Knowledge and Power

By Anjum Altaf
Everyone interested in education knows Macaulay and his Minute on Education, the basis of the English Education Act of 1835, that determined to give the native population of India “a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language” because no one “could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Virtually no one knows the views of the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill who, for almost half his life, was associated with the East India Company. In 1836, he submitted a report titled Recent Changes in Native Education, which was approved by the Company’s Court of Directors but dismissed by the President of the Board of Control. His comments, locked away for more than 100 years, expressed his belief that it was impossible “to expect that the main portion of the mental cultivation of a people can ever take place through the medium of a foreign language”?

All the issues that engage us at this moment are there in this debate from almost 200 years ago — the desideratum of scientific knowledge, the non-availability of content in local languages, the best medium of instruction, and the process of mental cultivation.

Reading history is so humbling. Everything being said today can be found in the columns of the newspapers of those days, The Tribune and The Civil and Military Gazette from Lahore among them, debating heatedly the pros and cons of the Anglicist and the Orientalist positions.

Reading history is also so very sobering. Then, as now, when all is said and done, when all the words and wisdom have been exhausted, it is power that carries the day. What is decided on high is impervious to reason, argument, or the well-being of the recipients and driven solely by the needs of the ruling class.

There are many fascinating dimensions to this bit of history. Compare Macaulay and Mill to begin with. Were it not for the Minute, Macaulay would be a footnote to history. Mill, on the other hand, was the most influential English philosopher of the nineteenth century whose On Liberty is still considered a seminal text today. But the ridiculous pronouncements of the former trumped the commonsense observation of the latter just as the footnotes of today override experts of the stature of Dr. Tariq Rehman.

Why commonsense? Because it takes half a minute of honest reflection to recognize its truth. Imagine a five-year old child from a village trying to understand addition in her own language or in English. Which alternative would she find easier? Imagine her narrating the day’s events in either language. In which would she be able to express herself with greater ease, fluency, and creativity?

The answers are obvious. Why then would we want the child to learn in English rather than in her own language? Is it because content is not available in her language? But what content does a five-year old child need to learn to add? Give her a pile of stones, a bunch of marbles, a few apples and she would do a lot better than reading out of a book. What content does she need to tell a story or talk about a butterfly or a frog or about the weather and when it would be time to milk the cow? And why one milks the cow in the first place and what happens to the milk after it is collected? Making five-year olds learn out of books is a poor and unimaginative choice.

What is given up when a child is taught in a language not her own? “Mental cultivation” as Mill had mentioned nearly 200 years ago. Instead of learning about things and ideas, the child is left struggling with an alien language, fearful of making mistakes, preferring silence to being laughed at, apprehensive of being tested on things that are not fully understood. This is the beginning of the road to memorization, to reproduction without understanding, to acquiescence instead of enquiry.

If all of the above is so obvious, why is it that parents want their children educated in English, the argument always cited, then and now, in support of English as the language of instruction? In preparing the Minute, Macaulay had said that “English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit (sic) or Arabic,” and that “the natives are desirous to be taught English.”

The simple answer is easily deduced by a student of the history of education in colonial India: “By making English a necessary skill to gain access to employment in the higher levels of the Indian administration, an English education became something to which all Indians strove.”

The answer to the puzzle is obvious and lies buried in the distinction between the two functions of education — that of mental cultivation or learning and that of a passport to employment. Parents, especially those who are poor and without old-age security, invest in their children in the hope that the latter find good jobs in the market. To that end, they are willing to sacrifice mental cultivation especially when no educationist has made them aware of how high the cost is of the sacrifice.

The English had an obvious vested interest in creating a class of people who, English in all but name, would prove to be “loyal servants of the colonial regime.” But no such interest is at play in a sovereign nation where power is supposed to reside in the people. Why then do we retain English as the passport to good employment requiring such a huge sacrifice in mental cultivation of which all serious educationists have long been aware since the time of Mill?

This is the real puzzle that requires an answer. Why don’t we just do away with the requirement of such a colonial legacy. China does not require it; Turkey does not require it; and they are considered successful countries doing far better than us. For all our English-speaking geniuses we can’t even collect our own garbage for which we need assistance from the non-English speaking Chinese and Turks.

So why do we continue to require English as the passport for decent jobs? Is it because colonialism has never really left our land? Is it because our neo-colonial masters wish to cripple the mental abilities of the people to keep them loyal, docile, and uncompetitive? Is it because power is afraid of knowledge? Meanwhile, just as in colonial times, there are Chief’s Colleges, quite distinct from the intellectually impoverished institutions for the natives, to reproduce and perpetuate the status quo.

Surely, it should not be so in an Islamic country aspiring to the Riasat of Medina.

Quotes are from Patriots and Practical Men: British Educational Policy and the Responses of Colonial Subjects in India, 1880-1890 by David Thomas Boven, Ph.D. Dissertation, Loyola University, Chicago, 2017.

This opinion was published in The  News on October 16, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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