Education: The Myth of the Market

By Anjum Altaf

Some years back I had written an article the main message of which was the following: The market is indeed a wonderful mechanism but it exists to serve humanity and not to enslave it. I wish to resurrect some of the arguments in the context of the recent discussion on the appropriate medium of instruction for early education in South Asia (On Being Stupid in English).

I found it ironical that a case was made for early education in English because in India untold millions are clamoring for English. In the post I had referred to an earlier article (Macaulay’s Stepchildren) to record that Lord Macaulay had used exactly the same argument in 1835 to support the use of English as the medium of instruction in India – in his view the superiority of English was evidenced by a strong desire for English-language education in the Indian population.

I had argued in the article that Macaulay was wrong in equating the desire to learn English as a language for enhancing job prospects with its appropriateness as the medium of instruction for the education of Indians. This is an important distinction but I do not intend to revisit this issue here. Rather, I wish to discuss our attitude to the market and point to the perils of a perspective that might be unduly simplistic and uncritical.

We need to recognize that markets are not sacred or divinely ordained. All markets are man-made and contingent on a host of all-too-human decisions. The easiest way to appreciate this is to realize that the supply and demand of any commodity responds to its price and we are tinkering with prices all the time through subsidies and taxes. Subsidize any commodity or make it artificially attractive through policy incentives and its demand would shoot up. Instead of being mesmerized by the demand, it would behoove us to examine if the subsidy and incentive policies made any sense in the first place.

We can now go back to the case of education. I have witnessed the hiring practices of elementary schools in Pakistan where well-qualified teachers are rejected in favor of much less qualified repatriates from the US because the latter possess an American accent. Probe this a little and the principal will tell you that this is the demand of the parents who will not enroll their children in a school in which the teachers speak Indian-English. If the market pushes us to prefer an empty-headed American to a Tamil-speaking genius surely there must be something wrong with the market that should bear examination.

In Macaulay’s Stepchildren, I documented the fact that to their credit the British recognized the contingent nature of market demand in their 1904 review of education policy in India and noted the damage it was causing to those who were expressing the demand:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction … This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.


From the above we can take just one attribute that contributed to the demand for English, the fact that high school examinations were conducted in that language and a high school diploma meant a quantum jump in the prospects for better remunerations. But it should be equally obvious that there never was a divinely mandated ordinance that high school examinations be conducted in English. Change the language of examinations and the demand would shift accordingly.

Having made these arguments let me go back to the earlier article I mentioned in the opening paragraph in order to elaborate further on the contingent nature of markets and the need to be critical in our approach to them. The article was written in the context of a proposal I had made to revive classical music in Pakistan that was challenged on the grounds that the market had rejected classical music in favor of the pop version and there was no need indulge in quixotic attempts to fight the verdict of the market. I had responded to the argument, in part, as follows:

The point with regard to the market can be addressed at two levels. First, were I to be cynical, I would respond that neither does the market in Pakistan today reward honesty or good manners. But we disregard these market signals and continue to try and teach our children to be honest and well behaved. There are some things that we keep outside the purview of the market. We continue to learn languages and read literature even if there is no market return to such allocations of time and money. And, by the same token, we do not peddle opium even if there is a high return to that activity. An appreciation for good music falls in the same category, free of market considerations.


But let me not dismiss the market in such a cavalier fashion. First, the market does reward good music that does not trample on the basics of pitch and rhythm and exploits the knowledge of melodic scales. It is not for nothing that many of the old film songs composed by masters like SD Burman, Roshan and Khurshid Anwar and sung by Saigal, Lata and Noor Jehan remain unforgettable. Nor is it an accident that the memorable ghazals sung by Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano and Fareeda Khanum are composed in popular ragas. It is another matter that the composers and singers have not been able to capture the economic rewards because of the absence of enforceable copyright laws in the music market.


Second, while market signals convey extremely useful information, their interpretation need not always be straightforward. Take the case of education. The market is signaling a very strong demand for private tuition. How should we interpret that signal? In my reckoning the demand is pointing towards a systemic problem in another part of the educational system, the progressive failure of schools to impart worthwhile knowledge. This failure is being compensated by the emergence of a supply of private tuition. Our response to the market signal should be an attempt to fix the schools and not to endorse a system of private tuition.


