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Aug 21, 2023
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1976 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, Sri Lanka

This article was written by 1976 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee REV. BROTHER HERMENEGILD JOSEPH FERNANDEZ exclusively for the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. It first appeared in the book "My Work, My Teacher," published by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation in 1987 in commemoration of the Award's 30th anniversary.

My work with youth all these years has been more to educate rather than instruct. The shade of meaning, in my case, must also take into account that I belong to a religious order whose vocation is education; no less an authority than the Pope has declared the founder of the order, St. John Baptist de la Salle, Saintly Patron of Educators!

We generally believe that the teacher imparts knowledge of things; the educator goes a little further and shows how to use those things and make them the science of living. The educator imparts knowledge to form and train a person to use this knowledge to create a better personal and societal life.

Whatever views may be taken of those aspects of the imparting of science and knowledge, it must be admitted that initially the future 'guru' must have been a good learner. One can give only what he possesses. The master's impact on the disciple can only be achieved by his own deep knowledge and mastery of the science he wishes to impart. Looking at things this way, one wonders where there is a greater merit-as teacher or as a learner?

Of course, the Magsaysay Award Foundation, not being a university, could not grant awards for good learning, but only for imparting knowledge or using other means to serve those in need.

But, behold, after having been honored as a teacher, I am now asked to discover the learner in myself, to write what I have learned during my long years of study and work with underprivileged boys in Sri Lanka, hopefully, so that it will serve as a lesson-plan and ultimately benefit the masses of disinherited boys who have been abandoned and have no alternative but to seek to survive through antisocial activities.

Thank you for giving me the chance of exposing myself as a learner. Probably in most cases, the value of a man is most clearly seen when he is shown as a learner rather than as a teacher or educator.

Certainly, it is necessary to learn about a situation before dealing with it. Working with youth, especially those so long left to themselves is not an easy job. To be successful in this art one must study these young people deeply and carefully.

I do not deny that books, universities and professors of distinction have taught me a lot of science; most of it, I must say, is theoretical. But the great school I have had to frequent for practical knowledge is society itself and for greater specialization, that fully neglected part of society, the abandoned, forgotten one. It has engaged my attention for over 40 years and I have still to learn at this school.

At first, my studies progressed well, leading me to a basic discovery of the highest import: there is no such thing as a "bad boy." A child who comes into this world is innocent and entirely at the mercy of society and the environment. The first societal impact he is subjected to is the family; an orientation one way or the other-toward good or evil- is given there. Soon other sections of society-school and his peers-will act upon him. Of course, if in these early years, he is abandoned, he will probably be driven by evil instincts and have recourse to wild ways of survival. The fact remains that whether a child becomes good or bad, it will have been entirely the responsibility of the society into which he was born.

The consequence to this first discovery became very evident. Society has an obligation for the harm done to this child who, through no fault of his own, but because of neglect, runs the risk of becoming not only very unhappy himself but, sooner or later, a danger to the society which neglected him. The remedy was evident. That child must be provided with help in the form of an appropriate education to reform himself and be trained to a useful, good life in society.

In the process of studying how best to be a sharer in that work of rehabilitation of abandoned youths, I was fortunate to make a further and equally important discovery, one which ultimately became the inspiration and guide in my work. I must frankly say that I had already acquired an inkling of this knowledge while pursuing my general studies. I realized that every human being aspires to be loved, to be desired, to be independent, and to be allowed initiative. The role of education is to assist the child to develop harmoniously these inborn aspirations--taking into consideration the role he is called on to play in society and to help him make himself a good citizen.

Thus, and addressing only one of these aspirations-wanting to be loved, education means making the child recognize what actions make him lovable and what makes him unloved: setting before him good examples to imitate, encouraging him when acting correctly, guiding him and counseling him, and correcting him for reprehensible actions. Correction made tactfully and timely, but firmly, is as much needed as is the show of appreciation and encouragement. If administered in the evident form of interest and love, it will be accepted and be as beneficial as affection, approval, and encouragement. No wonder the Bible was strong in advising the use of the rod. After all, the correct growth of a child can well be compared to that of the young tree, and society perhaps to a well-established orchard. The gardener, having planted a young shoot watches over it, tends it, waters it, and trains it on the proper support. He also prunes it in due time, and so on.

Looking over his orchard in a few years, the gardener will see the fruit of his work. The trees, neglected while they were young, will now appear useless, nay obstacles; those better cared for, well pruned and guided while young, will now be found to form a beautiful, productive grove. The tree, the child; the orchard, society; the gardener, the educator, parents, or parent-substitutes. It is evident that the same philosophical reasoning should apply with regard to education and the development of the other aspirations of the child to be independent and be allowed to use his own initiative.

