Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, has been a much-reviled man in India for his famous “Minute on Education” speech in the British Parliament, which induced the then-Governor General of India, Lord William Bentinck, to stop state funding of Sanskrit and Persian, which were the official languages of India, and replace them with English.
This article explains why Macaulay’s sweeping reform in 1835 has been a great blessing for India and the Indian people, especially in today’s age of globalization where English is king, and makes the case as to why Lord Macaulay’s seminal contributions to India might even deserve India’s highest honor, the Bharat Ratna, if that honor can be conferred on a person who died so long before Indian independence.
Today, October 25, is a very special day.
It is the birth anniversary of an extraordinary gentleman who was born 218 years ago this day, and whose policies as an administrator in India had a tremendous positive impact on India 160 years after he instituted them, and still have a profound salutary effect on the economy, employment, and prosperity of Indians today: THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY.
A few words about this remarkable man may be in order on a day like today. Macaulay was a child prodigy, and was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal while a student at Cambridge. Apart from mastering most of the classics in Latin and Greek, Macaulay taught himself German, Dutch, Spanish, and French.
Macaulay was considered a great scholar, essayist, and poet. In 1842, he published his “Lays of Ancient Rome,” a set of poems about heroic episodes in Roman history. But probably his most famous literary work was his series of five tomes on the “History of England from the Accession of James the Second,” which is considered a literary masterpiece, and which he started in the 1840s, and the last volume of which was published after his death in 1859.
But Macaulay’s most important contributions came when he served on the Supreme Council of India between 1834 and 1838. In 1835, Macaulay presented to the English Parliament his famous “Minute on Education,” his proposals on the reform of the educational system in India.
Macaulay strongly argued for changing the medium of education in India from Sanskrit and Persian to English. He urged the then-Governor General of India, Lord William Bentinck (the man who had been responsible for abolishing the savage practice of Sati, or the burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, and for ending the thuggee menace), to reform Indian education so as to impart “useful learning” - by which he meant western education, with its emphasis on scientific thought and reason.
Macaulay correctly argued that Hindus who learn Sanskrit mostly learn absolutely worthless things such as rituals, chants, fantastic stories about Gods and demons, and the like, while learning little of practical value such as mathematics and science. In one of the most brutal (and somewhat unfair) assessments of Indian culture, Macaulay said,
I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.
Macaulay went on to disparage the poetry and literature of India, both those derived from Sanskrit as well as those derived from Arabic and Persian, and then proceeded to opine that the historical knowledge in these languages could not hold a candle to western scholarship in history.
And finally, in what was to have the greatest impact on India, Macaulay proceeded to say:
I feel... that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. 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 tastes, 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.
Macaulay’s views were accepted by Lord Bentinck, and in response Bentinck passed the English Education Act of 1835.
Macaulay’s final achievement in India was the creation of the Indian Penal Code, which is still followed in India, and has been the basis of the penal code systems in several countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.
Many Hindus today feel very bad about Macaulay’s sharp criticism of their culture and for replacing Sanskrit with English as the medium of education. People who follow a westernised lifestyle are often derisively called “Macaulay’s children.”
However, a lot of what Macaulay said about India and its educational system in 1835 was substantially correct, even if he did put it in a rather blunt way.
An educated person in India knew nothing about the tremendous advances in science that had been made in the west and that were responsible for the industrial revolution that helped England become a global superpower and helped Europe in general reach much higher levels of prosperity than countries elsewhere in the world.
While Macaulay was obviously ignorant of the greatness of Indian literature and poetry (as a person who did not know Sanskrit he could never have known the beauty of Kalidasa’s poetry, for instance), his recommendation has been extremely valuable to India from a utilitarian perspective.
Today, a city like Bangalore is full of foreign companies with their design, R&D, and software backend offices. This trend has been copied across India with other cities like Pune, Hyderabad, Gurgaon, etc. All this has only been possible because educated Indians can speak reasonably good English.
Knowledge of English is recognized by all Indians as the ticket to a better life. Today, it isn’t just the educated Indian: the flower seller, the maid who does dishes in the home, and the sweeper also try to educate their children in English. Even politicians who publicly urge people to study in their Indian mother tongues, such as the Thackerays or Fadnavises of Maharashtra, or the Yadavs of Uttar Pradesh, make sure that their own children get nothing but the best English-medium education. Studying in Hindi or Marathi is a recommendation they will make for others to follow; not for their own family members to follow.
