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Baron Macaulay's Revenge

Echoes of our modern culture wars, from the British Raj.

By Will Offensicht  |  January 2, 2019

Most of our SJWs, Occupiers, Twitter mobs, and other culture warriors take our technology for granted.  They might, barely, remember a world where you had to find a nailed-down phone somewhere to make a phone call - and that's assuming they know what a "phone call" even is.  Their world is one of bits and bytes which intersects with reality as rarely as they can arrange.

They don't understand or appreciate the vast complexity that brings them their daily latte - not just technological and industrial, but societal.  Indeed, our ability to maintain and extend our civilization is based on seminal long-ago decisions about how to conduct education in a distant part of the world - decisions which, today, they'd protest as white-supremacist, cultural-imperialist, and all-around Just Plain Bad.

But - unlike today's special snowflakes' vacuous programs, these ideas worked.

Successful Dead White Males

Thomas Babington Macaulay was a British historian and politician who played a major role in the introduction of English and western concepts to Indian education.  You've probably never heard of him, but two centuries ago he was the world's leading historian of the world's largest empire and most powerful nation.

Befitting his status as a member of Victorian England's elite, Baron Macaulay considered the British way to be indisputably the Way Things Ought to Be.  In the administration of the British Raj in India, he advocated replacing traditional Indian instruction in Sanskrit with English - despite there being many times more speakers of Sanskrit, to say nothing of multitudinous other subcontinental languages, than of English at that time.  His culturally-imperialist work inspired the phrase Macaulayism:

The policy of ostensibly eliminating indigenous culture through the planned substitution of the alien culture of a colonizing power via the education system.

In 1834, Macaulay was named as an inaugural member of the governing Supreme Council of India and spent the next four years on-site.  He saw himself as leading a "civilizing mission" to update or replace Indian technical culture, which he saw as stagnant and well behind mainstream European scientific and philosophical thought.  As he wrote in his 1835 "Minute on Indian Education":

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 taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. 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 the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

Britain accepted Indian independence on August 15, 1947, decades after Macaulay's death, but in academic circles his work remains controversial to this day.  Western liberals equate his cultural chauvinism with racism even though the two are very different.  In India, Hindu nationalists accuse the British of teaching a subculture of Indians to despise their original culture by eliminating classic Indian literature from higher education.  They desire to have their students study dead brown males as opposed to Macaulay's dead white ones.

Nevertheless, thanks to Macaulay's efforts, English became one of the 11 official languages recognized by the Indian government.  Despite the fact that it is not historically native anywhere in India, English has became the "money language" as English-speakers have become visibly more wealthy than people who aren't.

Just as Macaulay intended, many Indian-originated multinational conglomerates are based in London, and many others are run by executives who were brought up in the British education system.  ArcelorMittal and the Tata Group now own many companies both in India and abroad, and run their own educational institutions to make up for the deficiencies in the public education system.  Such businesses operate in English because that's the cheapest way to overcome the extra costs of the multilingual Indian environment.

India has so many widely-used languages beyond the 11 official tongues that it's hard to get an exact count.  We once worked with small software firm in Bangalore.  The firm operates in English because employees speak more than 50 different languages.  It doesn't care what an employee's "native" tongue might happen to be, but the company's language is English period, and anyone wanting a job there had better be prepared for this.

This has some interesting long-term effects: as in any place in the world where women are allowed in the workforce, office romances are common.  Because of the native-tongue diversity, though, employees often marry colleagues with whom their only common language is English.

If Mom and Dad communicate with each other in English, because otherwise they can't communicate at all, what language do you suppose their children learn as their "native" tongue?  As the Hindu nationalists fear, their children's connection to native languages and traditional literature gets weaker with every generation.

To be fair to Macaulay, the British East India company which oversaw the conquest of India found it as impossible to operate businesses in all the native languages as modern Indian firms do.  The question of whether English customs were superior to Indian culture was irrelevant - it was just cheaper for the Company to teach all the native staff English than for their employees to learn multiple languages.

