Posts Tagged ‘Macaulay’

Education: The Myth of the Market

December 18, 2010

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. (more…)

On Being Stupid in English

December 5, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high social cost.

I thought of this once again on coming across a news item that the Punjab Government School Education Department had converted thousands of its schools into English medium all over the province from April 2010. The motivation for the move is stated to be “a bid to bring the quality of education in government-run schools on a par with private English medium schools.”

The issue of the language of instruction, like many other issues in Pakistan, has been hanging fire since the creation of the country, switching back and forth at the whim of individuals seemingly without recourse to any scientific evidence or critical thinking. No one has computed the costs imposed on society by the absence of a coherent policy over the course of half a century.

Not that this is a new topic. Much evidence is available from our own experience if one wishes to look for it. It was in 1835 that Lord Macaulay mandated the adoption of English as the medium of instruction in British India from the sixth standard onwards. Even at the time this ruling was questioned on theoretical grounds by Prinsep, a fellow member of the Supreme Council of India, 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.

Prinsep was over-ruled but, to their credit, the British themselves picked up the downside of the policy in their review of its implementation. The 1904 resolution on education policy was quite explicit in its conclusion:

“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.”

Over a century later, a 2010 British Council report on education in Pakistan reaffirms the conclusion and offers this major recommendation: “Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.”

We can indulge in our favorite pastime of looking for conspiracies. When the English told us in 1835 to learn in English, it was conspiracy to cripple our intellects and when the English tell us in 2010 not to learn in English, it is, of course, a conspiracy to cripple our intellects. This is a reflection of nothing more than our actually crippled intellects and our inability to consider any proposition on its theoretical merits or to be able to assess it against empirical evidence.

Take first the theoretical arguments. The primary objective in the early years is learning how to think and grasp abstract concepts. At that stage even addition and multiplication are abstract concepts and 7 minus 10 is an exceedingly abstract one. At this point, the most significant function of language is as a tool to facilitate learning. It stands to reason that the most effective tool would be the one with which the learner is most comfortable and in which he or she thinks about everything else in his or her world including discussing lessons with peers and parents.

Mandating the use of an unfamiliar tool is counterproductive because it unnecessarily adds an intervening layer of translation in the learning process. An assignment to subtract 7 marbles from 10 marbles requires both a translation of the commodity marble as well as an explanation of the term subtract or minus. Neither would need to be explained if the assignment were in the mother-tongue. (I am reminded of the equally ridiculous Pakistani college statistics texts that base their teaching on examples from baseball and poker.)

Even this very simple example illustrates the extra burden that can be imposed on a learner. Add to this the fact that the majority of the teachers teaching in English are scarcely more comfortable with the language than the students being taught and one can imagine the distortions that would be occurring in the learning process at the Government Boys English Medium Primary School, Jadeed No 1 Thatti Gharbi, Chiniot, which, according the news item mentioned earlier, the Punjab government has switched to teaching in English. The parents who are taking pride in sending their children to an English-medium school are in fact inflicting immense damage on their learning ability – they are making them stupid in English.

This is not to argue against the acquisition of a foreign language but to reiterate the point made at the very beginning of this article: Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high cost.

For those who are not at ease with cognitive theory, there is a lot of empirical evidence to consider. Look at the countries that have shown the most remarkable progress since the Second World War. Take Japan, South Korea, and now China as examples. None of them used English as the medium of instruction at the primary level; all of them used their native languages instead. This puts paid to the mindless argument that the learning in English is absolutely necessary to progress in the present times. If that had indeed been the case, South Asians would have been way ahead of East Asians because of their much greater fluency in the English language.

The reality is not only that South Asians are way behind in general development, they are much less innovative in science and technology than East Asians using any relevant indicator like the number of patents filed per capita. And this is because South Asians have lost creativity by learning in English, turning, by and large, into babus spouting Shakespeare rather than into innovative and critical thinkers.

The point is that while learning English is indeed important in our times, learning in English is not the way to go about acquiring the skill. Almost all the leading scientists from East Asian countries have learnt as much English as they need at a much later stage in life. And this reiterates the general point that a tool is most useful when it is acquired at the appropriate time. Giving a loaded gun to a child is not likely to yield a great shot.

Yet another way to look at this issue is to think of individuals we consider exceptional in recent South Asian history, say, Tagore, Iqbal, Gandhi, Faiz, Salam, Patras Bokhari, Nazrul Islam. We think highly of them because of their intellectual brilliance and their conceptual clarity. Yet, how many of them started their education in English-medium schools? All of them probably learnt English later in their lives which should provide comfort that such late acquisition is not a barrier to success. On the contrary, it is quite possible that had they started in English-medium schools they would have ended up amongst the hundreds of pompous District Commissioners that no one recalls any more.

The issue of the primary language of instruction is not one that should be treated with the casualness that has been demonstrated thus far. There is a very high cost to society in the general loss of creativity and clear thinking and through the creation of an artificial barrier to entry for many creative individuals not superficially fluent in English. Very soon this decision might not be left to the muddle-headed few who have risen to the top only by virtue of having been to English-medium schools and who have subsequently grossly mismanaged the country.

A shorter version of this post appeared as an op-ed in Dawn, Karachi, on December 3, 2010. For more on the implications of Lord Macaulay’s 1835 decision see the author’s article, Macaulay’s Stepchildren, in the January 2010 issue of Himal Southasian magazine.

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Macaulay’s Stepchildren

January 6, 2010

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. (more…)

Telangana Thoughts

December 15, 2009

The controversy in India over the proposed separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as a new state brought two thoughts to mind: the irony of history and the tyranny of fashion.

There is little argument that many states in India are very large in area and population – much larger than many countries – and that there is a good case that smaller units can lead to more effective and participatory governance. Thus the call for decentralization is credible and consistent with the fashion of the day.

But think back now to 1947: At Independence India had about a dozen provinces governed directly by the British and over 500 princely states governed by treaty with hereditary local rulers who accepted British sovereignty in return for local autonomy. Could you have more decentralization than 500 states that had a coherence imparted by the legitimacy of tradition? (more…)

In Defense of Lord Macaulay

October 19, 2008

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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