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Sri Lanka goes to vote in the next week or so. Similar to many, I too have my ‘hopes’ pinned on a candidate who I hope will usher in the ‘Pannaraya’ era that boasts of ‘a country worth living in’.

As I try to keep up with the different promises and agendas offered, the stark realization of oxymorons tends to regularly hit me in the face.

As a mother preparing her children for their exams, something I have learned is that our education curriculum (Sinhala local syllabus) caters mainly to the nationalistic Buddhist.

Here are a few examples:

In the Grade 5 history curriculum it talks about Nandimithra, the brave giant in King Dutugemunu’s army. While I did not learn this as a child, my daughter is learning that Nandimithra was the nephew of an official in Elara’s kingdom. Nandimithra took it upon himself to kill every Tamil who came to Anuradhapura that didn’t ‘properly’ respect the stupa and Buddhist shrines. When his deeds are brought to King Elara’s notice, Nandimithra joins Dutugemunu. There are two glaring omissions in the way our curriculum presents this lesson; One, that King Elara was a just and fair king and second that Nandimithra’s actions were wrong.

My child in Grade 8 learns in her Sinhala literature reader about Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera. (From Grade 4 students learn the life story of a Buddhist monk and different Jathaka Katha.) While I wonder why children cannot learn about other distinguished patriotic citizens, my issue is the choice of this monk for the eighth grade curriculum. Yes, he did much for Buddhist revival. But at a time where there is tension between Christians, Muslims and Buddhists would not his life be better studied in a religion class than under the guise of Sinhala literature? Why does the education ministry feel the need to put down one religion and elevate another? Is it fair to subject unsuspecting 12 and 13-year old children to this level of thinking? Especially when the curriculum is not presented in a manner to get a child to think but merely pedantic memorization?

My concern with this subject matter deepened as studying this monk in school made my child question her faith. I would have been happy to see her think and question but the curriculum instead of allowing for free thinking went directly to the next lesson which is on 10 Buddhist Gathas from the Lowada Sangarawa. These Gathas teach the children principles of Buddhism that they should adhere to in order to attain nirvana. The children are expected to know (memorize) them and their meanings.

I understand that the study of history when viewed through the subjective lens of literature can promote values, faith and ideals but why does the government believe it necessary to only teach Buddhist principles to our children?

In a country recovering from a 30-year ethnic war that is also battling religious friction shouldn’t the education curriculum be more responsible?

We hope our elected president will unite the country and not drive ethnic and religious divisions further. But looking at our education curriculum I am beginning to understand that the division of our nation starts in the early childhood development of our children. I am aware this is a serious allegation. But I say this with much thought and responsibility after having realized the subtle way this is happening.

Most of us leave our children’s Sinhala lessons to the mercy of their Tuition teacher. But do we realize that there are subtle contradictions to our beliefs being taught? I didn’t. Not until I picked up my child’s Sinhala reader and also started helping with history. The history lessons drive nationalistic ideas of ethnic, political, religious and cultural values of a very Sinhala Buddhist system. The positive contributions made by the Arab Traders, Hindu Kings such as Elara, the infrastructure of the Portuguese, Dutch and British are all diminished in the light of painting them as evil.

And therefore, it leaves me with questions. Are my children learning to think for themselves as they study? Are they learning to respect others whose opinions differ?

Can a change in government or leadership really make a difference in terms of ethnic harmony? I honestly doubt it!

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