Let us look at how the British saw education, what they thought, and how some of the ideas of education that we now take for granted evolved in the last two hundred years. In the process of this inquiry, we will also see how Indians reacted to British ideas, and how they developed their own views about how Indians were to be educated.
How the British Saw Education: The tradition of Orientalism
In 1783, a person named William Jones arrived in Calcutta. He had an appointment as a junior judge at the Supreme Court that the Company had set up. In addition to being an expert in the law, Jones was a linguist. He had studied Greek and Latin at Oxford, knew French and English, had picked up Arabic from a friend and had also learned Persian. At Calcutta, he began spending many hours a day with those who taught him the subtleties of Sanskrit language, grammar, and poetry.
Soon he was studying ancient Indian texts on law, philosophy, religion, politics, morality, arithmetic, medicine, and the other sciences. Jones discovered that his interests were shared by many British officials living in Calcutta at the time.
Englishmen like Henry Thomas Colebrooke and Nathaniel Halhed were also busy discovering the ancient Indian heritage, mastering Indian languages, and translating Sanskrit and Persian works into English. Together with them, Jones set up the Asiatic Society of Bengal and started a journal called Asiatick Researches.
Jones and Colebrooke came to represent a particular attitude towards India. They shared a deep respect for ancient cultures, both of India and the West. Indian civilization, they felt, had attained its glory in the ancient past, but had subsequently declined.
Let learn more about How the British saw education and what they did. In order to understand India, it was necessary to discover the sacred and legal texts that were produced in the ancient period, so Jones and Colebrooke went about discovering ancient texts, understanding their meaning, translating them, and making their findings known to others.
This project, they believed, would not only help the British learn from Indian culture, but it would also help Indians rediscover their own heritage, and understand the lost glories of their past. In this process, the British would become the guardians of Indian culture as well as its masters. Influenced by such ideas, many Company officials argued that the British ought to promote Indian rather than Western learning.
They felt that institutions should be set up to encourage the study of ancient Indian texts and teach Sanskrit and Persian literature and poetry. The officials also thought that Hindus and Muslims ought to be taught what they were already familiar with, and what they valued and treasured, not subjects that were alien to them.
With this object in view, a madrasa was set up in Calcutta in 1781 to promote the study of Arabic, Persian and Islamic law; and the Hindu College was established in Benaras in 1791 to encourage the study of ancient Sanskrit texts that would be useful for the administration of the country. Not all officials shared these views. Many were very strong in their criticism of the Orientalists. James Mill was one of those who attacked the Orientalists.
The British effort, he declared, should not be to teach what the natives wanted, or what they respected, in order to please them and “win a place in their heart”. The aim of education ought to be to teach what was useful and practical.
So Indians should be made familiar with the scientific and technical advances that the West had made, rather than with the poetry and sacred literature of the Orient By the 1830s the attack on the Orientalists became sharper.
One of the most outspoken and influential critics of the time was Thomas Babington Macaulay. He saw India as an uncivilized country that needed to be civilized. No branch of Eastern knowledge, according to him could be compared to what England had produced.
With great energy and passion, Macaulay emphasized the need to teach the English language. He felt that knowledge of English would allow Indians to read some of the finest literature the world had produced; it would make them aware of the developments in Western science and philosophy. Following Macaulay’s minute, the English Education Act of 1835 was introduced. The decision was to make English the medium of instruction for higher education and to stop the promotion of Oriental institutions like the Calcutta Madrasa and Benaras Sanskrit College.