Macaulay's View of Western Superiority Still Holds Back the Indian Education System

The commericialisation of education which has become rampant in India today has its seeds sown under Macaulay, and it has only grown ever since.

An eighth standard CBSE student is introduced to Lord Macaulay’s ‘educational history’ through a social sciences chapter called ‘Civilising the ‘native’, educating the nation’ in an attempt to introduce the student to education critically.

Under one of the sections in the chapter, ‘Grave errors of the east’, the student is introduced to the British scholar Thomas Babington Macaulay. The chapter mentions Macaulay’s disregard for oriental studies and briefly mentions the English Education Act of 1835 that followed his important minute.

Following this introduction, there is rarely any assessment of the multidimensional effect that Lord Macaulay’s other identities (parliamentarian, occidental thinker, etc.) had, and still has, on the lives of people who receive education in India.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, a legal member of the Council of India and a British parliamentarian, gave his important minute that changed the entire course of education, in 1835. He addressed the Committee of Public Instruction and based his argument on the basis of the central themes of the Charter Act of 1813. In the Act, a sum is set apart “for the revival and promotion of literature and the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories”.

Representative image. Photo: Jonathan Camuzo/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Macaulay’s arguments were in direct contradiction to the decisions of the Committee of Public Instruction, appointed by the British Parliament. The committee took major decisions in education before 1835. Macaulay alleged that the committee had not used the scope given by the parliament in the charter in the most efficient ways.

He argued that it was a shortsighted interpretation to think that by the promotion of ‘literature’, parliament meant Sanskrit and Arabic Literature but rather emphasised becoming a learned native by studying the poetry of Milton, metaphysics of Locke and the Physics of Newton. It paved way for a trend of amending an education system in reaction to previous policies.”

Macaulay was the first person in the history of the Indian education system who made financial resources the centre of educational activities. He said, “The grants which are made from the public purse for the encouragement of Literature differ in no respect from the grants which are made from the same purse for other objects of real or supposed utility.” He implied that if stipends are given to students of Sanskrit and Arabic from resources of British then it should fetch the British some gain. The man can be credited with laying foundations for treating education as a ‘sector’. Thus the most important aspect of the development of an individual, education will now have to prove its worth to satisfy its position as an important ‘sector’, whose investment will purely depend on the return.

Also read: The Infamous Macaulay Speech That Never Was

Public Education still follows the same ‘return’ policy; the requirements of the return being the ‘creation of a class of people who can efficiently do the job’; something that is stressed in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 as well. Macaulay had a strong belief in treating things according to their ‘worth’. In the contemporary sense, the word ‘worth’ has transformed into ‘scope’. People now think in terms of which branch of education will land them in a more proximate job.

Macaulay assumed it was foolish of the public commission to provide stipends to Arabic and Sanskrit students when a huge cluster was ready to pay willingly to receive English education, making it profitable. Macaulay then said the famous line, which liberalised the whole of the Indian education sector way before the 1990s.

He said, “On all such subjects (matters related to education), the state of the market is the decisive test.” He commoditised education. And modern day scenario has proved that ‘market’ is actually the most decisive factor that decides ‘what type of education will be promoted’.

Promotion of English way of education

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru laid down the base in 1950s for the technological boom of the country by increasing the stake of public sector in technological aspect of industrialisation and gave rise to a class of people studying engineering. These people grew economically stable by the second half of the 1990s and thus associated careers relating to lifestyles (fashion designing, interior designing) were also promoted.

While making an argument about replacing Sanskrit and Arabic with English as a medium of communication in school, Macaulay asked with a presumption of knowing the answer, “which language is the best worth knowing?” And then divides his answer into two parts: the first half being the literary inferiority of Eastern writers, he spoke about how he never had met an orientalist who could say “Sanskrit and Arabic poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations”. And declared in the House that “from the works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable”.

The second half stressed English being more ‘eloquent’ and ‘polite’. In summing up his point, he stated that whoever knows English has ready access to vast intellectual wealth collected by all the wisest nations and proved to his contemporaries the incapability of Sanskrit and Arabic in providing the necessary education.

Also read: Language Policy: Education in English Must Not Be the Prerogative of Only the Elites

Though sometimes this system is advocated in favour of Dalits and OBCs, who claim that they are on the receiving end, but what is evident after around 150 years of its establishment is that the upper castes have been most active participants of the sector. The participation of Dalits and OBCs in new liberal colleges, like Ashoka University, O.P Jindal, IITs, IIMs, etc., is a point to ponder. The sector does not enable people to break through their systemic social backwardness, because they lack social and economical capital to participate in it. Therefore, to say that a certain population is being liberated through this English education system would be a claim on loose ends.

