Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India

Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India

by Sanjay Seth

View All Available Formats & Editions

Subject Lessons offers a fascinating account of how western knowledge "traveled" to India, changed that which it encountered, and was itself transformed in the process. Beginning in 1835, India's British rulers funded schools and universities to disseminate modern, western knowledge in the expectation that it would gradually replace indigenous ways of knowing. From


Subject Lessons offers a fascinating account of how western knowledge "traveled" to India, changed that which it encountered, and was itself transformed in the process. Beginning in 1835, India's British rulers funded schools and universities to disseminate modern, western knowledge in the expectation that it would gradually replace indigenous ways of knowing. From the start, western education was endowed with great significance in India, not only by the colonizers but also by the colonized, to the extent that today almost all "serious" knowledge about India-even within India-is based on western epistemologies. In Subject Lessons, Sanjay Seth's investigation into how western knowledge was received by Indians under colonial rule becomes a broader inquiry into how modern, western epistemology came to be seen not merely as one way of knowing among others but as knowledge itself.

Drawing on history, political science, anthropology, and philosophy, Seth interprets the debates and controversies that came to surround western education. Among these were concerns that Indian students were acquiring western education by rote memorization-and were therefore not acquiring "true knowledge"-and that western education had plunged Indian students into a moral crisis, leaving them torn between modern, western knowledge and traditional Indian beliefs. Seth argues that these concerns, voiced by the British as well as by nationalists, reflected the anxiety that western education was failing to produce the modern subjects it presupposed. This failure suggested that western knowledge was not the universal epistemology it was thought to be.

About the Author:
Sanjay Seth is Reader inPolitics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, and Professor of Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Subject Lessons is a very important contribution to understanding of the coloniality of knowledge and of being. Imperial control is mainly control of subjectivity, and the control of subjectivity is largely based on education, on the formation of those to be subjected. Sanjay Seth’s study of education in colonial India has implications far beyond the subcontinent. Touching on epistemology, politics (governmentality), religion (Muslims in India), the idea of the nation, gender and sexuality, ethics and history, Seth describes how the logic of coloniality has been and continues to be globally enacted.”—Walter Mignolo, author of The Idea of Latin America

Subject Lessons revives a field that has remained dormant for years: the history of education in colonial India. This in itself is no small achievement. But Sanjay Seth does a lot more than that. Weaving together history and philosophical critiques of historicity and modernity, Seth has produced a book that is at once thoughtful and provocative. This outstanding book makes an original contribution to postcolonial criticism.”—Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies

Ruth Watts
“[T]hought-provoking . . . further enriches the growing wealth of material on women’s and gender history and highlights the significance of educational history within it.”
Divya Anand
“Very rarely has the English education of colonial India and its contiguities been closely examined and problematized. Seth’s enquiry into the dissemination of western education poses larger questions about what we accept as history and historiography, modern and modernity, and more importantly, remains conscious of the inescapability from western epistemologies in knowing the world. . . . [A]n erudite starting point for those like me to critically examine the learning and unlearning of the canon from within the canon itself.”

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Politics, History, and Culture
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Subject Lessons

The Western Education of Colonial India
By Sanjay Seth

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4105-5

Chapter One

Changing the Subject

Western Knowledge and the Question of Difference

Presiding over the "Anglicist" policy in education enunciated three years earlier, in 1838-39 the General Committee for Public Instruction in Bengal declared, "the ultimate object which we have in view is to infuse into the student, possessed of talents and leisure, a taste for literature and science," all of which would "hasten the regeneration of the country." The committee noted with satisfaction that western education was proving very popular with the middle classes, but also noted: "At present, education is for the most part appreciated only for the direct returns it yields." As the "at present" indicates, the committee was hopeful that over time education would be appreciated for other reasons; and in the meantime, its instrumental value constituted a useful and even necessary inducement. But a few years later the same body observed that while many more students were entering and completing school, thus achieving their goal of attaining "the qualifications requisite to perform the mechanical duties of a writer [a clerk]," "our object to raise the character of the people by education and not by their purses is still far distant."

The ensuing decades did not lessen the distance. The tendency to treat western education as a purely material or pecuniary asset came to be bemoaned with increasing frequency in subsequent years. In an exam answer at the Elphinstone Institution in 1850 a student wrote, "it is painful to write that the objects of the natives to send their children to the Government school are not the same as those of the Government. Their object is that their children may get a living for them." Over half a century later India's eminent chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray, writing on "The Bengali Brain and Its Misuse," declared that a "diploma is judged by its monetary equivalent-as something which can be turned into cash." These and numerous others observed, and usually lamented, that western education was treated as a means to an end, seldom valued in and for itself.

