Unscientific approach to language continues to keep the tree ugly

The science of linguistics exposes this flaw, and can help make the system truly beautiful!

Okay, now on to the second flaw which made the tree ugly. I have already said what it is, in brief: it is the flaw of applying highly unscientific methods in language education and in the medium of instruction, most conspicuous in South India. I have also argued that this is an offshoot of the first flaw in some sense, and that most commentators on Indigenous Indian Education have failed to see this because of being either ignorant or repentant of the inherent linguistic differences between North Indian and South Indian languages. Also, it was the British who seem to have recorded the first negative criticism about these unscientific methods, while we Indians seemed to be very happy living in the darkness which had dissolved reason. I am referring to the responses to Governor Thomas Munro's educational survey of the Madras Presidency in 1822-26. An understanding of this second flaw is all the more important today since it continues to plague today's education system.

I wish to add a disclaimer, once more, that I can only speak for education in the Kannada medium in terms of this second flaw, because as a Kannadiga it is Kannada and the Kannadigas that I have studied most. This does not mean that this second flaw did not (or does not) corrupt education of the speakers of other South Indian languages - I believe it very likely did (and continues to do). However, it is the task of my friends in the other South Indian states to take up this research and ascertain for themselves to what extent this did corrupt their education systems before the British, and if it continues to corrupt today. I believe Tamil Nadu is somewhat relieved from this second flaw today, although it has at its own peril become a linguistic island - a decadence which could have been avoided by, again, nothing other than the application of reason.

If I may hazard a guess, this second flaw was probably not so much a corrupting agent when it came to education in the languages of North India, and could have been easily overlooked by those (especially North Indians) who either ignored or repented the linguistic diversity of India in a rush to display undivided Indian unity to our colonizing power. Once one realizes two things - (1) that South Indian languages belong to the family of Dravidian languages while most North Indian languages belong to the family of Indo-Aryan languages (of which Sanskrit is an early example), and (2) that Sanskrit was heavily employed in high-schools in both North and South India, it is possible to mentally simulate the existence of this second flaw in South India.

Let me describe what this flaw was, a bit in detail.

First of all, it is a fact that nearly all elementary schools in South India imparted (or tried to impart) education in what the British described as vernacular languages - meaning languages such as Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, etc. Thus, Kannadiga children first went to Kannada-medium schools. These schools were basically privately run - as Prof. Tooley has rediscovered - and taught (or tried to teach) basic reading, writing and arithmetic using Kannadized versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The teachers in these schools were almost always poor Brahmins far removed from the secular sciences, and only a few were rich Brahmins deriving state funding (i.e., funding from the King).

High-schools, on the other hand, were devoted to "higher learning" which basically meant the study of more advanced Sanskrit religious texts, and unanimously used Sanskrit as the medium of instruction. The students in them were all Brahmin students, and certainly so the teachers. Readers will recall that the non-secular form of education before the British introduced their system is the first flaw I have discussed at length here, and that the social exclusion of non-Brahmin students in high-schools is a much-researched evil of Indigenous Indian Education. I will not revisit this evil again in this article, since it has now been fortunately eradicated by the secularization of education, a process begun by the British and gladly continued by free India. Suffice it to say that the entire elementary school system was singularly focused towards preparing Brahmin boys (yes, not girls, not students of other castes) for high-school which taught religion instead of this-worldly sciences.

Most researchers are content to note that nearly all elementary schools for Kannadigas were run in the Kannada medium, and do not probe into the quality of the imparted education. Chest-thumping my-country-right-or-wrong nationalists never tire of pointing out that indigenous Indian education did care for Kannada (they also erroneously believe that the British were the ones who neglected Indian languages like Kannada - a total distortion of facts which I have somewhat addressed here). But they fail to realize that the two flaws described here rendered those schools really ugly. The second flaw - which is the subject of this article - so severely distorted the Kannada they taught, that the chest-thumping appears in vain to a student of Kannada linguistics to whom it is clear that indigenous Indian education was utterly unscientific when it came to the teaching of Kannada.