In a similar fashion, the rejection of classical music by the market might simply be a consequence of the arbitrary decision of some cultural czars to banish its projection on state-controlled media and suppress its teaching in public institutions of learning. If so, we should choose to struggle against such arbitrary rulings rather than take the verdict of the market at face value. It should be obvious that the market for books would be non-existent if we kept the entire population of the country illiterate. The verdict of the market in such a case would be nothing but a reflection of either our folly or our callousness. The market is indeed a wonderful mechanism but it exists to serve humanity and not to enslave it.



  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 06:36h, 19 December Reply

    I don’t wish to continue this discussion about language but here is a brief response.

    1. Is playing cricket ironical because it was originally a British game? Maybe it was once but it no longer is. The context has changed and while one may give a similar reason to Macaulay’s, the reasons occur in different contexts and therefore have different meanings. (Another analogy: Hitler liked Wagner. Is it therefore ironical for a Jew to like Wagner today?)

    2. There are many Englishes not one and Stanford University even offers a course on the Englishes of the world. These are distinct but closely related languages and differ in their phonology, syntax, and semantics. If we continue to treat English as a purely foreign language, we will have only ourselves to blame.

    3. This demand for English transcends the market. Underlying the immediate desire for jobs in the modern world is the desire to gain a toehold in the fast-moving world of modernity and to have a chance to experience the “good life.”

    In the Pakistani film “Dinner with the President,” partly a puff piece for Musharraf, directors Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan talked to truckers who said quite plainly that they wanted a life like that of the Pakistani elite for their children and even, I believe, that they wanted them to study English in school. In this yearning, there is more than just a response to a market signal.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 21:06h, 20 December

      Arun: This post is not about language. I am not opposed to English or choice. Rather, I am curious about the determinants of choice and the underpinnings of market demand. Given that we live in the same globalized world what might account for local variations in choice? To use your illustration as an example, why might the yearning for English of truck drivers in Pakistan be much more than that of truck drivers in China?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 20:04h, 20 December Reply

    Individuals will make decisions based on the broader economic and political environment that they find themselves in. In this case, the English language is rooted firmly in the economic and cultural life of India’s middle classes. I would assume that much of the masses would aspire to emulate them in some way.

    So if there is to be a push for a more mother-tongue based education then there would have to be a concurrent movement to remove English from the economic and cultural power it commands in India.

    I dont think that one can hope that this will happen automatically as the generation of mother-tongue educated Indians come up. The ones more comfortable with English will always have better access to global capital and opportunities. This is being seen not only in India but also in countries like Brazil and China.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:25h, 21 December

      Vikram: The point I wanted to make in this post was that demand is socially constructed – it reflects, as you note, the economic and political environment and the aspirations of people. Therefore we cannot just look at demand uncritically but also explore if it is reflecting some social pathology. That much should be uncontroversial. In that framework we can examine some other aspects of your comment:

      1. Are we comfortable with the fact that English commands economic and cultural power in India? Should it? Should fluency in English trump IQ, for example?
      2. How necessary is English to better access to global capital and opportunities? China has been attracting much more global capital than India for decades. The scarcity of English-speaking people in China has not affected the flow of capital into the country. The number of Chinese students being accepted into the best Western universities is also now comparable to India.
      3. Mother-tongue medium (MTM) instruction is not in conflict with acquisition of English. MTM instruction pertains to early education and as the Skuttnab link in an earlier comment argues, MTM actually improves the acquisition of other languages.
      4. When everyone has acquired equal facility in English, do you believe that English will still remain the passport to economic and cultural power in India?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 18:56h, 21 December

      1. Are we comfortable with the fact that English commands economic and cultural power in India? Should it? Should fluency in English trump IQ, for example?

      I am reasonably comfortable with the fact that English commands economic power in India, for the simple reason that any Indian language doing so would automatically put the other Indian language speakers at a disadvantage. English levels the playing field in some sense here.

      Cultural power, I am not in favor of. I have repeatedly tried to put this across in my blog.

      I am not sure how to respond to the ‘English trumps IQ’ statement. Should Hindi trump IQ ? Or should Bengali ? Do communication skills not trump IQ in America ?

      2. How necessary is English to better access to global capital and opportunities?

      In India today, absolutely critical ! I would agree that English is not essential for attracting the labour intensive investments that China has been able to attract. But even if we managed to attract that kind of investment, the white collar IT type jobs would be the most desirable and they all would require English. So would managerial type of jobs in the manufacturing industries.

      3. Mother-tongue medium (MTM) instruction is not in conflict with acquisition of English. MTM instruction pertains to early education and as the Skuttnab link in an earlier comment argues, MTM actually improves the acquisition of other languages.

