For those who tuned in just now, we're talking about The Beautiful Tree, a new book by Prof. James Tooley arguing that the world's poorest people are turning to low-cost private schools throwing away free government schooling. Tooley takes India as an example to profess his theory, and one sees him arrive at wrong conclusions about the education system which prevailed in India before the British.
In the previous article, I argued that these low-cost private schools which Tooley is so fond of are good only until they don't discard mother-tongue education - which discarding they do openly and blatantly. This open defiance of the very fundamentals of good education does not seem to excite the slightest disappointment in libertarians like Tooley. Before I proceed further, I'd like to add that there's no proof that this phenomenon itself is happening at such a large scale as Tooley's book could have you believe.
Okay, now on to examining how beautiful the tree was, indeed. The term beautiful tree was metaphorically used by Mahatma Gandhi in a speech given at Chatham House,
I say without fear of my figures being challenged successfully, that 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 began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished.It is a well documented fact that Gandhi could not provide any proof of his claim about literacy in the above statement even after an 8-year long debate on the issue with a certain Sir Philip Hartog who did happen to succesfully challenge his figures.
Tooley borrows the term beautiful tree from Mr. Dharampal, a Gandhian who quotes the above passage from Gandhi in his The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century. Tooley's impression that the indigenous system was of a good quality is based singularly on the economical nature of the methods adopted. I am not denying that the methods were economical; but that alone does not characterize quality. In fact, in things that really characterize quality - and I will address those in this and future articles - our system was found pitifully wanting. Perhaps it is difficult for a libertarian mind to think of anything other than money and economics even when it comes to education?
I will argue that the tree, if it was worth calling it a tree at all, was certainly not beautiful.
Many others, notably Prof. P. Radhakrishnan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, have in effect argued that the tree wasn't really beautiful from a different point of view than what I shall presently employ for my proof: that of the exclusive nature of pre-British education wherein students of higher castes were preferred by the system. It is a well known fact that only the higher castes (chiefly Brahmins) got as far as what was termed as higher education. This is surely a serious flaw in the indigenous education system which the British did reform to some extent. At least, they recognized it as a flaw worth reforming – something our cultural programming had prevented us from doing from time immemorial. It is perhaps apt to refer to this flaw as the evil of social exclusion in the indigenous system.
However, my proof for the lack of beauty in the indigenous system is of a different kind and draws chiefly from two facts regarding the indigenous education system, the first relating to what was taught therein, and the second relating to how it was taught. Readers will appreciate that this is what characterizes quality, not simply the economical nature of the schools. These two facts - either acting together or independently - lend an ugliness to the system which remains even when the evil of social exclusion is removed, as has been done today in independent
Both these facts have been blissfully ignored by most commentators on Indian education prior to the British, definitely by Indian Nationalists, and certainly so by Tooley. Besides, the second of these facts applies more to South India than to North India, since the languages of
Tooley being immersed in libertarian economics and clearly uninformed about the principles that govern South Indian languages is content merely to seek how many of those schools existed and how economically they were run. The very term Indigenous Indian Education makes no sense unless one appreciates the linguistic diversity of
Not surprisingly, Tooley fails to attach the importance due to the statements of, nay even ridicules, Collector A.D. Campbell of
I will take a deeper look at the above two facts in follow-up posts.
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