The Significance of Lord Macaulay

My blogging is inextricably connected with Lord Macaulay. Indeed, the root of all this is my belief that even if India was made, the task of making Indians is still unfinished; an education that combine cultural confidence, economic emancipation and political imagination fit for nation-building is yet to be found. But, more directly, I caught onto blogging as I came across the well-known meme about Macaulay conspiring to destroy a prosperous India with English language, wrote a casual and rather amateurish post debunking it and then got drawn into a debate that continued for more than a decade. Truth be told, that engagement was central to how my interests changed from the technical nuances of delivering education to the cultural history of it and why I came to commit myself to history of ideas as my field of study.

But, then, it's not just a personal fixation; with the Hindu nationalists in ascendance in India, it has become a nation one. He is the bogeyman of English education, who wanted to create honorary Englishmen out of Indians, and as the new radicals contend, the Indian 'Left-Liberals' have become just that. He, as a cultural nihilist, has been elevated to the category of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, Sultan Allaudin Khilji and various other temple-destroying Muslim monarchs that ruled India. But, then, he is something more, equally hated by the Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan (members of Al Qaeda invoked Macaulay's name when they shot Malala Yousafzai for advocating that girls' education). Macaulay lives on as the after-colonies search their soul to find a way to cultural security and economic sustenance.

But, equally, it's time for me to bury Macaulay. As I engaged with the history of Indian universities, it was quite obvious that Macaulay's actual influence in Indian education was quite marginal. He was visible - he spoke with rhetorical flourish and generated immediate impact with Lord Bentick pushing forth with policy changes in the aftermath. A sober look would reveal two things: One, Macaulay was poorly informed and knew very little about what he was speaking about, and two, his views did not really matter and, despite Bentinck's headline grabbing action, nothing much changed. India never became Ireland, which was the model Macaulay and his collaborators may have had in their mind, nor the Petrine Russia, the model in the Liberal circles. Lord Auckland, Bentinck's successor, discarded most of Bentinck's policy in any case. The 'honorary Englishman' project was never a reality, as the empire became more and more racist with every successive generation. As Indians agitated for better jobs and the imperial administrators sought loyalty and compliance (particularly in the post-Mutiny years), the English-educated Bengali Babus, who were perhaps Macaulay's primary focus, were no longer to be assimilated. By the time Lord Curzon came along and sought to upend the Indian education policy all over again, Macaulay's legacy was truly dead and buried.

Part of the reason for this is that Macaulay misread the priorities of Indian education completely wrongly. The nineteenth century English bureaucrats wasn't after making an Ireland out of India. Their idealism fell far short of the evangelical fervour of the earlier generations and they were not about to bring European science to India, as Rammohun Roy and other Indian liberals hoped. The object of education policy was intricately connected with the mundane priorities of running the empire cheaply with locally appointed clerks, supervisors and lawyers and the brutal commercial priority of creating in India a market for English goods. The policy, before Macaulay got enthusiastic, was already spoken for: It was to be achieved through vernacular education at the school level, on top of which an English-style higher education would be 'engrafted'. Macaulay either did not know (which is unlikely) or did not understand this at all, and at any rate, he made no reference to this in his intervention. For him, all education in India was either Hindu or Muslim, either in Sanskrit or in Arabic, and it was against those imaginary spectres he laid out his case. He was about fifty years out of date.

Of course, Macaulay lived on as a bogeyman. But before we even consider what Hindu Nationalists say, it is worth looking at Lord Curzon's discomfort. Lord Curzon's efforts to rescue the Indian education from Macaulayism, by which he meant the narrow bookish education that went on at the Indian colleges, took Macaulay seriously enough. But the reason it was bookish was not because Macaulay mattered, but because he did not. The Macaulay ideal of making Englishmen out of Indians led to the choice of texts meant for English middle-class boys - Burke, Bentham and Mill among them - but post-Mutiny racism and pragmatic considerations of keeping order ensured that reading of such texts remain literal and as superfluous as possible. The rhetoric of Burke, rather than his ideas, was the subject of Indian education. Curzon's chivalrous crusade against the narrowness of Indian education eventually floundered on the rocks of bureaucratic realism, just as Macaulay's ideas did.

The reason why Macaulay is a totemic figure in the debate about Indian education is because how we write the history of education. Whether it's written as a global liberal narrative or a colonial nationalist one, the underlying assumption is that education remains at a separate cultural sphere, somewhat unconnected from the economic and political lives, moved along by great ideas. But the way education since the nineteenth century, in its state-sponsored bureaucratic avatar, evolved, the only human agency that is noticeable in its evolution is that of the bureaucrat. The ideals of education, which we spill so much ink upon, matter a lot less than the arithmetic of it. The most important questions in education were not the ones of character and destination, but those of class sizes and outcome. We love to see Macaulay, for good or for bad, as this idealistic statesman laying out a vision of benevolent empire, but the very fact that he was standing there to speak about a subject he knew little about was a matter of politics and bureaucratic necessity. No wonder he was the Law member of the Cabinet and was about to unleash the English-style penal code in India; that he would make a case of English education to produce enough lawyers who can read these laws and appear in the courts was very much foretold.

Therefore, I argue, that Macaulay matters but not the way we think he does. We should not be thinking in terms of Hindu, Islamic or Christian education when thinking about him; the great destruction of Indian education system that followed was not about an issue of Sanskrit or Arabic versus English. It was the moment of capitalist transformation of India, a bureaucratic state takeover of culture and education. To escape Macaulay, which India has to if it has to find its place in the world, was not to throw away English books and get back to reading Sanskrit texts; rather, it is about finding these structures behind Macaulay and taking the bureaucratic edifice down. Once we do that, we would be able to temper the determinist economic priorities that shape all Indian education today and find a way of reasserting Indian higher education in a manner consistent with Indian cultural life. 


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