Building the 'Sri Lankan nation' through education: The identity politics of teaching history in a multicultural post-war society
University of Cambridge
Department of Politics and International Studies
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Warnasuriya, M. S. (2019). Building the 'Sri Lankan nation' through education: The identity politics of teaching history in a multicultural post-war society (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.37376
Abstract Driven by the overarching objective of promoting reconciliation through education, this thesis strives to unpack the first national goal of education set out by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education, which involves nation building and the establishment of a Sri Lankan identity through the promotion of social cohesion and the recognition of cultural diversity in Sri Lanka’s plural society. Within education, history teaching in secondary school acts as the main focus of the research, due to the relevance of this goal to the subject of history as well as the ability of history to shape the attitudes and perceptions of youth. As such, the original contribution of this thesis is the development of an understanding of how the goal of nation building is being carried out through the Sri Lankan education system by focusing on the subject of history, which in turn facilitates an analysis of the identity politics of teaching history in a multicultural post-war society. With the intention of developing such an understanding, the study aims to answer three research questions: 1) What type of nation is being built through history education in Sri Lanka?; 2) How is the ethnic and religious diversity which characterises the Sri Lankan nation being dealt with through history education?; and 3) How are Sri Lankan youth being aided in understanding the sensitive matters which impeded the nation building exercise in the recent past and resulted in the break out of the ethnic conflict? The thesis draws on an inductive approach, using qualitative research and secondary literature. Findings are generated from field work and textbook analysis. Conducted in four different districts around the country chosen based on their ethnic and religious compositions, field work involves the conducting of interviews with youth, history teachers, curriculum developers, textbook writers and other academics. This thesis argues that an ambiguity regarding the composition of the ‘Sri Lankan nation’ is being created through history education, with it sometimes being characterised as a purely Sinhalese-Buddhist nation instead of a multicultural one. This is most likely because the prominent players involved in the development of the curriculum themselves appear to be conflicted about the monoethnic versus polyethnic nature of the nation, with their views filtering through to the educational materials they produce. It is evident that the history curriculum predominantly contains Sinhalese-Buddhist history, with little information being conveyed about the history of the minority groups. Tamils and Muslims are portrayed as invaders and outsiders since the national story is narrated through the perspective of the Sinhalese-Buddhist community who play the role of the protagonist. With respect to stakeholder reactions, there appears to be a contrast in the attitudes of Tamil and Muslim youth regarding the portrayal of minority history, with Tamils being vocal about their anger towards the perceived bias, but Muslims being reluctant to discuss ethnic matters, preferring to sweep them under the rug. Finally, in terms of the ethnically sensitive matters in recent history, while some are completely omitted from the history lessons, others are narrated through a majoritarian perspective or glossed over by leaving out key pieces of information. Youth are therefore largely unaware of the contentious matters that led to the breakdown of ethnic relations in the country, despite having lived through a brutal ethnic conflict. These findings indicate the failings of the nation building exercise being carried out through history education. Instead of building a strong Sri Lankan identity, this type of education is creating confusion regarding the composition of the nation and adversely affecting the sense of belonging of minority youth. It is also creating a younger generation who are unaware of their country’s past troubles. The recent spate of ethnic and religious violence that shook the nation highlight the need to address these weaknesses in a timely manner, with a view to promoting reconciliation through education.
history education, nation building, identity politics, Sri Lankan education, secondary education, Sri Lankan history curriculum, Sri Lankan history textbooks, reconciliation through education
My PhD was funded by a Cambridge International Scholarship from the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust and a Bursary from the Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge.
This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.37376
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