In Defense of Lord Macaulay

Four men top the list of India’s least favorite British colonialists: Robert Clive, for the decisive victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) that established Company Rule in India; Thomas Macaulay, for the infamous Minute on Indian Education (1835) that aimed to create a class of Indians in the image of the English; Reginald Dyer, for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar (1919) that killed hundreds of unarmed Indians; and Louis Mountbatten for the shameful flight (1947) that hurried India into a horrible carnage.

Of these, only Dyer and Mountbatten are guilty as charged. Clive did well by his side and Macaulay, it can be argued, is badly misunderstood.

It is particularly important to explore Macaulay with more care and ask whether our verdict is colored by stray bits of evidence without looking at the details of the case.

Two selective quotes from the Minute are known to a lot of Indians:

I am quite ready to take Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one amongst them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.

And the even more infamous:

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.

On the basis of these, Macaulay’s detractors hold him responsible for the destruction of Indian education and the gap between India’s haves and have-nots.

Very few South Asians take the trouble to find out what the Minute on Indian Education was all about. Looking at the document, one might have to conclude that, despite the quotes cited above, Macaulay was an incredibly clear-headed and far-sighted analyst not afraid of advancing an unpopular opinion.

The Minute was concerned with the fund that had been set aside by the government of British India for the ‘intellectual improvement’ of its people. What would be the most useful way of employing the fund? And, more precisely: Which language should be supported as the medium of instruction?

Here, people immediately jump to the conclusion that, as the arrogant colonial, Macaulay recommended English over the local languages.

But that was far from the case. When Macaulay arrived in India, he was appointed President of the Council on Education. At the time, the Council was split (5 to 5) between the Orientalists who favored subsidizing the classical traditional languages that were not widely spoken (Sanskrit, Persian or Arabic) as the medium of instruction and the Anglicists who believed English the better choice for the future. The local languages were not part of the debate at all.

Macaulay cast his tie-breaking vote in favor of English. In the process, he engaged the Orientalists in vigorous debate that led to the quotations cited above. But the logic of his argumentation was quite impeccable and his analysis quite dispassionate. Even if he was wrong, it was not on account of blatant bias or prejudice.

Macaulay concluded that the commonly spoken languages of the time were not sufficiently developed for higher education. The choice was between Sanskrit and Arabic on the one hand and English on the other. In a remarkably modern analysis, he recommended that no subsidy should be provided for the study of languages that people did not wish to learn on their volition. Rather, “people shall be left to make their own choice between the rival systems of education without being bribed by us to learn what they have no desire to know.”

Macaulay voted for the retention of the Sanskrit College at Benares and the Mohammedan College at Delhi and considered that sufficient for the development of the ‘Eastern languages’.

In arguing his case Macaulay cited the history of language in England itself:

The first instance to which I refer, is the great revival of letters among the Western nations at the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. At that time almost every thing that was worth reading was contained in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had our ancestors acted as the Committee of Public Instruction has hitherto acted; had they neglected the language of Cicero and Tacitus; had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island; had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but Chronicles in Anglo-Saxon, and Romances in Norman-French, would England have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India.

Another instance may be said to be still before our eyes. Within the last hundred and twenty years, a nation which had previously been in a state as barbarous as that in which our ancestors were before the crusades, has gradually emerged from the ignorance in which it was sunk, and has taken its place among civilized communities. I speak of Russia. There is now in that country a large educated class, abounding with persons fit to serve the state in the highest functions, and in no wise inferior to the most accomplished men who adorn the best circles of Paris and London. There is reason to hope that this vast empire, which in the time of our grandfathers was probably behind the Punjab, may, in the time of our grandchildren, be pressing close to on France and Britain in the career of improvement. And how was this change effected? Not by flattering national prejudices: not by feeding the mind of the young Muscovite with the old women’s stories which his rude fathers had believed: not by filling his head with lying legends about St. Nicholas: not by encouraging him to study the great question, whether the world was or was not created on the 13th of September: not by calling ‘a learned native,’ when he has mastered all these points of knowledge: but by teaching him those foreign languages in which the greatest mass of information had been laid up, and thus putting all that information within his reach. The languages of Western Europe civilized Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar.

Whatever we may feel, it is a logically argued position and one that is not simply based on a bigoted neglect of reality. In fact, Macaulay’s decision reflected the sentiments of educated Indians of the time. Ten years before Macaulay wrote his Minute, Ram Mohan Roy, an Indian hero, had sent an appeal to the Governor General of India, recommending that the British India Government spend the money authorized by the British Parliament for the education of the natives on teaching western sciences to them, not Sanskrit or Arabic.

In any case, subsequent developments have not proved Macaulay wrong. South Asians after Independence have continued to prefer to learn English rather than Sanskrit or Persian or Arabic in their efforts to acquire the knowledge needed to improve their lives. No one has outlawed the acquisition of the latter languages but the market in South Asia has voted against them.

