Posts Tagged ‘Medium of Instruction’

Knowledge and Power

October 18, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Everyone interested in education knows Macaulay and his Minute on Education, the basis of the English Education Act of 1835, that determined to give the native population of India “a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language” because no one “could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Virtually no one knows the views of the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill who, for almost half his life, was associated with the East India Company. In 1836, he submitted a report titled Recent Changes in Native Education, which was approved by the Company’s Court of Directors but dismissed by the President of the Board of Control. His comments, locked away for more than 100 years, expressed his belief that it was impossible “to expect that the main portion of the mental cultivation of a people can ever take place through the medium of a foreign language”?

All the issues that engage us at this moment are there in this debate from almost 200 years ago — the desideratum of scientific knowledge, the non-availability of content in local languages, the best medium of instruction, and the process of mental cultivation.

Reading history is so humbling. Everything being said today can be found in the columns of the newspapers of those days, The Tribune and The Civil and Military Gazette from Lahore among them, debating heatedly the pros and cons of the Anglicist and the Orientalist positions.

Reading history is also so very sobering. Then, as now, when all is said and done, when all the words and wisdom have been exhausted, it is power that carries the day. What is decided on high is impervious to reason, argument, or the well-being of the recipients and driven solely by the needs of the ruling class. 

There are many fascinating dimensions to this bit of history. Compare Macaulay and Mill to begin with. Were it not for the Minute, Macaulay would be a footnote to history. Mill, on the other hand, was the most influential English philosopher of the nineteenth century whose On Liberty is still considered a seminal text today. But the ridiculous pronouncements of the former trumped the commonsense observation of the latter just as the footnotes of today override experts of the stature of Dr. Tariq Rehman.

Why commonsense? Because it takes half a minute of honest reflection to recognize its truth. Imagine a five-year old child from a village trying to understand addition in her own language or in English. Which alternative would she find easier? Imagine her narrating the day’s events in either language. In which would she be able to express herself with greater ease, fluency, and creativity?

The answers are obvious. Why then would we want the child to learn in English rather than in her own language? Is it because content is not available in her language? But what content does a five-year old child need to learn to add? Give her a pile of stones, a bunch of marbles, a few apples and she would do a lot better than reading out of a book. What content does she need to tell a story or talk about a butterfly or a frog or about the weather and when it would be time to milk the cow? And why one milks the cow in the first place and what happens to the milk after it is collected? Making five-year olds learn out of books is a poor and unimaginative choice.

What is given up when a child is taught in a language not her own? “Mental cultivation” as Mill had mentioned nearly 200 years ago. Instead of learning about things and ideas, the child is left struggling with an alien language, fearful of making mistakes, preferring silence to being laughed at, apprehensive of being tested on things that are not fully understood. This is the beginning of the road to memorization, to reproduction without understanding, to acquiescence instead of enquiry.

If all of the above is so obvious, why is it that parents want their children educated in English, the argument always cited, then and now, in support of English as the language of instruction? In preparing the Minute, Macaulay had said that “English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit (sic) or Arabic,” and that “the natives are desirous to be taught English.” 

The simple answer is easily deduced by a student of the history of education in colonial India: “By making English a necessary skill to gain access to employment in the higher levels of the Indian administration, an English education became something to which all Indians strove.”

The answer to the puzzle is obvious and lies buried in the distinction between the two functions of education — that of mental cultivation or learning and that of a passport to employment. Parents, especially those who are poor and without old-age security, invest in their children in the hope that the latter find good jobs in the market. To that end, they are willing to sacrifice mental cultivation especially when no educationist has made them aware of how high the cost is of the sacrifice.

The English had an obvious vested interest in creating a class of people who, English in all but name, would prove to be “loyal servants of the colonial regime.” But no such interest is at play in a sovereign nation where power is supposed to reside in the people. Why then do we retain English as the passport to good employment requiring such a huge sacrifice in mental cultivation of which all serious educationists have long been aware since the time of Mill? 

This is the real puzzle that requires an answer. Why don’t we just do away with the requirement of such a colonial legacy. China does not require it; Turkey does not require it; and they are considered successful countries doing far better than us. For all our English-speaking geniuses we can’t even collect our own garbage for which we need assistance from the non-English speaking Chinese and Turks.

