"Beautiful Tree" and "Macaulay’s Axe"

A. N. Maheshwari

In October 1931 Mahatma Gandhi made a statement that created a furore in the English press. He said, "Today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and left the root exposed and the beautiful tree perished". Gandhiji could not, at that time, respond with statistics to the controversy that followed, but subsequently researchers and writers went into the records to reconstruct the history of education in the 18th and early 19th century. Shri Dharmpal, a noted Gandhian and historian, did extensive research and published his findings in the book entitled “Beautiful Tree”.

What was this beautiful tree which the British uprooted from the Indian soil and what was planted in its place?  Gandhiji metaphorically called the community based education system of the pre-nineteenth century the beautiful tree. Thomas Babington Macaulay in his “Minute of 2 February 1835 on Indian Education” made a case for the colonial Government for axing the beautiful tree and for introducing in its place the state funded education based on the pattern of education in England . The sapling that was introduced by the British in the Indian soil was the formal system of education for the specific purpose best described in Macaulay’s words, “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.”

 The school system introduced in India by the British as replacement of community village schools was based on the English pattern of education. It comprised of school buildings, trained teachers for teaching books decided by it, and supervisory staff for monitoring of its schools. School teachers instead of being gurus became government employees when their salary was paid by the state. In contrast the gurukul was the community maintained system of education of children by one of the learned persons from the community at his home. The teaching imparted by the teacher at the gurukul was contextual and around the values and life skills of the community. With the introduction of the formal schools set up by the state the ownership of the village school passed from the community to the state. What was being taught at the school was generally not relevant to the life of the community, therefore, the community not being familiar with the contents of the school subjects that were taught to its children found itself inadequate in monitoring the teaching-learning of its children. Also, as the community had no financial control on the functioning of the state’s school its involvement in the schooling of its children became marginalized. With time the community became fully dependent on the state for opportunity for education and what its children should learn.

 It was not easy for the state to replace the indigenous tree that was uprooted, as starting each new school imposed heavy financial liability on the state such as cost of putting up a school building, training of teachers competent to teach its curriculum and payment of salary to them. Because of heavy one-time investment and recurring financial liability which each new school entailed the number of schools that the colonial government could set up in the country in 150 years were grossly inadequate for meeting the challenge of universal education. The end result was that at the time of independence India's literacy rate was a staggering 11 percent. The post-independence governments continued with the colonial legacy of the state owned school system, which has remained unchanged even to date. State’s commitment to achieve universal elementary education within the first ten years of promulgation of the Constitution therefore has remained unfulfilled even today.

Articles of A. N. Maheshwari

Thomas Babington Macaulay
 "Minute of 2 February 1835 on Indian Education"

[On Indian Education]

“We now come to the gist of the matter. We have a fund to be employed as Government shall direct for the intellectual improvement of the people of this country. The simple question is, what is the most useful way of employing it?

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 maintains that it should be the English. The other half strongly recommends the Arabic and Sanscrit. The whole question seems to me to be, which language is the best worth knowing?

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. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is, indeed, fully admitted by those members of the Committee who support the Oriental plan of education.

It will hardly be disputed, I suppose, that the department of literature in which the Eastern writers stand highest is poetry. And I certainly never met with any Orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanscrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same.

How, then, stands the case? We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands preeminent even among the languages of the west. It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us; with models of every species of eloquence; with historical compositions, which, considered merely as narratives, have seldom been surpassed, and which, considered as vehicles of ethical and political instruction, have never been equalled; with just and lively representations of human life and human nature; with the most profound speculations on metaphysics, morals, government, jurisprudence, and trade; with full and correct information respecting every experimental science which tends to preserve the health, to increase the comfort, or to expand the intellect of man. Whoever knows that language has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations. It may safely be said, that the literature now extant in that language is of far greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together. Nor is this all. In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other in Australasia; communities which are every year becoming more important, and more closely connected with our Indian empire. Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.

The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach this language, we shall teach languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own; whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, whenever they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse; and whether, when we can patronise sound Philosophy and true History, we shall countenance, at the public expense, 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 up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.

We are not without experience to guide us. History furnishes several analogous cases, and they all teach the same lesson. There are in modem 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,-of 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 Sanscrit 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.

To sum up what I have said: I think it clear that we are not fettered by the Act of Parliament of 1813; that we are not fettered by any pledge expressed or implied; that we are free to employ our funds as we choose; that we ought to employ them in teaching what is best worth knowing; that English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit or Arabic; that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic; that neither as the languages of law, nor as the languages of religion, have the Sanscrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our encouragement; that it is possible to make natives of this country thorougly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed.

In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them, 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 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.”