More importantly, Macaulay’s proposition to create an intermediate English class was nuanced and was not indifferent to the existence of the local languages. Referring to the ‘intermediate English speaking class’, Macaulay said:

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.

To some extent this was attempted for a time in the case of Urdu at the Osmania University in Hyderabad. But, by and large, the South Asian elite has failed to display much interest in the education of the great mass of the population.

In fairness, we cannot blame Macaulay for this failure. Where is the post-Independence Minute on Education that would have righted Macaulay’s wrongs and created the class of educated South Asians that we claim to desire? Sixty years after the departure of the British almost half of South Asia remains illiterate and the vast majority of the rest have to be satisfied with indoctrination instead of education.

How long will we go on ranting against Macaulay and hiding behind his infamous quotes?

What do you think? Was Thomas Macaulay right or wrong in his choice of the language of instruction for higher education in India? What, if any, were the flaws in the logic of his reasoning? 

For more on Lord Macaulay and the Minute on Education, click here. See also, Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?

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  • Aakar Patel
    Posted at 08:25h, 09 February Reply

    I have worked with newspapers in English, Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati.
    The readers of the English newspaper are fed commentary that is on average more balanced and less inflammatory than that of the others.
    The journalists who write in English appear to go through a process that softens their certitude and makes them more open to debate than those who write for non-English papers.
    Generally speaking, non-English journalists are quite unaware of the world because they have limited access to it. A Gujarati editor I worked with, and he is one of the three most senior and most respected journalists Ahmedabad, thought Urdu and Arabic were the same language.
    I think South Asians have voted with their feet on this one without doubt. Bombay’s municipality has problems filling up the Marathi/Urdu/Gujarati medium schools because everyone wants their kids to learn English.

  • Shahid
    Posted at 08:03h, 26 February Reply

    First of all, thank you for the wonderful piece. Its always a pleasure to read this kind of stuff because its an attempt to correct our distorted view of history, stuffed down our throats by government directed history textbooks. I am not sure where this insecurity about teaching an honest view of our history came from, but this says quiet a bit about the character of the people in whose hands we have entrusted our destiny.
    The background and the history of the speech by Macaulay is illuminating. Above all, it shows a man who was in stead with his times. He smartly sensed the changing world around him, and logically dictated the teaching of English to native Indians for their own good. His verbal jabs about native languages and value of its books are a bit misplaced, since the appeal for a certain language, writing and traditions has more than money behind it. But it can be forgiven if one assumes that his frailties were the same as of any other human being.
    As for English being the language to be taught, there is no alternative to it. The kind of progress that mankind has made since the rise of the nation states in the 15th century, the overall technological prowess of nations, and the march of history since that time have all been documented to a large extent in English. Our current day world revolves around this language, and it seems only natural that we should continue on with this. There is no harm or shame in learning it. Its a language, a tool for communication and expression, more than necessary in a world where homo sapiens are not confined to their home and country alone.
    On a personnel level, i’ve always found that trying to carry out everyday affairs in Urdu is always a cumbersome task. The kind of verbal (and muscular) modification required in speaking complex words and describing complex situations is beyond my capacity. I can easily say it in English, or a mixture of English and Urdu. In short, it makes life easier for me.
    So let’s celebrate diversity, and let’s forgo our biases. The world will be a much happier place if we can manage that.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 10:30h, 26 February

      Shahid: The reaction to Macaulay is intellectually lazy – people wish to express their opinions without feeling the need to study the context. When others indulge in this kind of sloppy thinking about us, we get very upset.

      On language, however, there is need to make a critical distinction – learning a language and learning in a language are two very different propositions. Not thinking systematically about this has imposed a huge cost on our society. I have made this argument here:

    • Shahid
      Posted at 11:12h, 26 February

      I was not aware of the subtle distinction you make about learning a language and and learning in it. Someone having a good grasp of these issues like you knows about it. But its always nice to get acquainted with new concepts and strands of thought. The view i expressed in my earlier comment were my personnel feelings.

      I wish i could get time to read into all this kind of stuff. But the struggle to survive keeps me occupied, as it does others. Not easy being a curious person, wanting to learn and debate more while being a father, family man and with office work to contend with. But i’ll make sure i read your blogs regularly. This is very good intellectual stuff, worth learning and thinking about.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:29h, 26 February

      Shahid: The distinction is very simple: Koreans learn mathematics in Korean not in English. Those who need to know English learn it later just the way we learn French if we need to. There is nothing that says maths can be learnt best in English. Indeed, quite the contrary – all evidence says children learn best in their mother tongue. If we go just by outcomes, Koreans are much further ahead than us so clearly language is not everything. The amazing thing is that there is so much evidence available yet our policymakers want to go with their off-the-cuff prejudices.

    • Shahid
      Posted at 16:46h, 26 February

      Agreed! I always found it more easier to comprehend technical subjects in Urdu or native language. But our policymakers….. oh well! Making informed decisions in light of evidence isn’t their forte.

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