Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” 1

This (in)famous minute on Indian education is a sample of early discourse on institutions and development

Macaulay argued in 1835 that providing education based on Sanskrit and Arabic in India is of no use for India’s development, and argued instead for education based on English literature. He envisaged creating, “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”. The Minute is based on an idea that English education is not just superior in ‘science’, but would also inculcate superior morals, etc. that were responsible for making the English superior. We can see in the Minute, an early precursor for debates to come on the role of institutions in development.

In a convincing talk, Quadri Ismail argues that when Macaulay’s produced the Minute in 1835, the notion of “culture” was not yet introduced in Anglo-American perspectives. That notion was forcefully introduced by works of Mathew Arnold and E. B. Taylor, first in 1867. Ismail argues that Macaulay had a notion of culture/civilization whereby societies could be evaluated on a scale of advancement and that culture in some sense is changeable (with western education, in this case). Contrary to beliefs today, Macaulay believes that ‘culture’ could be changed in other societies and could be modelled after the English. Quadri argues that this is due to his ‘unitary’ view of culture. The Minute is likely to be one of the early representations of the view that institutions (in this case, a version of culture, morality, etc.) matter for a society’s progress.

His characterisation of Indian languages and traditions is openly racist and represents an important danger that any discourse on institutions can get into. At the surface, it may look like the discourse on institutions today is different, especially with an emphasis in some quarters that societies are different and that each need to develop institutions that suit themselves. But we only need to scratch beneath the surface to see manifestations of racism and notions of “White man’s burden” that embody the discourse on institutions today. One example of this is a talk by John Agresto – the former higher education senior advisor to the Provincial Authority in Iraq. Argresto openly argues that Iraqis are not capable of loving each other beyond their clans and other ridiculous claims to argue that democracy is not possible in Iraq. (I believe some of these can be found in his book “Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions”). Parallels between the situation of Macaulay and Agresto are hard to ignore, and the it is almost scary to think what one’s work on institutions can do in the hands of those pursuing neo-colonial projects.

Of course, I do not believe that all discussions about institutions follow the same course. At the same time, the danger of overemphasising Western institutions and delegitimizing others cannot be ignored. There is also the danger of theories of ID being hijacked by for colonial projects as we are seeing in Iraq today. I wonder if it is possible at all to theorise the role of institutions without lending oneself to colonial projects, if yes, I wonder how.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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