      The overwhelming problem in education in India is quality. The ASER reports ( indicate an across the board shortfall in learning, for students in all mediums of instruction and in all subjects. I think the teaching methods and the curriculum content are more critical in addressing this than the medium of instruction.

      4. When everyone has acquired equal facility in English, do you believe that English will still remain the passport to economic and cultural power in India?

      It wont, and thats precisely the reason why non Hindi speaking states are more comfortable with English than an Indian language lingua-franca. Everybody has the potential (in a political sense) to become equally comfortable with English as opposed to Hindi or say Bengali.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 23:06h, 21 December Reply

    Vikram: I have the following observations as a follow up:

    1. Why should economic power be tied to a language? Shouldn’t it be related to the ability to create jobs, innovate, export or add value in other ways? Shouldn’t talent be what levels the playing field? Would a talented person not be able to learn any language that he/she needs to leverage his/her talents? Every year the government awards scholarships for students to study in France, Italy, Russia, etc. All it takes the students is one year of intensive language training to be able to do doctoral level work in the language. Silicon Valley is full of Chinese and Koreans – have they been hired for their communications skills?

    2. What percentage of the total number of jobs in India are IT jobs? What would be the cost of training every worker to be fit for an IT job? Would it not make more sense for those who aspire to IT jobs to learn English? The most advanced research is taking place in China and all the big multinationals have their research centers there. Just track the advances in renewable energy and high speed rail. More patents are being filed in China than in India. How is this related to facility with English?

    3. All the research on the efficacy of MTM instruction controls for the quality of teaching – this is standard research protocol.

    4. Is the objective to make everybody equally comfortable with English or to make everybody as productive as possible? Are the two perfectly correlated? When there was no English in India was economic power equally distributed? Is economic power distributed equally in the US because everyone knows English?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 18:32h, 23 December

      1. Why should economic power be tied to a language?
      It shouldnt in ordinary circumstances. But India is a multilingual nation. Economic power will necessarily be tied to a link language. Communication skills in English do matter a lot for upward mobility both in the US and India, especially for managerial positions.

      2. What percentage of the total number of jobs in India are IT jobs?
      Of course, IT jobs are a small fraction of jobs in India. But these are the aspirational jobs. People do not educate their kids thinking they will be truck drivers or shop keepers. And like I said earlier, in any kind of white collar environment in India, lack of facility in English results in a substantial career and social penalty.

      3. All the research on the efficacy of MTM instruction controls for the quality of teaching – this is standard research protocol.
      My point was that the most pressing issue facing Indian schools today is the quality of education (based on feedback and interactions with NGO’s and activists on the ground), not the medium of instruction. The teaching methodologies and curriculum are flawed and need substantial revision.

      4. Is the objective to make everybody equally comfortable with English or to make everybody as productive as possible?
      In the Indian economy of today, people who are comfortable with English are more productive than non-English speakers on a per capita basis. The two are not independent, but of course they are not perfectly correlated either.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 16:44h, 24 December Reply

    Vikram: Some arguments to carry forward this discussion:

    1. I understand that India is a multilingual country and English functions as a link language. But it is not clear why economic power should be tied to a link language. If a Punjabi speaking person makes a lot of money in real estate, would economic power be denied to him because he could not speak English? Perhaps you mean bureaucratic power because the examinations for entrance are in English.

    2. The argument of the post is not against the learning of English. Whoever feels the need to learn English should be able to learn it.

    3. The central insight from the research is that after controlling for quality of education MTM still matters a great deal. Those with MTM instruction have improved learning ability and even learn a second language better compared to those who start with the second language. This is counter-intuitive finding but one that is well supported by the evidence.

    4. What is the basis for this assertion? Apply it to any field you can think of – would the person who speaks better English always be more competent than one who does not? If not, how would you rank applicants if you were hiring – by competence or by facility in English? After hiring would it be easier to impart essential English skills or essential intelligence attributes?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 19:09h, 24 December

      1. If a Punjabi person has made a lot of money (by whatever means) he already has economic power. What I meant was that the chances of attaining economic mobility and power increase dramatically with knowledge and fluency in English.

      2. Again, based on interactions with ground level workers and NGOs, people feel an enormous need for their wards to know English. This follows from point number one and is a widespread, deeply held perception and in my opinion a justifiable one. Please see,

      3. That sounds reasonable and I am not arguing against mother tongue education. But in my opinion, MTM will be a hard sell for parents in India, especially in the presence of English language instruction schools.