Even Prof. Tooley in his 2009 book does not question the quality of the indigenous schools before the British, and only asks how economically the schools were run (as if economy is synonymous with quality!). Actually, I'm not blaming Tooley here - he is perhaps justified in making the quality assumption because our own Indian researchers, educators, politicians and philosophers have fallen prey to the exact same mistake.

Was reading and writing effectively taught in those elementary Kannada-medium schools? Did the students who attended those elementary schools graduate with good reading and writing skills in Kannada? The answer is an emphatic no, as recorded by Collector A. D. Campbell of Bellary (whose statements have lived in the blind spot of most researchers, including Tooley). This is what Campbell wrote in reply to Governor Thomas Munro's educational survey:
The whole of the books, however, in the Teloogoo and Carnataca schools, which are by far the most numerous in this district, whether they treat of religion, amusement, or the principles of these languages, are in verse; and in a dialect quite distinct from that of conversation and business. The alphabets of the two dialects are the same, and he who reads the one, can read, but not understand, the other also. The natives, therefore, read these (unintelligible) books to them, to acquire the power of reading letters, in the common dialect of business; but the poetical is quite distinct from the prose dialect, which they speak and write; and though they read these books, it is to the pronunciation of the syllables, not to the meaning or construction of the words, that they attend. Indeed few teachers can explain, and still fewer scholars understand, the purport of the numerous books which they thus learn to repeat from memory. Every school boy can repeat verbatim a vast number of verses, of the meaning of which, he knows no more than the parrot that has been taught to utter certain words. Accordingly, from studies, in which he has spent many a day of laborious, but fruitless toil, the native scholar gains no improvement, except the exercise of memory and the power to read and write on the common business of life; he makes no addition to his stock of useful knowledge, and acquires no moral impressions. He has spent his youth in reading syllables, not words, and, on entering into life, he meets with hundreds and thousands of books of the meaning of which he can form not even the most distant conjecture, and as to the declension of a noun, or the conjugation of a verb, he knows no more than of the most abstruse problem in Euclid. It is not to be wondered at, with such an imperfect education, that, in writing a common letter to their friends, orthographical errors and other violations of grammar, may be met with in almost every line written by a native.
It is easy for the aforementioned chest-thumping my-country-right-or-wrong nationalists to discard the above as the racist remarks of a colonial officer, but such discarding would be a terrible mistake. Why? Because what Campbell says in the above paragraph is true even to this day in Karnataka. Again, this can only be sensed by those who are ready to approach Kannada linguistics with a scientific bent of mind. It would be also wrong to discard the above paragraph selectively, as is often done (the Macaulay example is here), and happily admit, as both Dharampal and Tooley do, as gospel truth Campbell's own praise for the economical nature of the schools (with writing on sand and monitors assisting teachers in the class). Such are the blinding ways of a my-country-right-or-wrong ideology, or in the case of Tooley, the lack of understanding of the nitty-gritty of the Kannada language in particular and South Indian languages in general.

Tooley - to be fair to him - rejects Campbell's report not because of any my-country-right-or-wrong ideology, but because he doesn't provide a Microsoft Excel table with data on schools like the other collectors did. The only thing I have to say here is that objective information is not the only valid information for a researcher. Subjective information is very important, and much of Sociology rests on such information. Yes, there would be reason to doubt subjective information if it is not backed by science or experience, but Campbell's subjective statements have the backing of the science of linguistics - something I don't see Tooley being too concerned about or well-versed in - as well as experience which is available even to this day if one were to see with open eyes. One needs to be doubly blinded - by ignorance of Kannada linguistics (and Dravidian linguistics in general) and a my-country-right-or-wrong ideology to not see with such open eyes.

Although Campbell was clearly unaware of the reasons why few teachers can explain, and still fewer scholars understand, the purport of the numerous books which they thus learn to repeat from memory, or why it is to the pronunciation of the syllables, not to the meaning or construction of the words, that students attended to, to him goes the credit of at least identifying that such was the pitiable nature of language instruction. While Campbell points out that students spent their youth in reading syllables, not words, he does not enquire into the reasons why it was so. Let me paraphrase what Campbell saw, for brevity: He basically saw that students spent most of their youth in reading syllables and "perfecting" their pronunciation. He saw that they were committing many, many verses to memory, but were unable to understand what those verses meant. In fact, even the teachers were unable to understand what they meant - although it was all supposed to be Kannada!