One look at our giant neighbor to the east, China, will tell us what a boon English has been to India. China is a superpower and a technological powerhouse. It is technologically so advanced that in a matter of a decade it might well surpass the USA in technical excellence. Yet, it is India that is an IT powerhouse. Why is that? Because India has oodles of English-speaking software engineers who can easily converse with their American and European clients and solve problems for them. This is the reason why US companies like establishing R&D centers in India – you get qualified talent with whom you can communicate easily. And all this is a consequence of that historic and momentous decision in 1835 to make English the medium of education in India.
China is well aware of this shortcoming and is working hard to bridge this gap. In 2006, the number of Chinese students learning English as a second language (ESL) was about 2.5 million. By 2013, that number had grown to 300 million. The value of ESL training in China was estimated to be $4.5 billion in 2016, and this was expected to grow at a rate of 12-15% in the coming years. A journal publication in English Today, in 2012, by Wei and Su, put the number of Chinese who had learned English at 390 million. One of the big disadvantages China faces relative to India is that it was never a western colony, and so there are not many opportunities for Chinese learners of English to use the English they learn in these training courses. Storefront signs and street signs are mostly in Chinese in China, unlike India where road names and store names are frequently printed in both English and the local state language.
Macaulay’s decision has led to greater prosperity for millions of Indians today. His reasons for his decision are not important today. We may not agree with his assessment of India and its culture; but his decision has helped millions of Indians live a better life.
Macaulay’s decision has also helped the percolation of science down to those with no knowledge of English. As he put in his “Minute,” “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.” Terms of science from English have now penetrated every Indian language, and have, in turn, made those languages more scientific, relatively speaking, and more conscious of technology than they were prior to their contact with English.
It is important to understand why English is so important to the scientific and technological development of a country today. Modern technology, by and large, is a western accomplishment, and so most of the ideas of technology and progress are in western languages – German, French, Russian – but overwhelmingly, in English. One survey found that of the total number of scholarly journals, nearly half (45.24%) were in English, followed by German with 11.01%, Mandarin with 6.51%, Spanish with 5.66%, French with 4.94%, Japanese with 3.46%, Italian with 2.99%, Polish and Portuguese with 1.7%, Dutch with 1.48%, and Russian with 1.3%.
Another source (an article in Research Trends) says that 80% of the journals indexed in the indexing service, Scopus, are written in English. As the Research Trends article shows, even in a country with a storied tradition of science and scientific publishing in the local language like Germany, the current ratio of scientific articles published in English to articles published in German is something like 10:1. In the Netherlands, it exceeds 40:1, and in Italy the ratio of English to Italian in scientific articles is 30:1. Even when researchers publish a paper in French or German, the authors have to provide an abstract in English as well so that researchers around the world can understand it.
One can scream until one is blue in the face that somebody said Sanskrit might make a great computer language (see, for example, this link), but the fact is that nobody is writing code in Sanskrit today, and even people who do not speak English but speak other western languages such as French or German still have to program in English. You have “for loops” and “if statements” in programming, not “pour boucles” and “si déclarations” (French) or “für schleifen” and “falls behauptung” (German). (Apologies if my translations are off the mark - this is just to make a point.)
The Olympic movement has only two official languages: English and French. And the latter is simply a colonial hangover, from the time when France had a huge overseas empire. And while there are still many Francophone countries in the world, English has clearly overtaken French in extent of usage. And even in some traditional Francophone countries, such as Rwanda, English has replaced French as the language of choice. And the craze for English can go to extreme lengths, as this article in the Guardian reports:
The situation in east Asia is no less dramatic. China currently has more speakers of English as a second language than any other country. Some prominent English teachers have become celebrities, conducting mass lessons in stadiums seating thousands. In South Korea, meanwhile, according to the socio-linguist Joseph Sung-Yul Park, English is a “national religion.” Korean employers expect proficiency in English, even in positions where it offers no obvious advantage.