This chapter seeks to document in all its richness a discourse which spans over a century and which was generated from across all the usual cleavages demarcating opinion-the authors of it were British and Indian, loyalist and nationalist, humble and exalted, official and unofficial. What I call the "complaint concerning instrumentalism" and the closely associated "anxiety of cram" did not only voice the concern that there was a failure in the dissemination of western knowledge. When read carefully, this discourse can be shown to implicitly register and articulate the anxiety that western knowledge was failing to produce the subject who was the counterpart to this knowledge.

Contemporaries suggested that this failure was occurring because Indian students were appropriating the new knowledge much as they would have appropriated indigenous knowledges. I shall show that indigenous knowledges indeed posited and produced a different relation between knower and known, or between what we have become accustomed to see as the subject who knows and the object which is known; and the conclusion to be drawn, it would seem, is that cramming and instrumentalism testified to the (stubborn) presence of another subjectivity, an indigenous or premodern one. Such a conclusion would at once allow us to explain the failure being registered in the discourse of instrumentalism and cram, and moreover do so in a way which recognizes and remains sensitive to the different ways of relating to knowledge, tied to different ways of being in the world. But the category of "subjectivity" has a certain normativity built into it, and the question arises of whether it can be reworked to accommodate different ways of inhabiting the world, different ways of being a "self." Do such historicist emendations of our categories allow us to recognize difference, or do they unwittingly substantialize and universalize the difference to which they seek to attend?

"The Pinnacle of Bengali Ambition" ... The Complaint of Instrumentalism

It was frequently commented that education was not only regarded solely as a means to employment but more narrowly still: that it was treated (in the words of Viceroy Lord Irwin) as a "turnstile leading into the arena of Government service." Western education was valued, according to an inspector for schools, because the natives had the idea that it would lead to "what is the highest pinnacle of Bengali ambition-employment under Government." In the early years of the new education a middle school certificate was enough for a lowly position in government service, but very soon the requirements began to escalate, leading to the ditty,

idil midil ki chodo aas leke khurpa khodo ghaas

Abandon the desire for middle school and the like, get a scythe and cut the grass.

A middle school certificate usually meant education to a certain standard in the vernacular. However, it was reported, such learning was not much valued, and it became progressively devalued once the acquisition of a government job of even lowly rank began to require more advanced qualifications, and hence education in English. Thus when the Despatch of 1854 sought to redress the earlier emphasis on education in English by urging that the "grant-in-aid" system be used to establish schools teaching modern knowledge in Indian languages, government officials reported that the middle classes were only interested in contributing to the establishment of English schools which might lead to government employment, and would "not lift a finger to aid in the establishment of a Vernacular School"; "they will be taught English or not taught at all." This lack of enthusiasm for western learning conveyed in the vernacular, compared to the enthusiasm for western education in English, was seen to betoken a hardheaded calculation that only an English education would lead to a government job of the right sort of rank and income. The Calcutta Review noted that "for vernacular schools of an improved class there is little or no demand," "a knowledge of English ... pays so much better than anything else, that it is the only thing much in demand." Even as the middle classes wanted only education in English, the lower classes, who were not in a position to aspire to government jobs and hence to an education in English, were widely reported to prefer indigenous modes of learning to the vernacular schools provided by the government; an inspector of schools in Bengal reported, "Petty shop-keepers and traders are satisfied with what the Gooroomohashoy [the traditional village schoolteacher] teaches, [and] can see no use in their children learning Bengali, Geography, or the history of Bengal." Muslim parents, as we shall see in chapter 4, were commonly thought to be resistant to sending their children to schools of the modern, western type, with many preferring to send their children to traditional schools that combined instruction in worldly matters with religious instruction.

A university degree-or indeed, even having sat for the matriculation exam for university entry and failed it-was a mark of distinction, but only, according to the Englishman, because of its instrumental use, for the natives do not "attach the smallest value to ... degrees, diplomas or certificates" issued by the University of Calcutta, "unless as passports to Government employment." Indeed, the suspicion was widely voiced that the knowledge which secured one these qualifications was regarded with a certain skepticism, by pupil and teacher alike. Stories abounded of schoolmasters who told their pupils to give the "right" answer rather than the true answer-"you must learn these things so that you may be able to give satisfactory answers to the Superintendent when he comes," one teacher told his students, "but God only knows whether they are true or not."

The alleged obsession with government employ could be explained in a number of ways. For some it was a symptom of the Indian middle class's regrettable, even reprehensible, aversion to manual or commercial employment: that itself could be linked to the excessively impractical and "literary" character of the education imparted, which fitted students for nothing other than government employ. For others, by contrast, the narrow and utilitarian character of the education that the colonizers gave their subjects made these subjects ill-qualified and ill-equipped to be anything other than underlings in the administration of the colonial state. Others would point out that the desire to seek a regular income and a secure job-the chief attractions of government employ-were perfectly reasonable and explicable given an underdeveloped and distorted economy, which afforded few other opportunities. As a speaker to the Kapole Students Union told his audience, "[government] service is one of the best sources of earning a livelihood without any capital."