Another problem should be addressed, namely that today education seems to have a different meaning for many. The big strides made by the human race in search of "progress" and more production for greater consumption, have led to confusion as to the purpose of education.

Since I was already committed to education and dealing with youth, the problems connected with a good education or lack of it became of greater and greater interest to me, the learner. It had occurred to me that true education does not consist simply in imparting knowledge, in turning out men of high proficiency in one specialty or the other. Unfortunately, today the tendency to call the man educated who knows about things, unmindful of whether he knows how to live in society or give consideration, respect, and trust to others. The educator himself deviates from his real mission and education becomes meaningless, or has a corrupted meaning.

Furthermore, society-that is the great human race has become choosy concerning its own kind. Perhaps the evil is not entirely of today, but there is no doubt that acts of rejection, putting aside unwanted ones, and victimization are becoming more frequent. Man seems to value man only to the extent that it profits his own interest, and does not want to bother with anyone who is not helpful to him, still, less one who is a burden.

That explains, in part at least, the fact that those responsible for education and the preparation of the young have adopted various attitudes toward education with the result, very often, of neglecting to teach values and ultimately leaving the child to himself, to find his own value system.

The value of a man is most clearly seen when he is shown as a learner rather than as a teacher or educator.

In the industrialized countries, the race for personal advantage, comfort, and riches has led to greater abdication of true education, making many realize that education as such does not exist any longer. That is my personal conviction. In fact, in an interview over Radio France in 1977, I did not hesitate to tell the millions who were listening: "There is no education as such in the modern world . . . There is a high form of teaching, but there is no education as such."

These were some of my discoveries on this important subject of education and youth care. I had to find ways to approach and deal successfully with the type of youth I wanted to reach. I had to find forms of education acceptable to the delinquent youths I had to work with, to provide quickly the education they had missed, and to transform them from undesirable, nay dangerous objects, into young men fitting into society, employed and useful to others, including their relations and the nation at large.

I had already discovered that abandoned youth, living in hunger and unavoidable delinquency, suffer from a sense of frustration. They are embittered because they have a deep conviction that had they had at least some of the means available to others their age, they would have done as well or better. I have heard youngsters in the slums of Colombo (Sri Lanka) expressing these views among themselves when I passed through with teams of college students who had accompanied me to distribute food and medicine.

On this basis, I was convinced that to educate these boys I would have to provide them with the means of achieving their own rehabilitation and prepare them for a more meaningful life and an ability to compete with those who had greater advantages. I, therefore, established Rehabilitation and Formation centers which are today known as Diyagala Boys Towns, from the site of the first center.

The first Diyagala Boys' Town is now over 25 years old. Over 4,000 youths have stayed there for four years and received their certificatión of qualification. All of them are now in company employment, or self-employed, running farms, small workshops, and the like.

The centers are provided with adequate residential quarters, equipment, and farmland. The well-prepared and dedicated staff is there to teach, guide, advise, counsel and generally work with the boys as elder brothers, sharing with them both the work and the administration of the center. It is education at its best. The sight of these boys, feeling themselves coming up to standard, so to say, is a happy sight indeed.

Extensions of the first Diyagala Boys' Town were made in various parts of Sri Lanka and in South India. The success of the centers attracted favorable attention from many quarters, from civil, religious, and educational organizations, and from international associations interested in development, such as the UN and its specialized agencies (UNESCO, FAO) and many NGOs. It was soon decided that similar centers should be established for girls, and religious orders sent nuns to Boys' Town for training. Lay men and women came from India, Malaysia, and even Africa to learn our methods in order to open similar centers elsewhere. It was now recognized that the seed was good; if sown in the correct ground and attended to in the proper ways, the trees would grow and produce the expected fruit.

In other words, I have learned that the neglected youth I have worked with have in themselves wonderful assets which make them responsive to a good approach, and will make them human beings second to none. It is up to guilty society to show familial love and attention to that youth, imparting to it the correct type of education, in the correct way, and acceptable to the young boys in the state in which they find themselves.

REV. BROTHER HERMENEGILD JOSEPH FERNANDEZ is a French Catholic layman who provided refuge and redirection for very poor, orphaned, and handicapped boys and juvenile delinquents in Sri Lanka. In 1976, Rev. Brother Hermenegild Fernandez received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s premier prize and highest honor for “his effective teaching of skills, values, and discipline that build underprivileged and delinquent bows into self-respecting, useful citizens."