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02 October 2014
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Education: a beautiful tree - Part I
Contrary to popular belief, the Indian education system at the end of the 18th century compared more than favourably with the British system. Reflections by SIDH of Uttarakhand.
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February 2002: In October 1931 Mahatma Gandhi made a statement at Chatham House, London, that created a furore in the English press. He said, "Today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and left the root exposed and the beautiful tree perished". The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came with his programme - every school must have so much paraphernalia, buildings and so forth. There was no recognition for the village schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people. Gandhiji could not, at that time, respond with statistics to the controversy that followed but subsequently researchers and writers went into the records, mainly British, to reconstruct the history of education in the 18th and early 19th century.

The picture that emerges from the research work of recent years is only a resounding confirmation of what Gandhiji said in London. We now learn, with almost a sense of disbelief, that a large part of the country did have a sustainable education system, as late as even the early years of the 19th century, and that this was systematically demolished over the next 50 years or so. The present education system is, in effect, a legacy of the colonial rule. This system has perpetuated the notion that traditional societies were seeped in ignorance, superstition and rituals for thousands of years and lived a life of abject poverty, which was caused by an extreme form of social discrimination and exploitative socio-political systems. So deep has this notion seeped into our collective consciousness that, it colours the belief of both, providers of education as well as of recipients and aspiring recipients in our society.

Factual records gleaned from the notes of British officials in Indian provinces testify contrary to the prevailing views among the educated classes in our country. The Indian education system at the end of the 18th century compared more than favourably with the system in England about the same time. In all respects, be it the number of schools and colleges proportionate to the population; the number of students; the quality of teachers; the financial support provided from public and private sources; the high percentage of students from the lower castes, and the range of subjects taught; the Indian system of the time was in a better position than the British. We need to appreciate these facts, not with the intent of glorifying the past or to condemn colonialism merely but to help us sort out our goals and strategies today.

I draw upon Shri Dharampal's book. The Beautiful Tree, (Biblia Impex, Delhi, 1983} extensively to demonstrate this. Shri Dharmpal, a noted Gandhian and historian, did extensive research in India and abroad and draws mainly from British records of 18th and early 19th centuries. He draws heavily from the reports and writings of English officers (not historians) like Thumas Munro, John Bright, William Lam, and William Digby, Dr. G.W. Leitner and others. In 1812-13, Thomas Munro reported that for areas of the Madras Presidency "every village had a school". Later as Governor of the Madras Presidency he reviewed reports to estimate that "there is one school for every 1000 of the population".

William Adam, a former Baptist missionary turned Journalist, in first report in 1835 observed that every village had at least one school; and that there seemed to be about 1,00,000 schools in Bengal and Bihar in the 1830s. G.L.Prendergast, Bombay Presidency council member stated in 1821 "that in the newly extended Presidency of Bombay "there is hardly a village, great or small, throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, and in larger villages more."

In his report on indigenous education in the Punjab, Dr. G.W. Leitner, one time Principal of Government College, Lahore, and for some time acting Director of Public Instruction in the Punjab, stated that "there was not a mosque, a temple, a dharmasala that had not a school attached to it." These observations made in 1852 show that the spread of education in the Punjab around 1850 was of a similar extent to that in Bombay.

The Madras Presidency and Bengal-Bihar data concerning the background of the taught and the teachers presents a kind of revelation. The data is in sharp contrast to the various scholarly pronouncements of the past 100 years or more, which give the impression that education of any sort in India, till very recently, was almost exclusively restricted to the twice born among the Hindus and, and among Muslims, to those of the ruling elite. The actual situation was different, if not contrary.

In the districts of Madras Presidency and two districts of Bihar for which data is available, it was found that children from communities termed 'Sudras' and the castes considered below them predominated in the thousands. In the Tamil-speaking areas of Madras Presidency, 'Sudras' and 'AtiSudras' comprised 70-80 per cent of all school going children. Among the Oriya-speaking areas of the same Presidency, the percentage of children belonging to these two castes was 62 per cent; in Malyalam-speaking areas it was 54 per cent; and in Telugu-speaking areas it was 35-40 per cent. There were 11,575 schools with 1,57,195 children in Madras Presidency and there were 1,094 colleges. Nearly 25 per cent of all children used to go to school and a large percentage of children studied at home. The number of children doing home schooling in Madras district alone was 26,446 while in the city 5,523 children were going to school.

