Education in our nation has been influenced by many, over a period of several hundred years. Knowledge has evolved, changed and transformed in various forms and finally become what we might call formal education in today’s India. Just like our traditions, inventions, discoveries and culture have shaped our education, so has external influences like that of Europeans, and most importantly, the British. One of the pioneers of promoting English education in India was Thomas Babington Macaulay, who had justified his preference for English education in India through his Minutes on Education, formulated on February 2nd, 1835.
Macaulay had started his argument by stating that the members of the Committee of Public Instruction decided to allot a specific sum for the revival and promotion of literature and encouraging learning among natives of India, and the promotion of knowledge of sciences among the inhabitants of British territories. However, according to him, the supporters of the Oriental system of education are resolute in their stand that the sum should only be spent on teaching Arabic and Sanskrit. Macaulay rendered the knowledge of those subjects useless and maintained that the fund should be spent on the spread of knowledge of English. Macaulay, in his minutes, clearly mentioned how Indian dialects are ‘rude and poor that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.’ In spite of claiming that he lacked adequate knowledge of Arabic or Sanskrit, he decided, after conversing with the natives and reading translated works that, ‘…a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ Macaulay also said, “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.” After a straightforward articulation of his perception of old Indian languages, he went on to discussing the greatness of his native tongue, which, according to him is abound with ‘historical composition’ that has ‘seldom been surpassed, and which, considered as vehicles of ethical and political instruction, have never been equaled’, also containing ‘full and correct information respecting every experimental science which tends to preserve the health, to increase the comfort, or to expand the intellect of man.’
Macaulay backed his stand using examples he thought considerable. According to him, just like English as a language considers Greek superior in the hierarchy of languages, Indian languages should consider English as placed on a higher rung in the hierarchy. Moreover, Russia, a barbarous country in the past, is presently catching up with Paris and London because of the influence the British education had on its people. Macaulay also flouted any claims of teaching Indian languages to its natives to achieve cooperation with them. He believed that the learners should not decide on the curriculum, but the teachers should. Moreover, English was the language of the ruling class of India. After a personal argument, Macaulay makes his claim more believable to the Governor General Council by adding information on money spent on teaching Arabic and Sanskrit. Besides education, about 20,000 rupees a year was spent on printing books for the same, the sale of which didn’t even yield 1000 rupees a year. On the other hand, the rulers not only covered up expenses of printing English books by selling them but also ensured a profit of about 20%. Macaulay didn’t however, stop after providing statistics, but also tried convincing the government that English education was the only necessary thing for the natives. He flouted all arguments that the knowledge of Sanskrit and Arabic is required for understanding religious laws in India, claiming that the lawmakers would come up with new, unified laws for the entire country in no time. He believed the natives would be taught ‘false history, false astronomy, false medicine because we find them in company with a false religion.’ Macaulay strongly claimed that the natives would be introduced to an inventory of useful knowledge through English and that was what the youth needed because most scholars from Sanskrit and Arabic schools plead to the government to give them jobs so that they could sustain themselves. If this was the case, Macaulay felt that it was better that the youth be educated in English, so that they could pursue a future for themselves.
Macaulay ended his argument by stating that it was impossible for the British government to educate the entire mass of people, so they would have to create a class of people who would act as a conduit pipeline between the government and the common mass. Macaulay expressed his desire to ‘at once stop the printing of Arabic and Sanscrit books’ and ‘abolish the Mudrassa and the Sanscrit College at Calcutta.’ These strongly opinionated minutes end with his despair at the present situation, where he stated that “I conceive that we have at present no right to the respectable name of a Board of Public Instruction. We are a Board for wasting the public money, for printing books which are of less value than the paper on which they are printed…for giving artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics…for raising up a breed of scholars who…live on the public while they are receiving their education (referring to the fact that scholars of Sanskrit and Arabic were paid stipends), and whose education is so utterly useless to them that, when they have received it, they must either starve or live on the public all the rest of their lives.”
This article is not an analysis of the ‘Minutes on Education’, 1835, but only a summary of Macaulay’s ideas and desires. This article does not contain any opinion of the author, nor comments whatsoever positive or negative.