Saturday, November 26, 2011

Teacher par excellence and gentleman by nature - by Kumar David

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There is no one mould into which all great men fit; some are remembered for an achievement or a contribution that changed the world, others for the influence they had on those who came in touch with them, still others for style, or honour, or for a job well done over a lifetime. In the narrower ambit of academic pursuit there are scholars who make valued contributions, wonderful teachers, and still others who make their students who and what they are. Then there are men for all seasons; they stand before a class with passion and erudition, they elucidate with limpid clarity, and outside class they are men of unmistakable honour, remembered not only till they shuffle off this mortal coil, but rather till those who sat in their classrooms, once upon a time, remain among the quick.

Everard Frederick Bartholomeusz, born on December 30, 1920 in Ceylon who died in the US on October 22, this year, Freddie to his colleagues and Batho to an ever appreciative retinue of students, was one of them. Those who had the privilege of schooling in the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Ceylon in the 1960s supped on the finest academic fare offered, by any university, at any time, in this country. Devotees of other disciplines, or from other vintages, may incline to say otherwise, but it is unlikely any can win the unanimous acclaim that this proposition will score among those who were there at that time.

There were giants and there were men of many colours; Professors E.O.E. Pereira and Robert Paul were giants, respected like no other across the nation’s engineering space. It is said that when Paul spoke to the Bursar on the telephone, the latter stood up at the other end of the line to say his, “Yes Sir.” Was Mahalingam (Dr, not yet Prof, in my time) more brilliant or more precise? Then nearer my age, there was brave Alagiah Thurairaja, blue-eyed boy of the academic record-books and founder of a research culture in the Faculty, who I am proud to call friend, colleague and comrade. There were others, colourful, bright, larger than life, but I have to return to my theme, Batho, who latched perfectly into this setting and its intellectual ethos. Batho’s claim to fame, apart from personal rectitude, was that his students, probably without exception, would name him as the best teacher they ever had.

Brilliant record

Batho was educated at St. Joseph’s College, Darley Road, and then took a First in Mathematics at the London University External BSc degree in 1942. He read for a PhD in Cambridge and graduated in 1955 in which year he also married Evelyn. Sometimes Evelyn would ride up to Sampson’s Bungalow on the pillion of Batho’s scooter to the admiring but shaded eyes of Batho’s students. They had two children, both boys.

Batho was promoted to founder Professor of Engineering Mathematics in 1965. He left Sri Lanka for Zambia in 1974. He chatted to a very junior me: “Kumar, I decided to look for a job overseas the day they introduced media-wise standardisation into university admissions; I knew my boys would never be given a fair chance.” Batho was a Burgher and he was also sensitive to broader issues of ethnic discrimination after 1956, which again raised its ugly head after 1970.

An essential aspect of Batho’s method was that his was a course in engineering mathematics, not mathematics, and his department was Engineering Mathematics. I have worked in several universities in many continents and found it difficult to get this concept across, especially when as a Head or a Dean I favoured bringing the teaching of mathematics to engineering students closer to home. It is not that teaching must be done by engineers, Batho and his successor Prof. Samuel graduated in mathematics; it is to do with the mind-set. Batho and Sammy bridged the gap skilfully by immersing themselves in an engineering culture. In class, they never slacked on formal mathematical rigour, and it was more than simply using engineering examples as illustrations, it was about academic identity.

This brings me to another matter. I am often asked about my interest in Marxism and politics. Most people assume that my background is in political science, or economics or maybe history. And this presumed paradox extends beyond my case to many engineers drawn to political theory, social and environmental issues and even active politics. The question often asked is: ‘How come so many of you engineering types have got into this trying to change the world business?’ Apart from the obvious reply that all men and women should be concerned about the world they live in, there is a deeper and truer answer. Those most fit to change the modern world are those who stand at the intersection of engineering and political science, the cross roads of science and sociology. Without an ambidextrous aptitude it is not possible to make programmatic sense in modern times.

Professors Thurairajah, R.H. Paul, Mahalingam and Batho grasped the social and political meaning of their times. I will not say that those of us engineers who came to politics did so because of these associations, there were much stronger influences at work outside, but it would be correct to say we enjoyed these interactions. Batho was not political in the usual sense of the term, but moral responsibility propelled him inexorably into the affairs of the university community. University reform proposals – sometimes wise and sometimes not, government interference bent on curbing academic freedom or breaking up legitimate student activity, and the customary quota of student unrest, would find Batho concerned and involved. Maybe drafting staff position papers; maybe wading into the thick of troubles where the respect he commanded enabled him to pacify anger; that was Batho. Unfortunately, everywhere, such interventions became tense and less productive in the context of 1971 and thereafter because it didn’t stop there. Now in Sri Lanka we live in an age of moral and social autism and the university ethos and community have decayed in proportion.

Manners are never enforceable and Batho’s life was proof of it; his gentlemanly disposition came entirely naturally and from the inside. “His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world: This was a Man!”

-Kumar David


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