Macaulay tried to prove that it is completely rational and logical to adopt a foreign language to strengthen your culture, if your own mode of communication is not strong enough. For certifying this, he recalled the story of British adopting the language of Thucydides and Plato and the language of Cicero and Tacitus, because they believed that everything  “worth reading was contained in the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans”. He thus implied that it is smart to accept one’s condition and to search for other possibilities to fulfill it.

The book is a rare, necessary, comprehensive and action-oriented book that lists several solutions. Credit: PTI

Representational image. Photo: PTI

In continuity, Macaulay said that when a nation of high intellectual attainments (Britain) undertakes to superintend, the education of a nation, completely ignorant (Indian Subcontinent), the learners are absolutely to prescribe the course, which is to be taken by the teachers. He implied that the students of this landmass are incapable of choosing a correct curriculum for their development, as they are not knowledgeable or qualified enough. And thus, deprived a student of the Indian Subcontinent any share of contribution in what they learned and how they learned while also imposing on students a difficult and unknown curriculum. As pointed out in NEP 2020 and also in general practice, our education system has till date has been unable to provide students any stake in the education process.

While answering his self-made arguments of the Oriental views, Macaulay said that because “Sanskrit and Arabic are Languages in which these sacred books are written” therefore, he added, “that it is a public view that these form ‘Literature’ and hence, must be promoted”. Like a proper diplomat, he went on, “It is the duty of the British government in India to be not only tolerant but neutral on all religious questions”. More than anything else this disclaiming feels contemporary.

Post-independence scenario

The Kothari commission was assigned with the job of creating a new national policy on education in 1964. The commission submitted its report in 1966, and in 1968, with most of its points approved, it became the first education policy of independent India. The idea was to infuse our constitutional values into our education system and to make men and women ‘perfect’ for the job. According to the constitutional framework, the curriculum was also designed keeping in mind the neutrality. The advocates of the Hindu past from then to now have the same claim that this secularisation process is actually a distortion of facts, that they are teaching about our golden past but do not give a correct account of how did that past end. Basically their claim is about the Muslim rulers who they see as invaders. These advocates claim that the history of these rulers have been given a less violent image by the government for the appeasement of people belonging to a particular religious community in order to gain votes in a democratic process.

Representational image. Photo: Reuters/Jayanta Dey

A glimpse of this ‘revival’ and ‘promotion’ of literature was evident in 2003, when the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute of Pune was vandalised by 200 goons based on a loose claim of ‘disrespect of Shivaji’ in which the institute was minutely involved (mentioned in the acknowledgement section of the controversial book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James W Laine). The goons destroyed important older manuscripts such as the first century CE copy of Mahabharata and a very old copy of Rig Veda used by Max Mueller.

Also read: Macaulay Is Very Relevant Today and Helps Dalits, OBCs Join the Global Economy

The incident was easily forgotten. But the Narendra Modi government, the second majority government of the NDA, followed the legacy. One can wonder how easy it is for a government to regulate the curriculum according to its needs. The revival of literature, which Hindu nationalists promise, is not derived directly from Sanskrit texts but rather is a profitable version of the Indological studies of the 19th century, which derives its roots from the same English education system which was promoted by Macaulay.

Macaulay, in a concluding statement, simplified things for the parliament and said “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern- a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population”. Macaulay was very futuristic in this attempt and he was very much successful in the same.

This statement marked the culmination of the process of “creation of two bodies” which had been underlying in the whole speech. The first body was the “Indian penal code “ (which established the framework of instructions for ruling the people in India), and the second was the ‘Indian civil services’ (ICS)(now, Indian Administrative Services).

Also read: Glimmers of Hope and Reform in the National Education Policy Draft

These two bodies have till date enabled and executed all the necessary provisions which have made ruling or governing over people an easier task. Members of ICS formed the first bureaucratic class in India. Mapping the facilities received by the IAS officer, we can clearly see that they are English in taste (until they deny that lifestyle) and Indian in blood who very well use the sciences as instruments of the Western formula known as “development”.

William Bentinck, the then governor general of India, came up with a one-line approval of this minute in the parliament and got the English Education Act 1835 passed. It came into effect in 1859. Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay was bestowed with all the authoritarian claims that can be given to a British intellectual of the highest order.

We can see this tendency of formulating policies on the basis of  “derived literatures” of the Indian subcontinent. None of our educational reforms have been based on the original interpretations of ancient Indian literature by our own people, which is why the education system has failed in creating a significant role in the lives of the masses. They have refrained us completely from taking into account ground realities like those of the caste system. The pursuit of knowing the reality remains futile and restricted to a procedural policy, because the intent and motives are always diluted by an English imperial mindset.