Fulbright Scholar working part-time at Yale University.

Neloufer, in her introductory remarks to her address played down these distinctions. Congratulating prize winners she mentioned she did not walk several times on stage to receive prizes as she was more a reader than a studious student, and she added with thanks given, that her mother and her teachers allowed her to be this way. The severe competition that has taken over now; the trek from school to tuition classes and back to text books was not of her day. In her time kids enjoyed school and had plenty of leisure time to sit back relaxed. The arts subjects were not considered inferior to the sciences then.

voracious reading

Vintage teachers present remembered Neloufer as a school girl — rather mischievous, given to voracious reading, winning short story competitions and definitely more interested in drama, debating and oratory, and of course English literature than algebra and convoluted mathematical theorems. They felt puffed with pride, that they too had played a part, minor maybe, but at the time influential, in the development of this child who was now a university professor, often on work in Oxbridge and American Ivy League universities and a distinguished author. To mention but one publication of Neloufer’s — the two volumes of women’s writing in Sri Lanka from 1860 titled Writing an Inheritance which she co-edited.

Neloufer seemed proudest of being an active proponent of women’s rights and giving women their due place. She called herself a ‘fighter for women’s rights’ and ‘unconventional’.

Neloufer touched on friendship bands. She had noticed her thirteen year old niece wearing one which meant there was a clique of friends who kept themselves announced and exclusive by wearing these friendship bands. Neloufer said that no band on wrist or ankle announced friendships in her time; it was natural and borderless then. True, then and generations earlier, one never thought of race, religion or status of family as per riches or social clout. Classmates were noted as sports, fun companions or horrors, given to copying and sneaking. I suppose this fact was so in schools such as Bishop’s till very recently since there was no dividing into language streams.

The Bishop’s College prize giving was another occasion as was the awards ceremony at Stafford International School (SIS) that I mentioned in this column last week, which gave relief to strained nerves and battered emotions. They were oases of hope and decency. We are surrounded by deceit, by lies, by bribery and corruption, sycophancy and power hunger.

That is among adults. The very sorry state, tragic really, of upper crust youth has also grabbed our attention. Our social milieu seems to be rotten to the core. Hence the extra shine of schools such as Bishop’s and SIS, and other schools that maintain discipline and succeed in doing what a school should do — develop the total personality of those in their care so they go into the outside world as young adults able to adjust themselves and finally achieve aims and thus be a credit to the school, their parents and themselves.

Brenda Jayasinghe, Neloufer’s mother, would have been deeply satisfied she had done her job as parent so well, supported and helped, of course, by her Civil Servant husband, W. T. Jayasinghe. Brenda had been an excellent teacher at Bishop’s (of English literature and other subjects) and a most competent vice-principal. She was very friendly with all teachers, but earned their respect too. You could go to Brenda with a problem — whether school connected or personal, a request, even a criticism and she was the most sympathetic of listeners. Her advice was always good. The Principal at that time was Ms Amabel Jayasuriya — very kind inside but assuming a distant and disciplinarian demeanour. So teachers went first to Brenda with queries like — Will Miss Jayasuriya give me leave to attend my nephew’s wedding in Kandy, and Brenda would encourage a brave entry to the office and the spouting of the request for leave — often granted, sometimes denied!

It was unique having mother and daughter on stage at the BC prize giving — Brenda as a member of the Board of Governors of the school. What greater joy than having one’s child honoured as chief guest?

Professor Neloufer de Mel advised the school girls of BC on both academic achievement and personal fulfillment. She did not spell them out but implied also that women need never take second place. Coming back to friendship bands she said there was no need to brand or advertise your friendships. Friendship had to spread to all in a class, to other classes in the school, particularly to the shyer person, to the student who seems left out or is marginalized

In Professor Neloufer de Mel, the students of Bishop’s and others too, have a role model. Academically and professionally at the top, she yet retains that lovely manner of friendliness and sense of humaneness. She also has another admirable quality — never forgets to acknowledge that the teacher who strove hard to get her interested in math or taught boring history or Sinhala language, also deserves gratitude!!

Such people and such events help us to go along in this day and age of murder and mayhem, where the young take drugs and are capable of mercilessly slamming a young companion to death just because she had the temerity to upbraid the angry young man.

And among these few are thousands of lovely school children. This was obvious in the Prefects of BC, the prize winners, the school choirs and the classical chamber group that sang and played a melody in between the distribution of prizes.

We hope these thousands of good students, well brought up and nurtured in schools that uphold principles, have a better future offered them, than the immediate prospects of today.

- Nan

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