Eras in Education – India, Part II: India’s Educational System in the Modern Era

When we as Canadians learn about our education system we usually start with what we call the colonial period. For us, this historical era entails the French and then British presence in our part of North America. In other parts of the world as in Canada, colonialism also involved the domination of indigenous cultures by occupying forces.

Natural resources were plundered, languages were brushed aside, and religions and customs were repressed. A few hundred years ago India’s civilization, dating back 10,000 years, came face to face with Western civilization, which believed itself morally, spiritually, and technologically superior. The physical and military power of the British Empire was translated into mental and ideological power as Indian children came into contact with Western education and culture. Young Indians? way of perceiving themselves and the world around them was irrevocably altered. ?Imperial control is mainly control of subjectivity, and the control of subjectivity is largely based on education . . .?

The British Empire ruled India from 1757 to 1947. In particular, the British East India Company had the power to take whatever salt, tea, and raw textile material there was a demand for in Europe. Part of the colonialist ideology of Western Europe was to ?civilize the world? and this meant bringing education (by which was meant Western educational methods) to the people.

The main reason Britain was in India was to extract raw materials, however, and this was reflected in an educational policy that promoted ?a cheap, trickle-down model for colonial education.? The British paid little regard to traditional educational institutions that operated at the village level and were ?maintained either from the income of some temple or from the produce of land set aside for the purpose in villages.? It is suggested that at the outset of the colonial period literacy rates were higher in India than they are at present.

In light of this fact it is understandable though ironic that ?it is from India that the British adopted the system for educating the masses? in a system today known as the Madras system. The reason the British sought a means of educating more people in England was that as late as 1845 ?3.2 percent of men and 49 per cent of women had to sign their names on the marriage register with a cross.? These high levels of illiteracy in the ?motherland? show the fictional basis of colonial ideology of a civilized race enlightening uncivilized heathens.

Probably the most famous Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, opposed the British colonial system because it had been created in opposition to India’s traditional values. He stated that the colonizers ?scratched the soil and began to look at the root and left the root like that and the beautiful tree perished.? In particular, Gandhi felt that the importation of British expectations that schools have ?so much paraphernalia, a building and so forth? meant that small rural villages (in which most Indians lived) would be unable to afford to educate their youth. It turned out that Gandhi was right: ?schools established after the European pattern were too expensive to fulfill a programme of compulsory primary education.?

By the time the British left India in 1947, the belief that education should follow the Western European model had taken root amongst the rising Indian elite. Instead of embracing ?Gandhi’s dream of reviving the ancient tradition of the village schoolmaster . . . the government chose to continue with efforts to educate the masses through a vast, centralized machinery and superstructure of staff, infrastructure, and resources.? The end result was the decline in rural schools taught by whichever elder the villagers held in esteem as an instructor.

In the immediate post-colonial period there were debates as to what form the nation’s education should take. Gandhi favoured small village schools teaching in the local vernacular, whereas another leader named Rabindranath Tagore wanted English to be the predominant langue because it could provide ?Indians access to the sharing of knowledge across international borders.?

The latter position won out, with mixed consequences. In order to provide schooling for India’s many villages, the Indian government set up some residential schools for rural Indians to attend. These were called Navodaya Vidyalayas and were composed of at least 75 per cent rural-born students as well as 30 per cent women and even members of lowers castes who under Hinduism would not have been granted admission.

The problem with residential schools was that ?seeds of alienation? were spread on account of the competitive nature of the instruction and the fact that students were being flung into a social environment very different than they were used to. Although taught by fellow Indians, the colonial ideology still prevailed in that an ?accent on competition and the constant stress on the individual as against the group? undermined social cohesion. The result was that students lost a sense of identity as part of a larger community and suffered from what the sociologist Émile Durkheim would call ?anomie.?

A sociologist named Sanjay Seth has studied the nature of India’s educational history. In a book titled Subject Lessons he writes of how ?western knowledge ?traveled? to India, changed that which it encountered, and was itself transformed in the process.? Seth notes that the colonizers fully expected that their ways of life and learning would ?gradually replace indigenous ways of knowing.? To some extent this has happened: ?today almost all ?serious? knowledge about India?even within India?is based on Western epistemological? perspectives. As a result of its totalitarian nature, ?Western epistemology came to be seen, not merely as one way of knowing among others but as knowledge itself.?

This is called metonymic slippage (as when a person asks ?what’s in your head? and means ?what’s on your mind? rather than ?what is your brain matter composed of?). Seth discusses how, as a result of losing a sense of education as part of a spiritual, holistic experience that provides the student with a sense of purpose, space, and community, the tactics of colonial epistemology caused a ?moral crisis? amongst young Indians. Ironically, this crisis shows that in fact Western knowledge is not ?the universal epistemology it was thought to be.?

Probably the biggest difference between the colonial history of Canada and that of India is that in Canada the majority of students today are of an ethnic background that can be traced back to the colonizers. In India the majority of students are of Indian background and yet still tend to be educated in ways that the colonizers brought with them. As this article suggests, the importation of foreign ways of teaching knowing does not occur unproblematically.

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