Master copy: How the Raj made us believe we were dumb

To go from Colony to Empire, the British had to change India's school curriculum and thinking

Master copy: How the Raj made us believe we were dumb
It takes some vision to lift one’s eyes from what’s below, to something lofty up above. An idea or, perhaps plain madness. For either, the realities on the ground have to be provocative enough to inspire such thinking. In post-colonial societies like ours, there is a difference between teaching and knowledge-sharing.

Colonial masters of the old British Empire slowly turned their presence in the subcontinent, into a mission. Initially, as the East India Company, they landed in India for the same reason as today’s western powers land everywhere and anywhere: for trade and profit.  Increasingly, though, they realised that places like India and China had civilisational roots buried thousands of years deep. As their view of the dusty subcontinental surroundings cleared, they balked at the poverty, a crumbling Muslim Empire and a pernicious caste system that violated their new found sense of equality. McCauley, in his “Minutes of 1835”  attributed such practices to “monstrous superstitions… false history, false astronomy, false medicine... in company with a false religion.”

Over time, it seemed to them that the folkloric ascent and glory of the subcontinent’s past civilisation was indeed over. What they saw around them were the crumbling relics of the past that functioned as artefacts of a surviving culture. It was even evident in the mournful reminiscences, refrains, songs and chants of the subcontinent’s orientals.
The sharp curiosities of the natives could be converted into admiration towards those who brought to them the benefits of England's Industrial Revolution: cars, cameras, telephones, watches, chandeliers and cinema

In Europe, the 18th and19th centuries heralded a radically changing mindset. European thinkers and doers were emerging from the Renaissance bathed in Enlightenment. Intellectual curiosity lit up their minds and an Industrial Revolution followed, whirring and clanking like a train in its wake. These pioneers were brimming with confidence, surging with pride over their self-emancipation as a Caucasian race. It felt like a spiritual contagion, so universal that they believed they were destined to emancipate all of Humanity. Already, after their travels to Africa, and to lands East of the African continent, they would allude to it jocularly as the “White Man’s Burden”. Indeed it went viral.

Owners of the British India Company rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of the British capital from the royalty down. Among them were many who firmly believed in their cultural and scientific superiority as a burgeoning Empire and as a society. During imperial visits of officials to India, their view from their fashionable balconies sometimes gave them pause. Stretching below were ancient cities bustling with inexplicable energy. The complexity of architectural design of their buildings, temples and mosques surpassed anything they had ever seen. Even in the poetry of the natives, as much as in their simple responses, they noted  the startling sophistication of indigenous thinking, their propensity to understand the new and, most importantly, their hidden expectations from the foreigners.

A new idea, (alluded to the genius of John Stuart Mill), dawned upon the colonisers: that a colony as big, rich and educable as what they saw below, could be the most prestigious extension of the British Empire, its “Jewel in the Crown”.

The Muslims were perhaps more suspicious. Having “been there and done that” during their six hundred years of rule, they relapsed into a spiritually morbid protest against their destiny. (It would be later captured in the powerfully evocative verses of Allama Iqbal). They recognised the Ruler syndrome in the British look, tone and body language. Some offered the colonisers other options e.g. to be their assistive partners in their cause. The Colonials respected, even appreciated it, but sensed more promising options opening before them. Their attention grew and converged on the majority population whose flickering interest in the new and the novel suggested promise. The sharp curiosities of the natives could be converted into admiration towards those who brought to them the benefits of England’s Industrial Revolution: cars, cameras, telephones, watches, chandeliers and cinema. News of all recent inventions, accompanied by rumours which had reached the subcontinent, were made via the private purchases by Maharajas and Muslim princes for their palatial homes.

Photograph of a Girls School at Bombay in Maharashtra - 1873 - Credit: Old Indian Photos

New ‘knowledge’

The transition from Colony to Empire was no mean feat. Adjusting their ideas to the task that lay before them took much thinking, debating and planning. To convert the subcontinent into an empire required acculturating the natives on a scale never tried by any nation before.

In conceptualising the school curriculum for the natives, the Colonials had two goals in mind. Both had to be achieved by the end of ten years of schooling:

The people of the subcontinent would cease to believe themselves to be a people who possessed the capacity to produce new knowledge. British scholars were growing dimly aware of Muslim traditions of empirical learning in which observation, clinical data and inferences guided the study of Mathematics, Astronomy and the Medical sciences. Much of it was being quietly smuggled to medieval Europe to be translated. It was important to pre-empt a revolt if natives were encouraged to pursue their  indigenous lines of traditional inquiry and learning.

The people of the subcontinent would regard their colonisers to be the main suppliers of all new knowledge to be consumed by them and their society. One could argue, logically (as some did) that in such a case, the translation of European works into indigenous languages would do the job. This was swiftly dismissed by McCauley (1835): “The dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that… it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. The intellectual improvement of those classes of the people… can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them.”
If the people of the subcontinent could not be helped to chew, swallow and digest New Knowledge in their own tongues, the next best thing would be to dress them up in the outer garments of English

What other language “not vernacular among them” could serve this purpose better than English? If the people of the subcontinent could not be helped to chew, swallow and digest New Knowledge in their own tongues, the next best thing would be to dress them up in the outer garments of English.

We know by now that colonial schooling turned rote-learning, a single cherry-picked learning stream, into a broad river running through the whole curriculum with tributaries  flowing into every subject. To achieve the goal of social acculturation in swift, effective ways, all the rote-learning had to be done in English. John Stuart Mill, as perceptive as ever, understood that knowledge of spoken and written English alone would not alleviate superstition, ignorance or poverty. There was plenty of the three doing the rounds in Medieval England’s city streets. In the words of the Orientalist, H. H. Wilson, Mill protested that “a command of the English language, sufficient for the ordinary purposes of life, is quite compatible with gross ignorance and inveterate superstition”.

