By Chani Imbulgoda
“We suffer today, because leaders in the past have failed to govern this country properly”. Oh, the predecessor has not done things well, they all have let the place go haywire”. Familiar excuses… When one takes over the leadership be it the country, be it an organisation, or be it a new position. We, naturally, incline to blame the past, criticize the leadership and highlight what went wrong. We start new reforms, new policies, new practices… condemning the past. We have a tendency to look back through the rearview mirror… only to criticise what went wrong, and start everything all over. Why don’t we give some credit to the past and celebrate what went well, as well?
It is said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. While Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, I wondered how much similarity we can evidence today. Tolstoy describes how the war was waged in early 1800, and how Russia suffered. After two centuries, we witness how Russia repeats it over Ukraine. No lessons learnt from the past. We just passed a civil riot; strikes, protests continue; and controlling and curbing protests are not rare. As a country, have we forgotten our gloomy days in recent past? Bombs, killing, destructions from northern point Pedro to southern Dondra, youth insurrection, misdirection and all the blood we witnessed… It seems that we, rather than learning the lessons unlearned it.
Bringing the beauty of learning from the past, American author, Judith Glaser suggests looking at the past, finding new meaning from significant events, following them and creating successful behaviour patterns. Have we forgotten our glorious past where this country was recognised as the jade of the Indian Ocean? This was known as a prosperous country during the reigns of ancient kingdoms. Once the granary of the East, and even before that, crowned as the Kingdom of mighty by king Ravana, who deemed to be the first to fly an aircraft. I recall my friend in university days who used to say that “there is no future without past”. As Santayana, Glazer and my friend say “we need to look back and learn from our past in moving forward. In the early 19th century, we submitted our sovereignty to colonial masters by conspiring against our own breed. We made Sinhala only policy in 1956 and we opened the economy in 1977, letting our strengths blown out by foreign winds. Lots of lessons are on the stake, if we really want to take. An upcoming book “What Went Wrong” by a bureaucrat, Mr. Chandrasena Maliyadde, a former Secretary to Government Ministries discusses how Sri Lanka failed in many aspects, including public service and University education. There are books on historic accounts, newspapers and media that bring present contexts, and futuristic projections…it is left for us to make our soup adding right mix of past, present and future to taste the soup.
Past is a repository of knowledge!
Reflect on the qualities and competencies possessed by today’s youth with yesteryear’s generation. Do we miss something in the new generation? A state university officer once lamented that those young officers joining the university did not look at the overall picture when making decisions … fair enough, I have noticed a many young staff, and even some old hands think only about the fraction of work they deemed responsible … ignoring the whole process involved. We often pin the blame on the education system. During the good old days, school curricula consisted of lessons on morals and ethics, lessons on history. More importantly, formal education kept space for youngsters to think, there were no tuition classes, and no online assignments to complete. There was time for friends … time to play; time to enjoy nature, and time to talk with parents. Those days youngsters were a part of the real world, nature and ancestors who educate the wholeness of life. Aren’t we missing something in our education system? It is time to look back and look ahead, and look across. Finland, known to be one of the best countries for education in the world, avail time for students to engage with nature; no tough competitive exams, they learn being humane, they learn to be balanced humans. There was a propaganda “Nearest School is the Best School”. In the present context where everything has become expensive, exercise books to transport fees. Safety and security of both male, female children are at stake. Much concerns over drugs, and sex, it is time to revisit and refresh this propaganda tagline. There is a shortage of papers, there was a shortage of fuel and electricity, we never know what is in stock for us in the coming months. We cannot afford to have marker pens and whiteboards in schools now. Time to think about the rock slate which we could use several times and learn well and hard way. I believe more the hard work put in tiring both the hand and head, higher the productivity. Considering the wellbeing of individuals, rising cost and scarcity of essentials and medical drugs, and sustainability of our environment, time has come to think of our past styles of commuting, cycling. Cycling reduces air pollution; cycling makes you fitter. In effect, we will not be compelled to depend on many vehicles imported and perhaps medicine too. We have reached the point where we have to bridge the past with the future. We need to learn from the past and blend it with the future, appropriately without forgetting the present and its context.
Learn from the past, but don’t
stick to it.
When we see a roadblock, a cavity on the road or a commotion or congestion, we naturally turn to the rearview mirror. But we do not turn the car and go back to where we started. No doubt we learn lessons from the past, but we can never create the past again. If you drive constantly looking back from the rearview mirror, you would not proceed much far! Buddha has said that “you can’t have a better tomorrow if you think about yesterday all the time”. One of the key accusations during recent public agitations, and the rebel was that youth do not get opportunities. The anxiety developed over rejection or blocking paths for youth, to be hatred towards old. We often miss fresh blood in decision making bodies, especially when it comes to public sector institutions, owing to too much credit being given to the past. Long number of years in service overshadows competence. When recruiting people for positions, we look at the conduct and experience of the applicant in the past, and make our decision; sometimes a decision to show the door would completely sabotage the future of the applicant. We come across people who wag their past records when they make important decisions for the future. People like to boast about their glorious past and want to create yesterday in tomorrow. I recall an incident that took place at a staff meeting where I work. When the senior officers celebrating past glory, a few newcomers openly challenged and declared they get demotivated in effect. If we cling too much to the past, we will end up spoiling both our present and future.
Change is inescapable. Everything gets changed, context, requirements, and mindsets. History cannot be restored as it was, only lessons and practices can be brought and tried after careful analysis. We normally cling to one of the two paradoxes; one school of thought is glued to the history, experience, and the way things happened. They hardly see goodness in novelty. On the other extreme, the school of thought is forward-looking they ignore the past, condemn the history and embrace novelty. In a car, we have a larger windscreen, two side glasses and a tiny rearview mirror. Why? When we are moving, we need to look at the future with a much broader view, assess the present, and from time to time look back and ensure we are alright.
Past is always a scapegoat for those who don’t want to strive to achieve success. We as a nation today suffer a lot and I believe in owing up to the blame game we play with the past and egoistic attitude and our unwillingness to learn from the past. I always advocate seeing what went well in the past, success stories teach us lessons, where failures are more appealing to worry and enjoy at the same time.
(The writer is a holder of a senior position in a state
University with international experience and exposure and an MBA from Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM), Sri Lanka and currently reading for her PhD related to reasons of reform failures at PIM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)