      4. Communication skills are a part of competency in any kind of work environment.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 17:08h, 26 December Reply

    Vikram: This still needs more discussion:

    1. The issue is whether the Punjabi needed English to acquire economic power. The proposition being debated is that English is necessary for economic power. This is really an empirical question. My guess is that if you go to any small or medium sized town in India you will find the good English speakers in the professions and services and the economic power in the hands of those who speak much less English by comparison. Access to professions, services and the bureaucracy and not economic power increases dramatically with fluency in English.

    2. I am aware of this. What I am arguing is that this demand is based on a fallacy. It is the task of educationists to disseminate the findings that impact on cognitive ability.

    3. This points to a disconnect because Indians (English-speaking ones, ironically) are all the time decrying what Macaulay did to India and yet doing nothing to change it. Note that Macaulay’s policy produced a whole lot of babus and lawyers and very few economic magnates. It also produced a colonial mindset as was the intention of the policy. English language instruction schools, as long as access to them is determined by money, are a polarizing factor in society. They are not sacred by any means.

    4. Agreed; the question is how does one rank the attributes. If one needs a plumber in Chennai does one want one who can fix the tap or one who can communicate in English? Communication skills don’t come with English alone and in most situations people communicate better in their local language.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 22:40h, 27 December

      1. You may not need English to control means of economic production. But that is an extremely tiny section of the population and that status is not possible through education based economic mobility. I am speaking of economic power more in terms of professions and services, a status that is attainable through education, and more often than not that education has to be in English.

      2. I am not disputing the claim that MTM education leads to better learning. What I am saying that in the current economic environment present in India, parents would rather see their ward educated with English medium instruction that leads to inferior learning than an Indian language medium instruction school.

      3. What makes you think English speaking Indians ‘decry Macaulay’ ? I have rarely come across a middle class Indian that doesnt celebrate his/her faculty in English and the general presence of English in India. And why do we need to assume that English language instruction would only be accessible to people with money ? That is not the case in government aided schools at all.

      4. My claim is that the plumber in Chennai will benefit from facility in English, this will open more markets for him/her among other things. More importantly he will definitely want his children educated in English medium schools.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:48h, 28 December

      Vikram: We are moving closer on some aspects of this discussion:

      1. We seem to be agreeing that English in India adds to the mobility in professions and services. But this should be separated from economic power. Nowhere do those in the professions and services control economic power. And the control of economic power is always held by a minority. In the US about 1% of households hold about half the national wealth. If your intent is to identify decision-making power (which is different from economic power) you would be more accurate.

      2. I agree with this conclusion. The point is where do we go from here? Suppose this was the case with some dimension of nutrition rather than education (the body rather than the mind)? Would the state have an obligation to the citizens in that case?

      3. I would be curious to know how current Indian history texts relate to Macaulay’s intervention in education. My knowledge could be out of date. The privileged always defend their privileges; the defense of English by those who are benefiting from it should be expected. But should that form the basis for a national policy? We can either argue on theoretical grounds or in relation to the existing conditions. If the latter, then one would have to admit that good education in English is out of the economic reach of the majority.

      4. I agree. Adding any skill should lead to improved prospects provided the benefits exceed the costs. But the point remains that communication skills are not dependent on knowledge of English and in a local economy (and the bulk of the economy is local) a rational employer should prefer a more competent person to one who knows better English. This is separate from the issue of what the plumber might want for his children, a point already addressed in #2.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 03:40h, 28 December Reply

    Conversation with my sister in law, who has two young children aged 3 and 7.

    V: Given the choice between an English medium education and higher quality vernacular medium education, what would you choose ?

    SiL: ENGLISH MEDIUM, no doubt.

    V: Why ?

    SiL: Confidence. (Gives an example of her relative who had trouble in her employment because she was educated in the Marathi medium, even though she learnt English)

    V: But some studies have shown that children learn much better with mother tongue instruction ?

    SiL: Yes, but whatever the quality of education at school we can make up for it at home. But vernacular medium severely affects confidence.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:56h, 28 December

      Vikram: Thanks for adding this conversation. What conclusion would you draw from it? Should early education in the mother tongue severely affect confidence? If it does, why is that the case and what is it telling us about society?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 12:35h, 28 December Reply

    I must confess that I find the argument for MTM a little absurd for India in its current phase.

