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Adapted from the Souvenir published for the University of Peradeniya, Western Australian Alumni Night, at the Bill Cole Function Centre in Perth on 15th October 2011

A higher purpose We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibres connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibres, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effectsHerman Melville, 1819-1891

Wherever and whenever we gather to celebrate our good fortune of being alumni of the University at Peradeniya, we will enjoy good times of camaraderie and fellowship. We will recall the days spent by the Mahaveli, when without knowing it, we were being prepared for life’s adventures, which took many of us to distant places and unimagined experiences. Recently reading Stephen Fry’s (Autobiography Part II) The Fry Chronicles, which features his university and post qualifying years, I was struck by the apparent small amount of time he’d devoted to his degree course at Queens’ College, Cambridge. His success in life owed all to his undergraduate years, but not in the sense that many of us would imagine…. Other famous household names are featured in Fry’s recollections. A few of them are: Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean), John Cleese (Fawlty Towers, Monty Python), Hugh Lawrie (Fry & Laurie, House), Emma Thompson (Howard’s End, Sense & Sensibility). All of them and many others well known in the field of entertainment globally, had apparently read for university degrees. Not just at any university, but two of the most renowned for special qualities, heritage and their names which stand for academic excellence over centuries. It is a surprise to find that these were the University degrees they read:Rowan Atkinson – MSc in Electrical Engineering, Queens’ College, Oxford John Cleese - Law, Downing College, Cambridge Hugh Lawrie - Social Anthropology, Downing College, Cambridge Emma Thompson - English Literature, Newnham College, Cambridge It is unlikely that any of the above ‘practised’ in any of the fields they qualified in, but it is true that it was the opportunities and ‘training’ they had at university, which put them on track for fame and fortune in their careers in comedy, stage, television & film. This raises the question, which some of us of riper years may have considered more seriously in recent times - Is there a higher purpose in higher education? If we give what we consider a satisfactory answer to this query, have we ourselves fulfilled this purpose? Are we an ‘elite’ simply because we have achieved social status and accumulated material possessions? The traditional debate has been between those who advocate that University education exists to produce individuals with skills needed by society, such as doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, surveyors and the like, and others who support the view that education should be to bring enlightening values, to nourish the soul and help the student find him/herself. The latter view becomes more apparent in the modern-day developed world, where we see students complete degrees, only to later change direction and give it all away. Some decide to change their life’s path even after completing an arduous period of study acquiring higher qualifications, and then saying “This is not me, I think I will take a different path altogether..!” . In the not too distant past the brightest students studied Western Classics, Greek & Roman Civilisation, History and went on to join the Civil Service rising to the highest administrative


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positions in the country. There was no apparent connection with their learned degree and their daily activities. What they’d acquired by their degree was a way of thinking, a way of dealing with people, a way of seeing through the unimportant to get at the crux of a problem, a way to make decisions… In the present day when Education has become big business and seats of learning become ‘factories’ which turn out finished products, these higher purposes need not be sacrificed. Most of us reminiscing about our time at Peradeniya, will not be recalling the lecture room so much as times outside it, where we imbibed values and enlarged our understanding of life. It was in the residential halls, at the dining table, at the unions and societies… in the places where we exchanged ideas and met others who were ‘different’ from us. Through these varied interactions we learnt about argument and counter-argument, thesis & anti-thesis, about freedom of expression and tolerance, of agreeing to disagree, and ultimately becoming aware of the larger bonds that bind us all together. Living in the melting pot that is Australia, we are forced to accept the modern world’s realities. Like ourselves, who made our homeland far away from our motherland, future generations will have increased mobility and access to different places and different groups of people. The tribal mindedness that pervaded societies and communities for millennia has certainly reduced in the past century. In the not too distant past being a woman meant one belonged to a marginalised ‘minority group’ or a ‘tribe’, disenfranchised due to a perception – ‘seen as too emotional and could not think as logically as men’! We know how much progress has been made in this regard. Minority groups in all societies have gained acceptance and have a voice in today’s world. We know that at Peradeniya we learnt to break down other ‘tribal’ divides such as rural and city, North & South, ethnic identity, religion and language. Awareness and participation in actions which bring varying ‘tribes’ together could only enhance the society in which we live, making it a fairer and more just place to live, for all. So we have to ask ourselves what was the higher purpose achieved by the years we spent living by the Mahaveli? Was the ‘the pearl of great price’ that was paid for us by those who had a vision for our Motherland, worth the expense? In the final reckoning, when ‘the one great scorer comes to write against our name’ – what will be the score written against our name? That we belonged to an ‘elite’ group? Or will it be what we achieved with that privilege? Did we enlarge our human consciousness and relate better to our fellow humans? I do not think that the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man. - Sun Bear, Medicine man of the Chippewa- Native American tribe

Ranjan Abayasekara Whyalla, South Australia

A Higher Purpose  

Pondering on our university days at Peradeniya

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