And thus English came to pass into our lives and remains well-stationed to this day. However, when it came to teaching in English, the orientals had to assimilate stiff British ways, starched with brittle formalism embedded in the stiff upper lip. It should be noted that as a general rule then, and even now, what teachers lacked in socio-economic status, they gained in assuming positions of authority. It was very common in Britain, later in the US, for men and women born into blue-collar homes to convert to white-collar status by simply becoming a teacher.

Teacher’s mission

English-speaking subcontinentals were on the rise and teachers were being recruited for colonial Missionary (Jesuit) schools. The training ensured that most teachers knew their subjects better than they understood them. This was the norm in medieval Europe where schools were first established by the religious orthodoxy.

Rational thinking and reasoning in such schools was discouraged because it risked drawing children into arguments about matters relating to Divinity. The spirit of secularism rising on Europe’s horizon worried the orthodoxy to no end. They would never allow its agnostic spirit to contaminate young minds. A teacher’s knowledge of any subject was therefore  reduced to knowing factual information and rules that connected them. S/he was to carefully explain what the facts and rules meant exactly as printed in the text-books. The psychological power and authority of the recent innovation of printed words alone evoked blind biblical trust. Put together, all these restraints stopped students from trespassing into the authoritative territory of their superiors. Today we look upon such classroom practices as instruments of oppression in the exercise of power.

Consequently, in the subcontinent, English-speaking teachers in colonial Missionary schools used their English to exercise authority over their students. They were trained to adopt a neutral tone, an impassive face and speak with a Dickensonian inflecion that made students cringe. They taught by using intimidating body language, and lashed students with a voice as harsh as a whip. When a British inspector entered the class, his hands folded behind his back, his chest all pumped out like a soldier, barking orders, the same teacher’s anxiety levels peaked into the red zone. He would grow meek, timid, frightened and reduced to whimpering on the inside, but forced to maintain a calm but submissive demeanor on the outside. Just before the inspector departed, the teacher would rush explosively to punish any  student who had misbehaved (e.g. failed to answer a question) in the inspector’s presence. This show of power before both Inspector and student was important. Terrified students would clearly see the support and appreciation the teacher received from his superiors. The phenomena was institutional, not individual or whimsical.

Learning, not knowing

Rote-learning, as we know, required a lot of instructing, commanding, repetition, scolding and threatening. All in an English that adopted a stylised theatrical oratory, delivered almost always in strident, ringing tones. Brick by brick, the colonials introduced an alien form of linguistic and instructional formalism into the subcontinent’s schools.

Understandably, all European schools adopted medieval practices because they were medieval. No culture-shock there. As did a medieval subcontinent. What distinguished their common experience was the language of instruction. Europeans taught in their native tongues. In the sub-continent, students were being taught in an alien language and that too in such a formidable manner that it induced cognitive numbing in the learner’s minds. In Europe, rote-learning still managed to slip through to the brain’s cognitive receptors because it was in a language they could understand. What was understood could be decoded further for rational connection-making later. Facts and information, after all, have to be understood first, then stored for subsequent connection and meaning-making. This was not possible to do if facts and information were not understood in the first place e.g. if taught that “Man is a species” the answer to the question: “What is species?”  (“Man”) would be okayed by many teachers who themselves did not understand what “species” meant. The translation of concepts in the vernacular was strictly forbidden since it would prevent English routes of learning from being grafted as primary learning channels. Therefore, uncommon words of low frequency usage were embossed in memory as odd sounds to be stored and recalled for reasons that few understood. They were thrust inside the brain like mysterious elements passing through an elastic bottle-neck. Students took to it as young children would to anything that is “taught”. It’s what brains do best. They can learn drivel as well as they can learn wisdom. They swallowed it all in, or most of it, and regurgitated it under threat of dire consequences.

European children were spared this monumental folly. They understood the facts. Eventually, with some labor and hindsight, the brighter ones among them could  extrapolate the rules and turn learning into knowing. Not so in the subcontinent where learning by rote and regurgitating was more like consuming inedible food and expelling it. Little of any food-value was absorbed within the system. It took a generation or two of missionary school education to instal a psychologically programmed cognitive handicap in the English-medium school-going population: they “ceased to believe themselves to be of a people who possessed the capacity to produce new knowledge.” In this, the English-educated Muslim population of the subcontinent, lamenting their recent fall and protesting their destiny, were most vulnerable to the impact of such an education. They embraced the future with much courage. But in the process they also nursed the mistaken notion that “what cannot be cured must be endured” was a stoic,  angst-filled expression of secular thinking. But in the process they mistook the notion “what cannot be cured must be endured” to be a stoic, angst-filled expression of secular thinking.

Our great grandfathers who came out of English missionary schools hadn’t yet adopted the habit of extensively reading the works of European thinkers and philosophers. It was easier for them to look westward towards Turkey’s Ataturk. The Ottoman downfall was an obvious parallel. Turkey’s rapid adoption of western lifestyles and ways of thinking inspired them. But more than that, it served as a cushion to rest their weary heads on. They knew that like Turkey, they too had to make a new beginning, move on out of the Past into a new Future.

The writer is an Ed.M from Harvard University. He is a member of the National Association of Mathematics Advisors UK and has worked in Pakistan and Canada as well. He introduced Dyslexia and Math Learning Disabilities in Pakistan (1986) and set up the first Remedial Centre in Karachi, in 1987 (R.E.A.D.) @ShadMoarif