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.


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.

This is an excerpt from the article that appeared in Himal Magazine’s January 2010 special issue on education in South Asia. The complete article can be accessed here.

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.


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2 Responses to “Macaulay’s Stepchildren”

  1. Vijay Says:

    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.

  2. Anjum Altaf Says:

    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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