So why do we continue to require English as the passport for decent jobs? Is it because colonialism has never really left our land? Is it because our neo-colonial masters wish to cripple the mental abilities of the people to keep them loyal, docile, and uncompetitive? Is it because power is afraid of knowledge? Meanwhile, just as in colonial times, there are Chief’s Colleges, quite distinct from the intellectually impoverished institutions for the natives, to reproduce and perpetuate the status quo. 

Surely, it should not be so in an Islamic country aspiring to the Riasat of Medina.

Quotes are from Patriots and Practical Men: British Educational Policy and the Responses of Colonial Subjects in India, 1880-1890 by David Thomas Boven, Ph.D. Dissertation, Loyola University, Chicago, 2017.

This opinion was published in The  News on October 16, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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SNC and Language of Instruction

October 11, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Almost every account of colonialism describes how the colonists planned to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. There was one system of education for those who were to rule and their abettors and quite another for those who were to be ruled. 

This narrative, undisputed in the colonies, is not extended to the postcolonial era where the aim of native elites remains unchanged — to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. In Pakistan, the grossly inept, iniquitous, and corrupt monopoly on power can only be sustained on the back of an unquestioning, dumbed-down population. Hence there is one curriculum for the masses while the ruling class is reproduced by schools outside its ambit.

This starkly obvious reality is muddled by airdropping several myths into the discourse none of which can bear the weight of evidence. The first pertains to the wonders that would result from packing even more religious content in the school curriculum. It cleverly manipulates societal values while ignoring evidence that religious education is not correlated at all with any indicator of development and not even with the value of goodness itself. The outcome of the Zia experiment should be sufficient to dispel the myth. 

The second myth is that a single national curriculum (SNC) would yield an equal, stable, and peaceful society. There is no example in history of a mere school curriculum yielding such lofty dividends. As it is, the lack of any serious commitment to the goal of equality is evident at the outset by the retention of schools that can bypass the SNC. Add to that the fact that instability in the country is almost entirely the outcome of conflicts between elites educated in the same schools under the same curriculum. That should be enough to expose the emptiness of the claim. 

While the aim of the SNC — dumbing down the population the better to perpetuate the rule of Brown Englishmen — cannot be camouflaged from any serious analyst, there are among the critics some who believe that teaching everyone in English, even under a SNC, can level the playing field and enable the masses to compete with the elite. Their efforts are thus diverted into a blind alley giving the SNC a free pass. Once again, there is no evidence from history of such an outcome from everyone learning in the same language. The USA is the most striking example of the fallacy of such a belief.

On the other hand, so much evidence has accumulated over decades that the languages spoken at home are the best for a child’s early education that one must wonder what is going on in the minds of the proponents of English as the language of instruction. On what basis can they argue for the proposition in the face so much evidence, both from controlled research studies and from direct experience of countries teaching in their own languages? 

All I can think of is that this is a manifestation of a perverse contrariness — because the elite is having its children taught in English, why should the masses be deprived of that privilege? This ignores completely the welfare of the child. The elite is the elite not because it can speak English but because it was either born or has bought its way into privilege. Even a cursory probing of Pakistan’s ruling class would reveal that speaking English has no correlation with superior wisdom. The proponents of English are prepared to sacrifice the intelligence of their children to satisfy a strange sense of envy. This ‘English Revolution’ — snatching English from the aristocracy — would be our non-violent equivalent of the French Revolution. I wonder what Gandhi would have to say of this approach to gaining equality. 

The other explanation relies on Khaled Ahmed’s distinction between Urdu as the language of ‘emotive walwala’ and English of ‘reasoned discourse’ on the basis of which he favours the latter as the language of instruction. Going by this hard-to-accept hypothesis, I can only conclude that the proponents of English, although educated in the language, continue, naoozubillah, to think in the vernacular. The solution might then be to aim for native fluency in English so that everyone can actually think in it and has no need at all to be held back by the malevolent burden of native languages. What a pleasure it would be to see our ministers transforming into little Shakespeares.

The evidence on what is the best language of instruction for a child is overwhelming and considered settled. Any critical engagement that does not feel compelled to take sides would arrive at that conclusion. What remains of interest is to figure out why there still are people who are not swayed by the evidence and think it is a subject on which they can start from first principles with their prejudices as the point of departure. 

This opinion appeared in The News on October 9, 2020 is is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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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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