And what makes Campbell's observation all the more relevant is that the exact same flaw exists in the Kannada-medium education system today, although we have moved from verse to prose.

Today, we know why the status of education in Kannada (and Telugu, but I leave it to the speakers of that language) schools was as pitiable as Campbell describes. But many deny the science on whose basis we know why it was so, and their my-country-right-or-wrong attitude, mixed with the age-old bias that everything any Britisher ever said is racist, even prevents them from acknowledging that it was so, let alone understand why it was so. Because these people decide the content provided through the Kannada-medium education system even today, the Kannada medium education system continues to be a system where students spend their youth in reading syllables, not words and few teachers can explain, and still fewer scholars understand, the purport of the numerous books which they thus learn to repeat from memory.

The science on whose basis we know why Campbell saw what he saw, and why the same can be seen in Kannada-medium schools today, is linguistics. Of course, I could also argue that the lack of appreciation for diversity, and the urge to neglect or even look down upon it, is by itself an important reason. This latter reason can prevent many from recognizing that the problem existed or exists today. It is not the objective of this article or within my field of expertise to go into the details of Kannada linguistics here, but I will give a summary of what I have learnt from the great linguist Dr. D. N. Shankar Bhat who has devoted a good portion of his life for solving some age-old problems in Kannada linguistics - problems which date back to thousands of years ago. We at Banavasi Balaga are fortunate to be working very closely with Dr. Bhat in some of his recent research, and learning from him things which have been obscured from the knowledge of Kannadigas for thousands of years.

To summarize the message of Kannada linguistics which lends credibility to Campbell's subjective statements, and explain the low quality of Kannada-medium textbook content even to this day, then, it is this: Kannada is a language which is very unlike Sanskrit. Yet, Sanskrit had a very dominant influence on Kannada, its alphabet, and unfortunately also on those who wrote Kannada grammar. And of course, as already pointed out, this was the language to be used in high-schools for Kannadigas anyway. While Kannada grammar in reality is very, very different from that of Sanskrit, even to this day, the former is taught to be a subset of the latter. Many alphabets in the Kannada language, even to this day, are not needed by Kannada and have been introduced in order to write Sanskrit words as they are written in Devanagari. Also, Sanskrit words have been a little too profusely used in Kannada literature (especially in religious literature), however difficult they may be for Kannadigas to pronounce them (for e.g. the maha-pranas). It was considered as a defect of the Kannadiga tongue to be unable to pronounce Sanskrit words by schools then and is considered by schools now. Thus, the unscientific overabundance of the influence of Sanskrit in the alphabet, words, as well as in the grammar of Kannada had rendered the Kannada taught by schools then to be unintelligible to Kannadigas themselves (as Campbell observes). Thus, the use of Sanskrit where un-necessary had rendered the Kannada taught in the schools before the British unintelligible to Kannadigas themselves. And instead of reforming the education system, the schools seemed to have deemed the students too stupid to be able to pronounce Kannada, their own language.

The pity is, of course, that this is the status even today - nearly 200 years after Campbell wrote his letter to Munro.

And yes, we at Banavasi Balaga are devoted to removing this flaw from the Kannada education system. Coming back to Tooley's book, I'd like to end this series by saying that the second flaw - of highly unscientific methods in language education and in the medium of instruction - rendered the indigenous education system of Kannadigas before the British ugly. The tree, as far as I can see it, was ugly and not beautiful, and continues to be ugly even to this date due to this second flaw. The good news is - as long as one is committed to work towards transforming the status quo by approaching it with a scientific outlook - something which has been missing from the ages in the field of Kannada linguistics and Kannada-medium education - the future is bright.

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1 comment:

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about these Sanskrit books?


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