Indian education: How India made Britain more literate

Image soucre:


by Aravindan Neelakandan

“It wasn’t India which improved its schooling system by imitating Britain’s. Rather, it was the other way round.”

New Delhi: Every Indian learns at some point about how India was educated by the British and how that brought about a cultural renaissance to a degenerated and stagnant India. This had allowed Europe in general and Britain in particular to assume the role of civilizing the heathen world. How true is this grand narrative of the civilizing mission of the British?

Linked to this, Indian students also learn how two centuries prior to the colonization of India, Europe had undergone a renaissance and Lutheran reformation.

The missing links

England also fared no better in the treatment of its labour population which was mostly hereditary. Illiteracy of labourers was intentional, justified with religious reasons. In 1807, in the House of Commons, a British scientist Davies Gilbert vehemently opposed attempts to school the masses claiming that the education for the labouring classes.

Education – as a tool for social control
Even those who supported education for the peasant labourer community considered it as a means of social control than any means of social emancipation of the toiling masses.

Often, education was taken up by churches and bundled with Sunday Bible classes. As such, the educational standards were abysmally low.

The teachers were chosen not for their expertise in the subjects they taught but how well they had “a thorough knowledge of the saving powers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.

The trends continued well into the nineteenth century and the malaise also affected the colonies. However, by the first quarter of the 19th century, there was another wave building up from London and its suburbs. And their origins were from the coasts of India.

Re-discovery of the ‘Beautiful Tree’

The remark by Gandhi at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, on 20 October 193, about the more literate India is today well-known thanks to the pioneering work done by Dharampal. The metaphor of ‘beautiful tree’ for the Indic educational system has become famous at least among the Indophiles. Sir Philip Hartog, the vice-chancellor of Dhaka University joined issue with Gandhi.

He commenced a correspondence with him, spanning almost a decade. Hartog was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of London in order to allay the rising feeling among Indians that the British systematically destroyed the indigenous education. His lectures were promptly published as a book.

Reports after reports that the East India Company had made in the early nineteenth century in an exhaustive survey of indigenous education system commissioned by Col T Munroe revealed a far decentralized, more egalitarian system of education than the one existing in contemporary England.

When Dharampal wished to publish his work the only person who was ready to do it was a Hindu nationalist historian and a publisher, Sitaram Goel. Dharampal’s book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ contains an 1823 report by Ballari district collector. The collector mentions a curious fact:

“The economy with which children are taught to write in the native schools, and the system by which the more advanced scholars are caused to teach the less advanced and at the same time to confirm their own knowledge is certainly admirable, and well deserved the imitation it has received in England.”

This is the British acknowledgement of Indian system being imitated in Britain. With respect to how the saplings of ‘the beautiful tree’ were transported and transplanted in India, Dharampal provides a mention of one Andrew Bell.

Carrying forward the work of Dharampal

Some decades after Dharampal’s work was published, James Tooley a British educationist was given a copy of “The Beautiful Tree” by an old book vendor in the old city of Hyderabad. That opened up new doors for Tooley who was already working on cost-effective quality education with specific focus on the developing countries. The result is a book titled “The beautiful tree: a personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves” (Penguin Books India 2009)

Tooley started with Andrew Bell who was a “reverend”. In the words of Tooley, as he researched on the life of this Rev Andrew Bell, what he discovered ‘seemed like dynamite’ to him.

“For they vividly showed how the ‘economical’ method of teaching in the private schools for the poor in India became translated into a method that transformed education in Victorian England and beyond.”

Rev Bell was in India to work in the asylum for the progeny of British soldiers through native Indian women, whom of course the soldiers abandoned. The imported teachers for these children were not exactly enthusiastic.

Tooley further elaborates:

“the cost-effective teaching methods used in the indigenous private schools of 19th century India were, in fact, a manifest strength; so much so…they were imitated in Britain , then across Europe and then the world and did so much to raise educational standards.”

Funding of schools in England, Tooley observes, was done through school fees and private schools for the poor were increasing in Victorian England. By 1851 of the 2,144,278 children put in day schools 85 percent were in private schools funded the same way the private schools of early 19th century India were funded. The horses of literacy were galloping in England.

But in India…

In India in 1854, Thomas Babington Macaulay had established his first school in India.

The rate of growth of literacy in India under the British controlled Macaulay education system began to fall way back compared to the rate of growth of literacy in Britain under the Indic method of private school enrolment. The Macaulay system itself needed 60 years to improve upon the enrolment figures of Indian educational system. Tooley observes wryly:

“If the dynamics of the India private education system had been anything like those of the parallel system in England we would have seen a much larger growth in enrollment than had the British not intervened at all.”

Macaulay system also perpetuated and amplified the social distances among the different occupational groups in India. Tooley states:

“Though Government spoke of the resentment of upper-class Indians the fact is that the British educational system in its very nature was elitist and often prevented people form lower strata of the society into echelons of higher education. It was almost a universal phenomenon of colonialism.”

It should also be noted that while British policy of education to masses was as a means of social control, the indigenous education in India was for empowering and liberating the individuals and the society.

But here the most successful social revolutionaries were all (Ayya Vaikundar, Sri Narayana Guru and Ayyan Kali – to name a few) those who studied in the native educational system.

The cost-effective universal education, which gave England its advantages over other European nations, also owes its positive features to that beautiful tree that stood in India, which as Gandhi stated was destroyed by the very British who benefited by it.

(The article was originally published in