Society needs to feel the need for the Humanities and the Social Sciences – Prof. Chanadana Rohana Withanachchi | Sunday Observer
Centenary Celebration of Humanities and Social Sciences in Sri Lanka

Society needs to feel the need for the Humanities and the Social Sciences – Prof. Chanadana Rohana Withanachchi

24 October, 2021

The origin of studying humanities and social sciences in Sri Lanka dates back to the early 20th century. Exactly over a century ago. The first formal study began on January 21, 1921, at what was then known as the ‘Rejina Walawwa’, now known as the College House of the University of Colombo. The Ceylon University College was the first government establishment in Sri Lanka where courses in humanities and social sciences were offered. Those courses were upgraded to a faculty for the first time with the establishment of the University of Ceylon in April 1942. In 1963, a new Faculty of Arts was established in Colombo as a part of the University of Ceylon. In 1978, under the Universities Act No.16 of 1978, all campuses of then under the University of Ceylon became independent universities. Including the University of Visual and Performing Arts and the Sri Palee Campus of the University of Colombo, there are several faculties functioning under universities that study humanities and social sciences. Remarking the centenary celebration of Humanities and Social Sciences in Sri Lanka, Prof. Chandana Rohana Withanachchi, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities of Rajarata University shed some light on the topic, humanities and social sciences in Sri Lanka.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: How do you definethe field of humanities & social Sciences?

Different subjects have emerged in the world since ancient times to study the actions of human beings. Clear evidence of this can be found in Greek classical society. In European construction, these studies were classified into three main categories as the natural sciences, the humanities and the social sciences. Of these, the subjects studied in connection with the various processes of society are called the social sciences and, the subjects studies in connection with the human mind are called the humanities. For the convenience of study, the Sri Lankan academia conducts both of these fields of study as a single field, the humanities and social sciences.

Q: What are the subjects under the umbrella of humanities & Social sciences?

According to the classification above, we can classify the subjects under this umbrella into two main categories. As subjects of the social sciences and humanities. Accordingly, subjects studied in the social existence of human beings such as communication, sociology, archeology, library science, history and economics are considered as social science subjects. Linguistics, semantics, and aesthetic subjects such as drama, art, music, and dance, which are directly related to mental behavior, can be identified as humanities subjects.

Q: What are the importance of the field, humanities & social sciences?

In the field of natural sciences, an identity has been developed in the field of research, conclusions and theories that have been developed in that field. Nor can it be said that there is no such identity in the field of humanities and social sciences. But the general public in Sri Lanka has a very negative opinion about the importance of this field. For example, almost all the subjects taught by the faculties of finance and management in Sri Lankan universities belong to the field of humanities and social sciences. All of those subjects are social science subjects. But most people do not know about this. Those subjects have been set aside in a special way. The same is true of aesthetic subjects. In fact, the Sri Lankan society has lost a great deal of understanding about this with certain divisions that have been created in school education itself. But this subject area has a very important place in the academia. The university system in Sri Lanka has been able to produce a number of eminent intellectuals in the field of social sciences and humanities within the past hundred years. All these eminent scholars have a national identity as well as an international identity. The point we need to make here is that all of these scholars have built that identity through an in-depth study of the various disciplines in the field of humanities and social sciences that we are talking about. This is the significance here.

Q: Are you satisfied about the research culture of humanities & social sciences in Sri Lanka?

In fact, for almost a decade now, the research culture in this field in Sri Lanka has been in deep decline.I recognize the reason for this is that the generation that has been coming into the faculties of humanities and social sciences that we speak of in our country for almost a decade now is a group that is building with technology. What is special about these students is that they are less likely to turn to books to absorb knowledge than in previous decades. Instead, they are quicker to turn to the internet, where they avoid more in-depth researchon certain topics. For example, what we are seeing is that the number of students in our university libraries is very low. They strongly believe in the internet but they do not know that the knowledge they can get from the internet is very limited. This is true these days, especially with these online methods. The downside of students pursuing limited and expeditious practices in this way is that they do not have a broad body of knowledge to analyze what they are learning. Due to this, there are some limited features in current researches.

Q: What are the new trends of humanities & social sciences in Sri Lanka?

The privatization of these subjects is one of the major trends currently being identified in Sri Lanka. But we have to admit that the private sector often touches on areas where they can make a profit. In other words, they choose subjects that can be marketed in society. But there are very few subjects that can be marketed like this in the humanities and social sciences. I do not try to see it as a mistake. But what we do know is that these subjects in public universities are built with a long history, based on a large amount of research. The syllabus of these subjects is prepared by the most learned scholars in each subject. But there is something problematic about the involvement and purpose of these experts in the privatization of these subjects.

Q: What are the difficulties faced by the field of humanities & social sciences?

The biggest crisis I see is the decline in students’ inclination towards many humanities and social sciences subjects. In particular, some subjects in this field are less valuable in terms of financial value but are essential for the survival of the society. At present, it can be seen that the focus on such subjects is gradually declining. Almost all students focus only on the subjects for which they can get a job. Because of this, it is possible to identify how subjects of great social value are subject to a massive breakdown. The biggest crisis I see is this situation.

Q: What are your suggestions to overcome the issues you said?

The University Grant Commission has a huge responsibility in this regard. Many students do not pursue these subjects because of their low financial value. The authorities must work to create that value. At the same time, the idea that this is a subjectthat is declining its social value should not be allowed to recur. Instead, the idea that this is a subject of great social value should be promoted. Similarly, steps should be taken to provide other job-related needs to young people entering the job market after completing their degrees in humanities and social sciences. In other words, professional knowledge should be provided along with subject knowledge. One thing we specially see is that many graduates of this field are looking for a government job. They don’t think of anything beyond that. Thousands of art graduates are produced in our neighboring India each year but they do not expect a government job at all. The same is true in Europe. Because they come out of university as entrepreneurs. So, in Sri Lanka also, the situation must change. One step has already been taken here. That is, from next year, every student who enters the university in the arts stream will be given the opportunity to pursue a diploma in information technologywhich is offered by the University of Colombo in parallel to the degree. It really should be appreciated. In addition, I think it is very important to provide internships, human resource management courses and public relations courses to the undergraduates.

Q: What is your message at the centenary celebration of humanities and social sciences in Sri Lanka?

This is really an opportunity for us to be very happy because we have been dealing with this stream since the beginning of this stream. This is a very rare opportunity in one’s life. Therefore, I am very happy to have that opportunity during my tenure as Dean.In this hundred year history, there are people who have worked hard to develop this field. It is their commitment that we are enjoying today. So, as attribute to them, I would like to make a request at this centenary celebration to preserve the quality of these subjects. These subjects need to be strengthened in a way that is beneficial to the society and students can intervene in practice. As a message, I declare at this centenary that society needs to feel the value of the humanities and social sciences.