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Does history influence a nation's education policy?
10-03-2013, 06:50 PM
Post: #1
Does history influence a nation's education policy?
Thinking about curriculum in Australia, got me thinking about my own study. I was thinking about how a language is introduced into a nation, and can it affect its language policies? I’ll tell you about my understanding of how the English language was introduced into India. It is a little potted history, maybe even a children’s story. I also thought that as we move into a globalised world, perhaps history doesn’t matter anymore?

Once upon a time, the English people, along with many other countries in the northern hemisphere, traded with India to take back spices and silks. And so, the English language first came to India as a trading language, and was spoken as pidgin. Later, in Queen Elizabeth 1st reign in the 1600s the East India Company (EIC) was established so that they could do intensive trading. The East India Company reaped enormous profits from India through trading milled cotton for India’s spices, silks, precious and semi-precious stones, and opium, for example. The EIC had its own private armies, and so with guns and soldiers over the following two hundred years asserted itself into the country to become the ruling British Raj in 1858. I reckon this must have been a worthwhile exercise to colonise another country, because it was so lucrative.

While the EIC were busy colonising, Britain invested money to promote education, encourage Indian literature, promote science, and English language education. It also meant that Christian missionaries could use teaching to proselytize, and so they set up the first schools and taught English. Later, the East India Company faced bankruptcy, and to save money decided that they would employ local Indians to do the administration, which meant that local Indians were allowed to learn English. From there English speaking universities were set up, with mixed response from both local people and the English. I could imagine the taunts of ‘tool of imperialism’ to fears that those in the caste system would be employable with English language skills, and so take over the roles that other castes had held for centuries as scribes and administrators in their own languages.

An aside to all this is the famous Macaulay's Minute on Education, in 1835, in which it admonishes the local people and is condescending; and trivialises the ancient languages, customs and religions, positing that only the European history and in particular literature in English are supreme. It seems to me that his view was typical of the times, and represents an outsider’s perspective. It has been often stated that he was the father of English language in India – and this is what is argued over. But, refreshingly, in a recent British Council report, David Graddol cites Macaulay's historical biographer John Clive, who maintains that focusing on this is a diversion. The charter had already introduced the necessary powers that brought about the foundation for English language development, and arguing over Macaulay is just a side show.

After many a political wrangling, India gained it republic status in 1947, and so the race for a national language was on. There was a tussle between the north and the south and so as a compromise Hindi, a language of the north, and English, were given national status, and as it happened unified the land. Given the terrible Partition in 1947 and the devastation and killing it brought, this was a good thing. In 1968 under Ghandi, the three language policy was introduced into schools, where a local language and a regional language were mostly taught, as the language of instruction. Often English was taught as the third language if they had a teacher. When English was taught, it was considered to be a 'library language' used for writing and reading only, in line with the original administration premise. It was not widely spoken, and was not examined as an oral skill – still current today in many schools.

Since 1968, over four decades and from information gleaned from several surveys, this trend has begun to reverse. The English language is increasingly not seen as a colonial legacy, but as a powerful tool for status and access to careers and money in a globalised world. The flip-side is that it also has the capacity to divide the nation between those who can and those can’t speak English, with the perpetual problem of access to resources and education. English as an entrée into globalisation and westernisation also has other outcomes – loss of culture, customs, folklore and loss of local languages. Will India be just like any other nation in the world – in a word, homogenised?

I’ve been meeting with a colleague from China, discussing globalisation, the histories of how English was introduced to China and India and we’ve shared many a story. There are many similarities. These two nations are tipped to be global leaders in the next one hundred years, and trade and commerce with them will be highly sought after. I anticipate that our great-grandchildren will be speaking Hindi and Mandarin, as well as English, in years to come! Will history matter then?
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