The fact that the British had won a number of wars against their native rulers went a long way toward convincing ambitious Indians that learning English and applying British technology would be the path to success.

The Controversy

Perhaps surprisingly, the question of how to teach the young was as politically fraught in Macaulay's day as it is today.  His battles over how Indian students should be taught remind us of the "Common Core" battles in the United States.

It's important to note that although he was a cultural chauvinist, there is not a hint of racism in Macaulay's writing.  By way of reminder, the definition of racism is:

Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.

For all his pride in his English heritage and scientific accomplishments, Macaulay believed nothing resembling the definition of racism cited above.  He argued, perfectly correctly, that Indians were every bit as capable of learning, appreciating , and contributing to English poetry, literature, and science as anyone:

We know that foreigners of all nations do learn our language sufficiently to have access to all the most abstruse knowledge which it contains, sufficiently to relish even the more delicate graces of our most idiomatic writers.  [emphasis added]

Baron Macaulay had no reservations whatsoever about the raw intellectual ability of Indians or anyone else in the Empire: as people and as brains, they were fully the equals of any white man or Briton, with every ability to take advantage of educational opportunities presented to them.  The question of the day was: should science and literature be taught in English, in Sanskrit, or in Arabic?  It was generally agreed that most people in the part of the world under British control would have to be taught another language before they could be taught science or technology:

All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that 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, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be effected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them.

What then shall that language be? One-half of the Committee maintain that it should be the English. The other half strongly recommend the Arabic and Sanskrit. The whole question seems to me to be, which language is the best worth knowing[emphasis added]

As we at Scragged often do, Macaulay based his argument partly on the historical record:

We are not without experience to guide us. History furnishes several analogous cases, and they all teach the same lesson. There are in modern times, to go no further, two memorable instances of a great impulse given to the mind of a whole society, --of prejudices overthrown, --of knowledge diffused, --taste purified, --of arts and sciences planted in countries which had recently been ignorant and barbarous.

The first instance to which I refer, is the great revival of letters among the Western nations at the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. At that time almost every thing that was worth reading was contained in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had our ancestors acted as the Committee of Public Instruction has hitherto acted; had they neglected the language of Cicero and Tacitus; had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island; had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but Chronicles in Anglo-Saxon, and Romances in Norman-French, would England have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity. I doubt whether the Sanskrit literature be as valuable as that of our Saxon and Norman progenitors. In some departments, in History, for example, I am certain that it is much less so.

Another instance may be said to be still before our eyes. ... The languages of Western Europe civilized Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar.

As a supporter of individual liberty, he also argued from observed customer preferences:

This [the advantage of English] is proved by the fact that we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanskrit students, while those who learn English are willing to pay us. All the declamations in the world about the love and reverence of the natives for their sacred dialects will never, in the mind of any impartial person, outweigh the undisputed fact, that we cannot find, in all our vast empire, a single student who will let us teach him those dialects unless we will pay him[emphasis added]

Baron Macaulay was a government official.  The purpose of the discussion was to decide how the money the government planned to spend on education in India should be directed.  We must always keep in mind the unavoidable fact that, the moment government gets involved in supplying money for anything, it tends to assume total control.

It's interesting that in this early dispute over how education should be conducted, there were essentially no debates over the curriculum essentials.  It was plain to everyone that the government simply had to educate as many Indians as possible in the sciences and technologies that would be essential in making it possible for British expatriates to live in India in reasonable safety and comfort.  Thus, the only debate was about which language should be used for all this instruction.

Modern Americans not only debate what should be taught, we also have fierce battles over what languages to use.  For reasons which Macaulay would not have understood, American educrats advocate teaching immigrant children in their native languages.  New York City schools offer instruction in more than 50 languages, for example.

This not only boosts school costs, it delays students' integration into American society.  Macaulay would have been outraged!

So how did Baron Macaulay's plan for Indian education work out?  We'll take a look at that in the next article in our series.