    The studies cited at the end of the previous post arguing for introducing English later rather than earlier are all purely empirical. No scientific reason for this is mentioned. Maybe the studies can also be supported theoretically but, as Vikram and I have been pointing out, there are so many other overwhelmingly large factors to be considered that the argument becomes purely academic in the bad sense.

  • Mariam Durrani
    Posted at 04:48h, 29 December Reply

    I have just discovered this blog, but I am very intrigued by the topics of discussion and the diversity of participants. Hello all.

    I am going to start off with just a few comments, since it is my first time, and see how the conversation goes from there.

    To say there are many different social processes at play is a gross understatement, but that would be the case for any discussion on education, not just medium of instruction: historic debates, market demands, government policies, nationalist ideologies, etc. Also, I find this to be an unproductive place to start such a discussion since it can veer off into tangents quickly, which may themselves be very productive but not desirable at the moment.

    Mother tongue education, arguments for/against/ambivalent, is certainly an important place to start. Really I think it goes back to how a child makes meaning of herself and her world to begin with. I should point out that I’m not a member of the Chomskyian universal grammar camp. I think there are too many language varieties to account for in this world before we start coming up with any kind of universalisms or blanket statements about “language.” However that’s not to say that there is something to the connection between thought-language-reality.

    If anyone is interested, I would point you first and foremost to Whorf’s collection of writing on this topic. (Please read Whorf directly and not subsequent interpretations of his work.) In this, he offers what he calls “fashions of speaking.” What he means by that is that there are certain fashions of speaking in different language varieties that are particular to those speakers and their context. These fashions of speaking are not universal. He analyzes two very different varieties: English and Hopi, an American Indian language, to produce very stark differences in how each language’s speaker imagine time and space. However, that’s not to say that all languages are relative. I’m not saying that they are and that there is no point of contact. What I mean to say is that to discount how different people imagine their world is quite problematic.

    For an Urdu speaking child, even the way to refer about kin is starkly different than for an English speaking child. This difference in references can be said to have an effect on how each child imagines the importance of family or how family values become ingrained in her mind. When this child is in an MTM model of education, ideally these family and home values are privileged in the curriculum, but a monolingual model, or even weak bilingual model, may deprivilege this imagining of her world. What happens then is a debilitating effect on the child’s sense of self and how she measures herself to what is privileged in the class. The child becomes accustomed to a different way to think in the classroom versus at home. It’s hardly surprising that this affects their ability to “think critically” or other such vague educational outcomes.

    While I taught English writing and composition to LUMS students, I remember how passionately they could argue a point in Urdu or Punjabi, but the same student in English becomes robotic. After nearly 13 years of being force-fed a certain way of imagining the world, it’s not surprising, especially when the curriculum and textbooks are either 30-40 years old (matric system) or imported (O-A levels), on some level many writers living in Pakistan are still parroting imported ideologies from their own schooling days.

    Either way, the issue of medium of instruction is extremely important, but to start the discussion off at very abstract levels is difficult, at least for me. It’s helpful to look at how languages are used or spoken in the school. How do teachers use it? How do parents use it? How do other individuals or role models, in the media, on TV, in the movies? (This I believe is becoming more important, especially as many young people look to the media as they put together a sense of who they are and where they belong in this world.) How are different behaviors and comments, pertaining to languages spoken, rewarded or not? This all has very long term effects on the student’s conception of self and naturally a 6 or 7 year old will learn to adapt very quickly to survive, but surviving just barely.

    I will stop now. I can keep going, but I’m interested in how my comments are taken up. Looking forward. Thank you.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 22:20h, 30 December Reply

    Mariam Durrani,

    Thanks for your intervention in this discussion. While I think Whorf went too far, there are important differences between languages certainly, and this is why I argued for strong bilingualism as well as for the mother tongue for cultural and political reasons.

    LUMS is one of the best schools in Pakistan. Are you saying that students there are not fluent in English? I find this rather surprising. I knew a number of students from the Karachi Grammar School and found them all very comfortable in English.

    My point has also been that both Indians and Pakistanis have realized significant successes in the US and elsewhere where the primary language is English. Are you and Anjum saying that even these people are somehow deficient or that they could have been smarter with MTM? In my view, the medium of instruction is far less important than environmental factors like the quality of teaching, the nature of the economic system etc. It is a red herring to look so closely at the medium of instruction when what it adds is marginal.

    As Vikram has also been arguing in this post, it is just not possible to deny the demand for English in India among hundreds of millions of people.

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