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Indian education: How India made Britain more literate

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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

Next Story

To Exploit Mothers as Labor, North Korea is Reintroducing A Policy of Offering Free Preschool

Many North Koreans view childcare as a necessity, especially in the cities. But the North Korean government has attempted to assert full control over that as well.

Children attend class at Kyungsang Kindergarten in Pyongyang, North Korea. RFA

 North Korea is reintroducing a policy of offering free preschool classes to its rural citizens over a 10-day period in spring. But sources say the move is not out of benevolence—it is to prevent mothers from using their young children as an excuse to get out of being mobilized as farm labor ahead of the spring planting season.

The program, first introduced in the 1960s, has always been about the mobilization of mothers. In years past, local childcare centers were open to the public between the first and 11th day of the month that coincides with planting season.

Local markets are also closed during the same period. But most of the preschools had been shut down due to lack of funding or as a result of the widespread famine and series of economic crises between 1994 and 1998, now called the March of Suffering.

Estimates have put the death toll from starvation over the four-year period in the hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions.

Local sources told RFA’s Korean Service that the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party has ordered the reopening of the preschools this year, but many of the rural collective farms are having difficulty complying with the order because funding has not been restored.


“Ten-day preschool is coming back to a collective farm here in Yongchon county for the first time in 20 years. It will open later this month,” said a source from North Pyongan province.

The source said that the reason for the resumption of the program is to get the mothers of young children to do farm work. But many of the mothers who in the past have used childcare as an excuse to get out of planting were in fact working in family businesses on the sly.

“County authorities have told each town’s party committees to bring back preschools, but since there’s a lack of funds some of the farms are having difficulty with it,” the source said.

“If they are having a hard time getting oil and grease for farming tools, how are they expected to repair the crumbling preschool buildings and remodel their interiors?” said the source.

The source said that despite the difficulty, two of the preschools in the county have managed to reopen, but only because they are the most likely areas to be audited by higher authorities.

“A high-ranking official at the farms told the workers that if they leave their children at the preschool, there will be deductions from their fall allotment even for the food their children eat [while there,]” the source said. Pixabay

“[Only] the preschools in Yangso-ri and Tongshin-ri [have been restored.],” said the source. Ri denotes a small village or hamlet in Korean.

“Farm laborers are concentrated in those areas and there’s also the major road connecting Pyongyang and Sinuiju running nearby, so the Central Committee can come by to inspect at a moment’s notice.”

But the source also revealed that those two preschools needed alternative funding sources, as the government is not footing the bill.

“The military authorities collected money from the residents and helped the collective farms restore [the preschools,]” said the source.

While in other countries, the announcement of free childcare services would result in jubilation among parents, the source said this was not the case when a town meeting was called in Yangso-ri to inform the people.

“They told the workers that a daycare center and a preschool will be open for a 10-day period, and that they could leave their kids between the ages of 1 and 7 there to focus on their farming work. Then they threatened [the mothers] saying that they plan to document all child related absences. This created a very unfriendly atmosphere,” said the source.

Meanwhile, a source from South Pyongan province said that the sudden order to reopen preschools without funding them is making the collective farms scramble to do so. But unlike the case in North Pyongan, the source said the farms in South Pyongan are instead docking the pay of farm workers.

“Since the government isn’t providing any food or money [for the preschools,] the collective farms decided to deduct a certain amount of ‘operational funds’ from the fall ‘allotment’ of the farm workers. The workers have expressed their opposition to the decision,” said the source.

This deduction will apparently be more for parents who utilize the preschools, according to the source.

“A high-ranking official at the farms told the workers that if they leave their children at the preschool, there will be deductions from their fall allotment even for the food their children eat [while there,]” the source said.

An RFA article published in 2014 described how in an effort to ‘standardize the state education system’ the regime ordered the immediate closure of all privately run day care facilities, deeming them illegal. Pixabay

“[The workers] are resentful of the authorities, saying that [the policy] is meant to keep young women work in the farms, and to be able to justify treating them as if they were slaves.”

Many North Koreans view childcare as a necessity, especially in the cities. But the North Korean government has attempted to assert full control over that as well.

Also Read: 7 out of 10 Women Cheat on Spouses in India: Survey

An RFA article published in 2014 described how in an effort to ‘standardize the state education system’ the regime ordered the immediate closure of all privately run day care facilities, deeming them illegal.

But in that case as well, the state had been unable to adequately distribute food and fuel to the schools starting in the 1990s, leaving the schools unfit to accommodate small children, according to sources. (RFA)