The situation in India with regard to education in 1500 (and it should be remembered that it is a greatly damaged and disorganised India that one is referring to) does not in any sense look inferior to what existed in England then; and in many respects Indian schooling seems to have been much more extensive. That the number of children going to school actually declined during the British period is revealed by one data of the Malabar area. Between 1822-1825 there were 11,963 boys and 2,190 girls going to school. Of these girls 1,122 belonged to Muslim families. In 1884-85, when the population had almost doubled, the number of Muslim girls going to school declined to only 705 while the population of Malabar had increased two-fold.

  • Part II of this series
  • Society for Integrated Development of The Himalayas
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  • Why did the "beautiful tree" wither away? The answer needs to be explored when we think of strategies of education. Dharampal in his book speaks of "the sophisticated operative fiscal arrangements of the pre-British Indian polity, through which substantial proportions of revenue had long been assigned for the performance of a multiplicity of public purposes.....which made such education possible; and it was the collapse of this arrangement through a total centralisation of revenue as well as political structure that led to decay in education, economy and social life." The fiscal arrangements which directly hit the support that education received from the community also demolished some traditional public arrangements-such as medicine, feeding of pilgrims and other services. We also must understand that before the early 19th century, when the system started collapsing, there was more or less a uniform standard in education throughout the country. We need to distinguish here between 'disparity' in standards (which is on a vertical plane, more to do with class distinctions) and 'diversity' (differences on a horizontal plane; differences arising out of the need of a particular region or community). In the traditional system there was diversity but hardly any disparity: Different textbooks and sometimes-different subjects were taught in different regions of the country. But the disparity in the education system which appeared in the country after 1835-when schools based on the English pattern were first established on a large scale-was non-existent till then.

    Prior to the arrival of English schools, private tuition for children, especially girls, was popular with the affluent classes, but there was not much hierarchical difference between one school and another. Glaring disparities started only when the British, at the invitation of social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, started opening English medium spools and gave them state recognition. This move automatically derecognised the indigenous system and created glaring disparities within the education system.

    The new schools began the process of alienation from one's culture, country and indigenous value systems, which had far reaching consequences. An alien system, which gets state and social recognition, serves two purposes. On the one hand, the people lose confidence and the will to sustain their own indigenous systems, as it is perceived to be an inferior system. On the other hand, they find themselves incapable of managing the new system perceived to be superior. They let the old system wither away and the state does not replace the old with the new. Hence they end up having no system at all.

    The new system initiating English education in India did not immediately take root. Meanwhile, over the years, people even forgot that they were capable of running and sustaining a perfectly sound education programme. They started depending more and more on the state run programmes, which they found of little relevance to their daily lives. They lost interest in learning and gradually Indian society, became more illiterate and less educated, as the English language became the measure of worth.

    A change has set in over the past two or three decades in India. People have once again become very aware of the need to educate their children, in particular the male child. But the reasons for this regeneration of interests are very different from the academic motivation of yore, monetisation of the economy being the primary cause. Education is considered important not only because the aspirations of the community here, as elsewhere, are being shaped by the market and urban middle-class values, but also because white collar jobs and 'education' have' got irrevocably linked.

    Where once education had meant freedom and building of interlinkages in social relationships, now it has come to mean the one and only route to jobs. A migrant worker compares the gross income of Rs. 1,500 or Rs.2,000 that he can earn in a city with the potential income in his village and finds the latter to be a pathetic amount. He does not take into account the cost of living-the amount spent on rent, transport and entertainment in a city. The non-monetised economy of the village and its benefits are also ignored, such as the cost of buying the grain which is grown in his own fields, the advantages of living close to the family and the like.

    Statistical data substantiate that migration has increased in areas where 'education' has spread. People are moving away from their traditional occupations and going away more and more in search of white collar Jobs. Village land lies fallow because the educated youth refuse to work in the field. Aspirations have changed and so have values. The present education system is largely responsible for this mindset and for moulding the thinking in a way that all worth is measured only in terms of money. The demand for English as a medium of instruction in the schools has increased sharply with the democratic ethos. What was once accepted as beyond reach is now within aspiration. Education, and in particular knowledge of English, is perceived as a means to getting a job and helping in the fulfilment of aspirations towards the good life of the urban middle class.

    (Concluded in Part II)
    Society for Integrated Development of the Himalayas (SIDH)
    February 2002

    [Republished with permission from Sindhu Naik of India Literacy Project (ILP). This article is the first in a series of two parts adapted from the original published as part of the ILP Partners Conference, July 2001. The paper was presented by Shoban Negi.]

  • Related: Part II of this series
  • Education issues on India Together.
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