The quest to master English in Korea is often called the yeongeo yeolpung or “English frenzy.” Although mostly confined to a mania for instruction and immersion, occasionally this “frenzy” spills over into medical intervention. As Sung-Yul Park relates: “An increasing number of parents in South Korea have their children undergo a form of surgery that snips off a thin band of tissue under the tongue … Most parents pay for this surgery because they believe it will make their children speak English better; the surgery supposedly enables the child to pronounce the English retroflex consonant with ease, a sound that is considered to be particularly difficult for Koreans.”
There is no evidence to suggest that this surgery in any way improves English pronunciation. The willingness to engage in this useless surgical procedure strikes me, though, as a potent metaphor for English’s peculiar status in the modern world. It is no longer simply a tool suited to a particular task or set of tasks, as it was in the days of the Royal Navy or the International Commission for Air Navigation. It is now seen as the access code to the global elite. If you want your children to get ahead, then they better have English in their toolkit.
In India, English also performs the invaluable task of uniting the nation. Attempts have been made, and are still being made, to impose a north Indian language, Hindi, on the whole country, but they have been vigorously resisted by many, especially those in the state of Tamil Nadu, as an imposition of the language on those who have no desire to learn it. If you visited Tamil Nadu and knew only Hindi, you would have a rough time indeed, because the people there might speak English (albeit broken English), but many of them will not speak Hindi even if they know what you mean. Residents of other parts of India, such as West Bengal, also find Hindi imposition to be very offensive.
Although attitudes towards Hindi might vary across India, the general public all over India is very eager to learn English. Everyone in India views English as the ticket to a more prosperous life. You cannot get a job in a call centre helping overseas clients unless you know English. Ironically, in a country where politicians are trying to impose the language of the Hindi belt on the rest of the country, the common people of the Hindi belt are busy learning English.
A report by the British Council in 2012 mentioned from data sources that the size of the ELT (English Language Training) market in India was $2.76 billion in 2012, and was expected to grow to $4.7 billion in 2015. Notably, the report mentioned that English education among the K-12 segment (primary and secondary schooling) sector was growing at a CAGR of 31%.
The most backward communities in India, the Dalits (formerly called the untouchables or the backward or depressed castes), also view English as a ticket out of the oppression they have suffered for millenia. They view English as the tool that will empower them out of backwardness and ignorance, especially as their idol, the great Dalit intellectual who wrote the Indian Constitution, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, had mastered the language and studied for doctoral degrees in the USA and the UK.
182 years ago, Thomas Babington Macaulay took the decisive step of introducing English education to Indians and stop state funding of Sanskrit and Persian education to Indians. The consequences of that one sweeping move have been tremendous. While Indian languages might have suffered a loss of patronage and seen a decline in literary activity relative to what existed in the past, the introduction of English brought with it exposure to modern scientific ideas and became the bedrock of a modern nation-state when India finally became independent in 1947. In today's age of globalization, English has proved to be a powerful asset for a country like India, giving employment to millions of Indians. The IT sector alone today contributes 7.7% of India’s GDP, and it is fair to say that this would have been impossible without the widespread adoption of English in India.
English has not only been extremely useful for the economic upliftment of India; it has also proved to be an invaluable link language in India. Considering the prominent tensions about using any other Indian language (especially Hindi) as a link language, we need to expand what Macaulay regretfully stated in his vision for India in 1835: “I feel... that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern …” While that huge task (“educate the body of the people”) may have been impossible in 1835, it is certainly possible today, with the resources India currently possesses, to make English the national language. After all, if South Sudan, which hardly has any English speakers, but 50 different indigenous languages with Arabic dominating, could vote to make English their official language for reasons of national unity, there is no reason why India cannot. As this report explains,
“With English,” the news director of South Sudan Radio, Rehan Abdelnebi, told me haltingly, “we can become one nation. We can iron out our tribal differences and communicate with the rest of the world.”
One can only hope that one day, “With English,” Indians can iron out our differences of religion, caste, and language, and become one nation. And if that fortunate day ever dawns, our debt to Macaulay will be immeasurably greater than it already is.
Macaulay’s decisive step in 1835 has resulted in unimaginable positive benefits for India as a whole. And so, if at all it were possible to honour someone so far back in time, it might be a good idea to award the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, posthumously to Shri Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay.