In this article we will discuss about the spread of modern education during British rule in India.

The British were more successful in the introduction of modern education. Of course the spread of modern education was not solely the work of the government: the Christian missionaries and a large number of enlightened Indians also played an important part.

For the first 60 years of its dominion in India the East India Company— a trading, profit-making concern—took little interest in the education of its subjects. There were, however, two very minor exceptions to this policy.

In 1781, Warren Hastings set up the Calcutta Madrassa for the study and teaching of Muslim law and related subjects; and, in 1791, Jonathan Duncan started a Sanskrit College at Varanasi, where he was the Resident, for the study of Hindu law and philosophy. Both these institutions were designed to provide a regular supply of qualified Indians to help the administration of law in the courts of the Company.


Missionaries and their supporters and many humanitarians soon began to exert pressure on the Company to encourage and promote modern secular westernized education in India.

While the humanita­rians, including many Indians, believed that modern knowledge would be the best remedy for the social, economic and political ills of the country, the missionaries believed that modern education would destroy the faith of the people in their own religions and lead them to adopt Christianity.

A humble beginning was made in 1813 when the Charter Act incorporated the principle of encouraging learned Indians and promoting the knowledge of modern sciences in the country The Act directed the Company to spend the sum of one lakh of rupees for the purpose. But even this petty amount was not made available by the Company authorities till 1823.

For years a great controversy raged in the country on the question of the direction that this expenditure should take. While one section of opinion wanted it to be spent exclusively for the promotion of modern Western studies, others desired that, while Western sciences and literature should be taught to prepare students to take up jobs, emphasis should be placed on the expansion of traditional Indian learning.


Even among those who wanted to spread Western learning, differences arose on the question of the medium of instruction to be adopted in modern schools and colleges. Some recommended the use of Indian languages, called vernaculars at the time, for the purpose, while others advocated the use of English.

Unfortunately, there was a great deal of confusion on this question. Many people failed to distinguish between English as a medium and English as a subject for study and between Indian languages as media and traditional Indian learning as the main object of study.

The two controversies were settled in 1835 when the Government of India decided to devote the limited resources it was willing to spare to the teaching of Western sciences and literature through the medium of English language alone.

Lord Macaulay, who was the Law Member of the Governor-General’s Council, argued in a famous minute that Indian languages were not sufficiently developed to serve the purpose, and that “Oriental learning was completely inferior to European learning”.


It is to be noted that, though Macaulay’s views betrayed prejudice against and ignorance of India’s past achievements in the realms of science and thought, he was on solid ground when he held European knowledge in the fields of physical and social sciences to be superior to the existing Indian knowledge which though advanced at one time had stagnated too long and lost touch with reality.

That is why the most advanced Indians of the time led by Raja Rammohun Roy fervently advocated the study of Western knowledge, which was seen by them as “the key to the treasures of scientific and democratic thought of the modern West”. They also realized that traditional education had bred superstition, fear and authoritarianism.

In other words, they realised that the salvation of the country lay in going forward and not in looking backwards. In fact, no prominent Indian of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries deviated from this approach.

Moreover, throughout the period of modern history the pressure exerted by Indians anxious to imbibe Western knowledge played an important part in persuading the government to expand its educational activities on modern lines.

The Government of India acted quickly, particularly in Bengal, on the decision of 1835 and made English the medium of instruction in its schools and colleges. It opened a few English schools and colleges instead of a large number of elementary schools. This policy was later sharply criticised for neglecting the education of the masses.

In fact, the emphasis on the opening of institutes of modern and higher education was not wrong. If for nothing else, a large number of schools and colleges were needed to educate and train teachers for elementary schools. But along with the spread of higher education, the education of the masses should have been taken in hand.

This the government would not do as it was not willing to spend more than an insignificant sum on education. To make up for the paucity of expenditure on education, the officials had recourse to the so-called “downward filtration theory”.

Since the allocated funds could educate only a handful of Indians, it was decided to spend the money in educating a few persons from the upper and middle classes who were expected to assume the task of educating the masses and spreading modern ideas among them.

