I often check in with My Own True Love when I’m unsure about a blog topic.* When I asked him what he knows about Thomas Babington Macaulay he said “He sounds very distinguished.” I explained that Macaulay is best known as the most important writer of Whig history,** but that I think his real importance is his Education Minute. My Own True Love said, “He sounds like an obscure figure who has earned his obscurity.”
At least I don’t have to worry that this blog post is going to tell a story that everyone already knows.
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was a literary lion in the mid-nineteenth century. He was one of the most popular contributors to the Edinburgh Review for more than twenty years. His Lays of Ancient Rome was a smash hit back in the days when poetry led the best-seller list.*** His five-volume History of England was marked not only by Whiggery, but by great story-telling. In 1857 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Macaulay of Rothly–the first of Britain’s literary peers.
Like many writers, then and now, Macaulay needed a day job to support his writing habit so he became a lawyer. In 1834, he took the job of legal advisor to the Supreme Council of India and sailed for Calcutta, where his most significant and controversial contribution was his Education Minute.
In the 1830s, British administrators in India were butting heads over the question of education. In the early years of British rule, Englishmen in India were required to learn Indian languages, culture, and law so they could work effectively. New employees of the British East India Company hired tutors to teach them Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit as well as modern Indian vernaculars.**** The EIC supported schools where Indian languages and Muslim, Hindu, and English law were taught to Indians and Englishmen alike.
Around 1830, Evangelicalism and Utilitarianism were on the rise in England, bringing reform in their wake. Both “isms” were popular in the merchant classes that controlled the EIC, and their shared zeal for reform spilled over into the company’s administration of India. A new generation of administrators in India argued in favor of a “trickle down” theory of education: instead of taking on the overwhelming task of creating elementary vernacular education for the masses***** they proposed creating a western-educated elite.
Macaulay came down heavily in favor of Western education in his controversial Minute. After acknowledging that he read neither Sanskrit nor Arabic, he then made the breathtaking declaration that ” 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.” He then went on to condemn Indian learning as “medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.”
(And you are now saying to yourselves, “Not only is the man rightly obscure, but he’s a racist butthead. ” Bear with me a moment.)
But while Macaulay condemned the literature, he did not condemn the ability of those who wrote it. Many who supported the orientalist position on education suggested Indians were unable to learn enough English to understand western science, history etc. Macaulay argued they were wrong. He knew many “native gentlemen” who were able to discuss political and scientific issues in English with not only precision and fluency but with “a liberality and an intelligence which would do credit to any member of the Committee of Public Instruction”. According to Macaulay, the goal of western education was 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.”
Macaulay’s Education Minute was critical in the decision for western education for the elite.
But why does it matter, you ask me.
Because they succeeded. Britain educated a class of Indians who were indeed English in opinions, in morals, and in intellect–but not in rights. Indians who wanted a voice in their own government. And who finally demanded independence when they were unable to have equality.
* As those of you who know me In Real Life can attest, my sense of what is common knowledge and what is not is–unreliable.
** Whig history presents the past as the inexorable progress of mankind toward constitutional government, personal liberty, and modern science. Basically, it is the opposite of nostalgia for the good ol’ days.
*** The poems also had a long half-life in British schools. Children were forced to memorize them for more than a hundred years. The poems remain a permanent part of Britain’s cultural landscape. One much so that one of the stanzas was quoted in a Dr. Who episode. (“The Impossible Planet.” 2006). Now there’s fame.
****Many also hired Indian mistresses, probably a more effective way to learn the vernacular if not classical Sanskrit.
****Just to put this in context, widespread elementary education did not become available in Britain itself until after the Reform Act of 1867, which gave the vote to most urban working men. When the vote passed, one of its strongest opponents, Robert Lowe,turned his attention to education,saying “We must now educate our masters.”