Macaulay’s stepchildren

Anjum Altaf in Himal:

Sighting_atlaf 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. Today, he is castigated for his infamous comment:

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 tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.

This single sentence bears the burden of all the subsequent problems with education in India. It is a pity that the rest of the 1835 Minute on Education, of which this comment is a part, is left unexamined. Indeed, merely inserting the two sentences that immediately precede and follow the comment begins to add a layer of complexity. Part of the preceding sentence reads: “it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people.” And the one that follows states:

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 western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

From these three sentences, one could interpret Macaulay as saying that, given limited resources, it would be cost-effective to train master-trainers in modern methods to further disseminate knowledge to the masses – prescribing, in effect, a ‘trickle down’ strategy for mass education. Clearly, one cannot read into the text either an aversion to mass education or a rejection of vernacular languages, the charges most often levelled against Macaulay.

More here.