Education and modern ideas were thus supposed to filter or radiate downwards from the upper classes. This policy continued until the very end of the British rule. It may also be pointed out here that even though education did not percolate downwards, modern ideas did to a large extent, though not in the form desired by the rulers.

Through political parties, the press, pamphlets, literature and public platform, though not through schools and textbooks, the educated Indians, or the intellectuals, spread ideas of democracy, nationalism, anti-imperialism and social and economic equality and justice among the rural and urban masses.

If the educational system acted as the carrier of these ideas it did so indirectly by making available to its recipients some of the basic literature in the physical and social sciences and the humanities and thus stimulating their capacity to make social analysis. Otherwise its structure and pattern, aims, methods, curricula and content were all designed to serve colonialism.

The Wood’s Dispatch (the document dispatched from the Court of Directors and popularly named after Sir Charles Wood, President of the Board of Control) of 1854 was another important step in the development of education in India. The Dispatch asked the Government of India to assume responsibility for the education of the masses. It thus repudiated the “downward filtration” theory, at least on paper.

In practice, the government did little to spread education and spent very little on it. As a result of the directions given by the Dispatch, Departments of Education were instituted in all provinces and affiliating universities were set up in 1857 at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the famous Bengali novelist, became in 1858 one of the first two graduates of Calcutta University.

For all the loud claims that it made, the Government of India under the Company and later under the Crown did not really take serious interest in spreading Western learning or any other learning in India. Even the limited effort that was made was the result of factors which had little to do with philanthropic motives.

Of some importance in this respect was the agitation in favour of modern education by progressive Indians, foreign Christian missionaries, and humanitarian officials and other Englishmen.

But the most important reason was the government’s anxiety to economise on the cost of administration by getting a cheap supply of educated Indians to man the large and increasing number of subordinate posts in administration and British business concerns. It was manifestly too costly and perhaps not even possible to import enough Englishmen for the purpose.

This emphasis on a cheap supply of clerks explains why the schools and colleges had to impart modern education, which fitted its recipients for their jobs in the westernized administration of the Company, and why these institutions had to emphasise English which was the language of the masters as well as the language of the administration.

Another motive behind the educational policy of the British sprang from the belief that educated Indians would help expand the market for British manufactures in India. Lastly, Western education was expected to reconcile the people of India to British rule particularly as it glorified the British conquerors of India and their administration.

Macaulay, for example, laid down:

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, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. The British thus wanted to use modern education to strengthen the foundation of their political authority in the country.

The traditional Indian system of education gradually withered away for lack of official support and even more because of the official announcement in 1844 that applicants for government employment should possess knowledge of English. This declaration made English- medium schools very popular and compelled more and more students to abandon the traditional schools.

A major weakness of the educational system was the neglect of mass education with the result that mass literacy in India was hardly better in 1921 than in 1821. As many as 94 per cent of Indians were illiterate in 1911 and 92 percent in 1921. The emphasis on English as the medium of instruction in place of the Indian languages also prevented the spread of education to the masses.

It further tended to create a wide linguistic and cultural gulf between educated persons and the masses. Moreover, because the students had to pay fees in schools and colleges, education was quite costly and became a virtual monopoly of the richer classes and the city-dwellers. For nearly one hundred years it was so very limited that it failed even to compensate for the ruin of the traditional educational system.

A major lacuna in the early educational policy was the almost total neglect of the education of girls for which no funds were allotted. This was partly due to the government’s anxiety not to hurt the susceptibilities of orthodox Indians. Even more it was because female education lacked immediate usefulness in the eyes of the foreign officials since women could not be employed as clerks in the govern­ment.

The result was that as late as 1921, only 2 out of 100 Indian women were able to read and write; and in 1919 only 490 girls were studying in the four top forms of high schools in the Bengal Presidency.

The Company’s administration also neglected scientific and technical education. By 1857 there were only three medical colleges in the country at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. There was only one good engineering college at Roorkee to impart higher technical education and even this was open only to Europeans and Eurasians.

At the root of many of these weaknesses lay the problem of finance. The government was never willing to spend more than a scanty sum on education. As late as 1886, it devoted only about one crore of rupees to education out of its total net revenue of nearly Rs 47 crore.

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