Since an educated young man had the potential to acquire a secure job and a steady income, he was a very eligible marriage prospect. This meant that education could be translated ("cashed in") not only into an income, but also into a dowry: according to the Reverend Holmes, "It is a familiar fact that at each stage of his career a Bengali youth commands as bridegroom a price proportionate to the particular rung of the educational ladder on which he has succeeded in placing his foot. Should he have passed the matriculation, his father can command so much as his price ... but if he have passed the B.A., up goes the price; whilst the M.A., B.L's are the prizes of the marriage market."

Another dimension of the complaint I have labeled "instrumentalism" was that because education was seen only as a path to an income and perhaps a dowry, learning and even curiosity were seldom awakened. A "song of Calcutta University" published in the Statesman in 1904 captured both this lack of enthusiasm and an acknowledgment of the worldly benefits of education:

Shall we sigh for the souls thou hast deadened? Shall we blame thee for brains thou hast sucked? Shall we ask how thy records were reddened? Or plead for the hosts that are plucked? Thy slaves are all dead to enjoyment, And sombre and barren their lives;- But thou leadest them on to employment And dowries and wives.

Any intellectual awakening which did occur ceased, it was claimed, once the instrumental end was realized; nothing new was acquired, and that which had been acquired earlier was lost. Numerous commentators, Indian and British, complained that after completing their education, students declined to ever read or indeed even think. According to one pamphleteer, "There are hardly any such things as students in the proper sense of the term in our country ... people study for material gain ... for situations in life ... After getting into office they become like machines or worse still like fossils. They lose all interest in study." The most common explanation of this widely diagnosed condition was that instrumentalism flourished because Indians did not understand the character and significance of western education, including its transformative, regenerative powers. Education was what one acceded to because it was what the ruler required if one was to get ahead, not something embraced because one had come to value it or the knowledge that it produced. Instrumentalism was at once a sign that English education had been misunderstood and the particular form that this misunderstanding took: a subordination of learning to material concerns-jobs, marriage prospects and dowry-exogenous to education. Governor William Malcolm Hailey was adverting to something like this when opening the Punjab Educational Conference and Exhibition of 1926: "few of us would feel that education has exerted on the minds of the people at large that general stimulus, at once an awakening and a broadening of the mind, that we would have hoped to see. There is a general enthusiasm for the spread of schooling; yet paradoxically and unfortunately, people at large seem doubtful whether schooling in itself confers any lasting benefit on the scholar." In fact, Hailey went on, "one encounters the expression of a lurking feeling of regret that it should be necessary to adopt this somewhat mysterious device to hold one's own in the world; one finds even a feeling that the world would possibly be a better place if a man did not have to subject his children to a process which, for other purposes, seems to possess no very marked benefits of its own." There were of course those who pointed out that not all Indian students regarded education so instrumentally, or that to treat education as a passport to a job was hardly a uniquely Indian problem. The Indian student had his defenders, including British defenders. Many observers would note that instrumentalism was not unknown among British students, and Syed Bilgrami declared that the modern spirit of commercialism was responsible for transforming education into a commodity everywhere. W. A. Potter, addressing the assembled graduates of Madras University in 1873, told them that "an ideal man who loves culture purely for its own sake and into whose mind there never enters ... any idea of personal aggrandizement in the shape either of money or fame ... is not, I venture to say, the type of ordinary graduate in any country." But the critics would reply that while instrumentalism was not an exclusively Indian trait, in India it took on an exaggerated form. In England also, the Calcutta University Commission conceded, students tended to equate education with exams, and good performance in exams with worldly success: "But," the commission wrote, "we do not find that general closing of the ears and mind to everything that does not contribute to examination success."

"Copying Machines" ... The Anxiety of Cram

In 1902 the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, told the convocation of Calcutta University, "The great fault of education as pursued in this country is, as we all know, that knowledge is cultivated by the memory instead of the mind, and that aids to the memory are mistaken for implements of the mind." For more than fifty years on either side of this date, it was a constant lament that Indian students studied by "cramming," by which was meant not last-minute preparation but rather "getting a thing by rote, without understanding it or digesting its truth"; the technique was sometimes also referred to by students as "to by-heart it." The complaint begins very early, and it is made of primary schools as well as of universities, and of girls' education as well as boys'. It is not confined to British India, but is heard also in the princely states. Perhaps most important, it is an observation and lament made by the British as well as by Indians, by colonial officials and also by nationalists. One complainant, the principal of Elphinstone College, spoke for many when he pithily declared, "Cram is the great canker of [Indian] education." (Continues...)

Excerpted from Subject Lessons by Sanjay Seth Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sanjay Seth is Reader in Politics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, and Professor of Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of Marxist Theory and Nationalist Politics: The Case of Colonial India and a coeditor of the journal Postcolonial Studies.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >