Macaulay’s Stepchildren

By Anjum Altaf in Himal Magazine

Thomas Babington Macaulay, commonly known as Lord Macaulay, is widely recognised yet inadequately understood in Southasia. While the legacy of his ‘decisions’ is correctly criticised, that criticism is often for the wrong reasons. Macaulay served on the Supreme Council of India from 1834 until 1838, during which time he sided with Governor-General William Bentinck in the adoption of English as the medium of instruction from the sixth standard onwards. Today, he is castigated for his infamous comment:

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 tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.

This single sentence bears the burden of all the subsequent problems with education in India. It is a pity that the rest of the 1835 Minute on Education, of which this comment is a part, is left unexamined. Indeed, merely inserting the two sentences that immediately precede and follow the comment begins to add a layer of complexity. Part of the preceding sentence reads: “it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people.” And the one that follows states:

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 western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

From these three sentences, one could interpret Macaulay as saying that, given limited resources, it would be cost-effective to train master-trainers in modern methods to further disseminate knowledge to the masses – prescribing, in effect, a ‘trickle down’ strategy for mass education. Clearly, one cannot read into the text either an aversion to mass education or a rejection of vernacular languages, the charges most often levelled against Macaulay.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of resource constraints in the controversy over colonial education that was taking place when Macaulay arrived in India in 1834. At that time, he joined the General Committee of Public Instruction (GCPI), which was charged under the Charter Act of 1813 with “the revival and improvement of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences.” For the achievement of these aims, however, the Charter had assigned the meagre amount of 100,000 rupees to be appropriated out of surplus revenue. Such an amount could only go so far, and the GCPI was evenly split between the ‘Orientalists’, who favoured reviving India’s ancient culture via its traditional learned classes, and the ‘Anglicists’, who argued for transforming a stagnant culture through the introduction of modern science.

These two camps were not as far apart as they may at first seem. Both were in agreement on the objectives (the introduction of Western knowledge), the underlying principles (educating the masses in the vernacular languages), and the nature of the constraints (the inadequacy at the time of the vernacular languages for the teaching of modern subjects). What separated them was the question of means: how were the vernaculars to be revitalised given the limited funds available? The Orientalists argued for enriching them through the classical Indian languages (Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic); the Anglicists, for using English as the medium of instruction.

In this debate, Macaulay of course cast the tie-breaking vote in favour of the Anglicists. But it would be simplistic to think that this was either a whimsical decision or an objective, technical assessment. Colonial education policy was shaped by many contending forces in both England and India, and while Macaulay was certainly a central actor in this drama, he was by no means the author of the play. An analysis of these forces is essential to explain the past and provide a link to the present.

Our language, our learning
1803, the year the British graduated from being traders to being the sole rulers of the Subcontinent, was a major turning point in Indian history. The East India Company had preferred a ‘do not disturb’ policy opposing the introduction of Western knowledge, out of fear that it might jeopardise the lucrative status quo. India was to be managed through British officials whose deep knowledge of local languages and customs would, purportedly, enable them to emulate the Mughal Empire that preceded them.

Once Indians became British subjects, the changed relationship needed a new rationalisation, one that came to be termed the ‘White Man’s Burden’. Appreciation of India gave way to disdain, and zealots began clamouring to ‘bring light to darkness’ – to transform a static and degraded society through the infusion of Western ideas and practices. The movement was led by Christian evangelicals who, in 1813, were finally able to secure the right to undertake missionary work in India. By coincidence, 1815 became another key year in Indian history, as the end of the Napoleonic Wars spurred the opening of the overland route from Europe through Egypt, reducing travel time from England to India by more than half. The resulting influx of people included a disproportionate share of missionaries, thus setting in motion the events that culminated in 1857.

These dramatic shifts in British attitudes towards Indian society cast inevitable shadows on the thinking regarding education. Education remained in the service of politics (to promote the interests of the Empire in India), but the ideological ambitions (to establish ‘our language, our learning, our religion’ in India) continued to gain strength. By the time Macaulay arrived in 1834, the die had been cast – all that was left for him was to be enshrined in history as the one who made it official.

Two other intellectual trends need to be mentioned because they undoubtedly had a bearing on colonial thinking. Macaulay (1800-59) followed the economist Adam Smith (1723-90), whose very influential text The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, and the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), whose equally influential treatise on utilitarianism came out in 1781. Bentham’s influence can be seen directly in the recommendation of James Mill, an employee of the East India Company. In a dispatch on behalf of the directors in 1824, Mill criticised the GCPI policy of working through the classical Indian languages, arguing that the “great end should not have been to teach Hindoo learning or Mohamedan learning, but useful learning.” The purpose of education would certainly have been in Macaulay’s mind during his reflections on colonial policy.

Considerations of economy became relevant with deepening British involvement in governing India. There was a realisation that reliance on British expatriates versed in local customs would prove too expensive; thus, there was no alternative but to supplement them with Indians in the judicial and administrative services. Smith’s influence, meanwhile, was evident in the remarkably modern way in which Macaulay employed economistic reasoning to justify his decision – pointing to the fact that Indians themselves were evincing a preference for English over Sanskrit and Arabic, and concluding that the ‘state of the market’ should determine language policy. This was indeed true, as an increasing number of middle-class Indians aspired to learn English as a means of upward mobility, setting up an opposing camp to the Indian elites, who preferred to leverage their monopoly of traditional learning. They were joined by a group of Indian reformers who had bought into the British characterisation of a moribund Indian society – ten years before Macaulay’s Minute on Education, the Bengali intellectual Ram Mohun Roy had already argued for an English education, English in language and content, to revive Indian culture.

The outcome of this shifting balance of forces and alliances was that ideology and economics trumped considerations of governance. Macaulay subsequently used his oratorical powers to negate the mandate of the Charter Act for “the revival and improvement of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives of India” because, he charged, “a single shelf of a good European library [was] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” He transformed the mandate into a consideration of how the funds at the disposal of the government could be best used to promote learning, and boiled the choice down to the central question of “which language is the best worth knowing.” He voted for English over Sanskrit and Arabic because of its superiority as evidenced by a strong desire for English-language education in the Indian population.

Yet 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 was pointed out almost immediately by H T Prinsep, a fellow member of the Supreme Council, who asked how the English would have fared if they had been educated in Arabic rather than in Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe. Macaulay also erred (to give him the benefit of the doubt) in his presumption that the class of English-Indians to whom he was leaving the task of conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population would have any real interest in doing so. But the time for arguments had passed – Macaulay was only ratifying a fait accompli.

Half-understood catchwords
With the implementation of the new policy, the second half of the 19th century saw a rapid increase in missionary and private English-language secondary schools in India, whose graduates abandoned their education once they acquired enough English to qualify for clerical jobs. Meanwhile, elementary education in vernacular languages languished for lack of funding and support. The negative consequences became apparent as early as the turn of the century, prompting a wide-ranging review by George Curzon, who became viceroy in 1898. Curzon had no hesitation in attributing blame: “Ever since the cold breath of Macaulay’s rhetoric passed over the field of Indian languages and textbooks, the elementary education of the people in their own tongue has shriveled and pined.”

It is pertinent to quote from the resulting 1904 resolution on education policy:

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.

One can see here an admission of the requirement for a ‘sound’ education. But it is a matter of debate whether that recommendation was grounded in a sincere desire to educate Indians, or was simply a reaction to the fact that Macaulay’s policy had given rise both to an elite class of Anglicised Indians and to a larger mass of clerical workers increasingly disenchanted with their limited prospects. It is revealing to note that when the Colonial Office revisited education after the First World War, it determined to prevent the ‘unhappy results’ of English education in India from recurring in its African colonies, warning against the production of a babu-like class “imbued with theories of self-determination and half understood catch-words of the political hustings.”

