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.