How beautiful was the tree, anyway?

Two flaws severely limited the quality of India's indigenous education system before the British, and one of them continues to do so even today.

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, London, on Oct 20, 1931 to describe the Indian education system prior to the British (italics on the term mine):
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 India. The first of the facts I am to quote is no longer prevalent in today’s education system in states like Karnataka, but the second continues to loom large on it, thereby continuing to keep the system ugly. Those two facts are: (1) that it was severely limited to religious and ethical education with little or no focus on this-worldly sciences, and (2) that severely flawed methods were adopted in the context of language learning and medium of instruction.

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 South India are very far removed from the language which was generously employed in schools therein – Sanskrit.

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 India. Unknown to Tooley, the above two facts severely crippled the quality of our schools, notwithstanding the export of the admittedly good practice of monitors assisting teachers to England. And yes, it is a fact that it was the British who brought any semblance of secular education (education in this-worldly sciences) to Indian schools, and that is the very reason why Indians flock to the new system today.

Not surprisingly, Tooley fails to attach the importance due to the statements of, nay even ridicules, Collector A.D. Campbell of Bellary who gave the most detailed description of the second fact - the fact of unscientific methods adopted in the teaching of languages such as Kannada and Telugu - in reply to Governor Thomas Munro’s educational survey of the Madras Presidency during 1822-1826.

I will take a deeper look at the above two facts in follow-up posts.

<< Part 1 
>> Part 3

2 comments:

Bharatheeya said...

"Some of the districts also provided information regarding the language in which
education was imparted, and the number of schools where Persian or English were
taught. The number of schools teaching English was only 10, the highest being 7 in
the district of North Arcot. Nellore, North Arcot and Masulipatam had 50, 40 and 19
Persian schools respectively, while Coimbatore had 10, and Rajahmundry 5. North
Arcot and Coimbatore had schools which taught Grantham (1 and 5 respectively) as
well as teaching Hindvee [a sort of Hindustani] (16 and 14 respectively), and Bellary
had 23 Marathi schools. The district of North Arcot had 365 Tamil and 201 Telugu
schools, while Bellary had nearly an equal number of schools teaching Telugu and
Kannada. Table 4 indicates this data more clearly."
This means that there were non-sanskrit schools...

"In most areas, the Brahmin scholars formed a very small proportion of those
studying in schools. Higher learning, however, being more in the nature of
professional specialisation, seems in the main to have been limited to the Brahmins.
This was especially true regarding the disciplines of Theology, Metaphysics, Ethics,
and to a large extent of the study of Law. But the disciplines of Astronomy and
Medical Science seem to have been studied by scholars from a variety of
backgrounds and castes. This is very evident from the Malabar data: out of 808
studying Astronomy, only 78 were Brahmins; and of the 194 studying Medicine, only
31 were Brahmins. Incidentally, in Rajahmundry, five of the scholars in the institution
of higher learning were Soodras. According to other Madras Presidency surveys, of
those practising Medicine and Surgery, it was found that such persons belonged to
a variety of castes. Amongst them, the barbers, according to British medical men,
were the best in Surgery.44"
This means that it was not restricted to so called Upper caste and there was diverse higher education system.
The author of the above 2 paras gives enough letters and documents as reference.
Source : The beautiful tree

ಕಿರಣ್ ರಾವ್ ಬಾಟ್ನಿ / Kiran Rao Batni said...

@ Bharatheeya

Of course there were non-sanskrit elementary schools. Read what I have written carefully. I never said that there are no non-sanskrit schools. About the Kannada/Telugu/Tamil/... schools, the question is not of quantity, but quality (I will present an analysis in the next article).

But then again, high-schools used only Sanskrit as the medium of education, the teachers were all Brahmins and the students were mostly Brahmins (see the admission by Dharampal himself below...in the same para from which you quote:)):

From Dharampal's book itself, I can show that most of the collectors reported a Brahmin bias. I will quote a few here:

CANARA: Education is undoubtedly at its lowest ebb in Canara. To the Bramins of the country the Conkanny and Shinnawee and to the 2nd class of the former, the little education given, is confined. Amongst the farmers, generally speaking, and probably amongst one half of its population, the most common forms of education are unknown and in disuse, or more correctly speaking were never in use.

BELLARY: Besides these, there are twenty-three places of instruction, attended by Bramins exclusively, in which some of the Hindoo sciences, such as Theology, Astronomy, Logic and Law, are still imperfectly taught in the Sanscrit Language.

MUNRO'S MINUTE: In some districts, reading and writing are confined almost entirely to Bramins and the mercantile class.

DHARMAPAL's SUMMARY: Higher learning, however, being more in the nature of professional specialisation, seems in the main to have been limited to the Brahmins.


For further reading on the question of caste distribution, read the article by Prof. P. Radhakrishnan (linked in the article). Also, if there are any from your grand parents' generation around, just ask them. I did, and the bias is an accepted fact. It's so ingrained in our society that one can't deny it.

Now, Banavasi Balaga is not cribbing that this was the case. Instead, we are looking into what the reasons were, and how we can set things right. The two facts I've described above were both the cause and the effect of the preference given to Brahmin scholars.

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