Macaulay had argued for the use of English because modern science could not, in his opinion, be taught through Sanskrit or Arabic. Ironically, in the event hardly any science was taught in India at all – in addition to the babus, English-language education’s most notable product was lawyers. One outcome of Macaulay’s policy was that all the political leaders who mattered during the movement for Independence represented India but were not representative of India – rather, they were all Anglicised British-trained lawyers with whom the British felt at ease. As the political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta has put it, India’s political inheritance was “an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.”

Macaulay’s legacy was that Indian governance, by the time of Independence, was completely unrepresentative, with a class in power largely alienated from its cultural roots and the majority of its fellow citizens because of its education. It is hardly surprising, then, that 1947 brought little change in the parameters of colonial education, with the elite persisting in the belief that an English education, now abetted with technical skills, remained the path to modernisation. And while the churn of democracy is gradually changing the balance of power, the hold of the ancien regime still remains sufficient to stifle meaningful change. Today, the outcome is that almost half the Subcontinent’s population remains illiterate; the majority of the rest is poorly educated at best and indoctrinated at worst. Education is still subservient to the imperatives of governance (the need for a pliant population), ideology (the need to promote various nationalisms), utilitarianism (the need to serve the job market), and economics (the need to minimise expenditures). As a result, there exists a huge intellectual gulf and a lack of shared social values between the haves and the have-nots.

Of course, Pakistan and India have diverged in significant ways since 1947. In Pakistan, the ideological imperatives of the two-nation theory (and the subsequent attempt to transplant its cultural roots to Arabia) succeeded in destroying even elite education, while also radicalising a significant proportion of the country’s population. India has suffered largely from the benign neglect of mass education. Thus, while Pakistan has spiralled into a ‘failing’ state with an empty mind and lethal limbs, India has been described as a ‘flailing’ state, in which its very capable head remains poorly connected with woefully weak arms and legs. In both countries, Macaulay’s children continue to deny the place of education as a basic human right, the primary purpose of which is to enable all citizens to think independently for themselves. And Macaulay’s stepchildren have not yet found the strength to seize that right for themselves.

Anjum Altaf is an advisor to the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan. He moderates the South Asian Idea weblog.

This article appeared in Himal Magazine’s January 2010 special issue on education in South Asia and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.  Sources for most of the quotations in this article can be found in Stephen Evans, ‘Macaulay’s Minute Revisited: Colonial Language Policy in Nineteenth-Century India,’ Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2002. Himal Magazine left out this citation from the published version of the article.


  • Vijay
    Posted at 15:23h, 19 March Reply

    Your analysis is acute but I’m unsure what the alternative to the Macaulite project is. I’m a bit of a traditionalist on this matter. As we’ve failed to develop an indigenous language of statecraft and an indigenous language of the technical sciences, I can’t see a way out.

    On the other hand, subaltern assertion in India has ensured a gradual erosion of the power of the English language. Hindi is the language of political power, not English. We’ll probably have to come to some sort of messy modus vivendi on this. I think the borders between English and vernacular teaching in India are already blurred. I remember the mathematics teachers at my English medium school in Delhi would instruct wholly in Hindi. English would be an unwelcome intrusion.

    I would also imagine the disconnect between the haves and the have-nots in Pakistan is starker. The petit-bourgeoisie in India are really quite self-confident.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 02:02h, 23 March Reply

    Vijay: There were two essential elements in Macaulay’s project: that an elite be educated in English as he claimed that was the only language in which modern knowledge could be transferred; and that the elite would then develop the vernacular languages for the education of the masses. I feel that both these were flawed. The fact that English is important does not mean that it is the best medium for early childhood education of non-English speakers – there is a lot of evidence on that. And the incentive for the elite to educate the masses was never there in the the type of social structure that characterized India.

    There was no reason to expect Macaulay to have acted differently – British colonial interests and Indian national interests did not overlap. But we should have seen a significant change in education policies post-1947 and we didn’t. Some of the change might have occurred anyway in some places – re your mathematics education in Hindi – but the reach of an acceptable level of education remains severely limited. This too might improve in fits and starts and be distributed at random but a coherent vision of what school education ought to be like would be more desirable.

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