Education in Imperial India (Sean S.)

Thomas B. Macaulay, the architect of the Anglicist educational doctrine which would come to define India’s colonization.



Education is a topic of considerable importance when it comes to public history. After all, most people’s exposure to history–or “history” as a notion of the past ordered to tell a story–comes from textbooks and teachers. Another way, however, to visualize history is through public and private memory and attempts to distill the past into museums and monuments. In any case, history is typically taught by some authority to everyday people.

The idea of colonial history and a colonial education necessarily impute to the colonizers the role of that authority, and to the colonized an objectively subordinate role as the people to be educated. The scholar Edward Said referred to this situation as the “binary” of imperialism, which presupposes a dominance of the West over the inferiority of the East.

So how has India, a country colonized by the British for several hundred years, fared since its independence in 1947 and what is the result of those centuries of ?

King George V and the Queen arrive in Delhi (1911).


a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.             

 ~Thomas Macaulay


The streets are decorated for the royal visit (1911).

The factors surrounding what was included in British Indian education were related to the political, social, and cultural ideas of the British imperialist upper class, so education in colonial India

Manish Jain, an Indian scholar on colonial schooling and the study of education in India, writes: “Colonial educational policies and rhetoric were shaped by the competing and changing perceptions of rulers about Indian society and people, beliefs about the superiority of European civilization, the close  relationship between knowledge and power, the needs of the Raj and the responses and demands of the colonized.”

Administration of a colony on the scale of India required more than an army of colonial officials, or an army in any sense. Legions of trained upper-class Britons believed it was their duty to administrate and guide the people of the Empire to better lives. Spreading Christianity and education, like providing for the physical wellbeing of the colonized, were the destined role of the “first race” of the world. The education of Indian children was a necessity because, eventually, these children would be subjects of the British Empire. Through a targeted curriculum, the colonized could come to understand the world from the right perspective–the British perspective–and know their place in it.

From the second half of the eighteenth century until the full incorporation of India into the Empire, education was an uneven and contested matter. A small contingent of the colonizers were “Orientalists” and favored the continued use of indigenous languages such as Persian, Tamil, and Sanskrit. The growing number of the British overlords preferred that the Indian population learn to read, write, and speak in English and furthermore to be educated in such a way as to promote their use within an imperial framework. These “Anglicists,” chief among them Thomas Macaulay, won the pedagogical battle. English became the language of higher education and governance after 1858.

“I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit [sic] or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the Oriental plan of education.

~Thomas Macaulay


The factors surrounding what was included in British Indian education were related to the political, social, and cultural ideas of the British imperialist upper class, so education in colonial India sought to reinforce key aspects of what it meant to be under the paternal tutelage of the superior Western European races. This was the driving force behind the sorts of school subjects offered to the Indians in higher education, and how the subjects were taught.

Manish Jain, an Indian scholar on colonial schooling and the study of education in India, writes: “Colonial educational policies and rhetoric were shaped by the   competing and changing perceptions of rulers about Indian society and people, beliefs about the superiority  of European civilization, the close relationship between  knowledge and power, the needs of the Raj and the responses and demands of the colonized.”

Previously, India’s education was carried out demotically, or in vernacular languages, and consisted of the same sorts of texts that had been taught for centuries. Now, with the ascendance of the Anglicists, imperial textbooks were to be used in classes that taught in English–and expected the students to speak and understand it. Additionally, despite notions of benefiting the population of India, education was not meant to uplift the many but to create interpreters and colonial middlemen of the few. This model left out the rural poor and women.



The imperial project of education in India took hold primarily through textbooks that were to become standard-bearers for the British agenda. The nineteenth century textbooks were created to educate the Indians in the British sense–and definitively not in the traditional Indian sense. Geography books were designed, in the words of Manish Jain, to “give natives opportunities to look outside their ignorant enclosures by studying the geography of India, Asia, and the world in a scientific and objective manner.” A civics textbook from 1897 called The Citizen of India did much to enforce the idea of “history and a new discourse of historiography [with] a pedagogic character in order to train natives to rewrite their own history, to legitimize colonial rule, and to establish superiority of Western civilization.” Schoolbooks designed to teach English and British values utilized the vocabulary of maintaining social order and cohesion through an implicit understanding of the imperial hierarchy.

A street scene in India (1900s).

“The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach this language, we shall teach languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own, whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, wherever they differ from those of Europe differ for the worse, and whether, when we can patronize sound philosophy and true history… [their] history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.

~Thomas Macaulay



The people of India were not long to organize a response to imperialist education. In the context of the growing nationalist and anti-imperialist movement of the late nineteenth century, Indian leaders encouraged the formation of private schools that would teach the approved curriculum without Christianization. The burgeoning middle class, created for the purpose of mid-level public official roles in colonial administration, sought to learn away from the strictures of the colonial elite. Other figures in positions of leadership sought entirely different models for India’s broader education–and they did not include British overlords in their plans.

Poonam Batra, a scholar of the history of Indian education, writes that “The adoption of Macaulay’s minute by the East India Company in 1835 led to… the establishment of a colonial system of education with the goal of creating a new class of English-proficient petty public servants. This in time led to the displacement of vernacular systems of education based on classical and ‘folk’ curricula derived from a plurality of educational traditions.” Figures such as Mohandas Gandhi aimed to retool India’s massive and multifaceted education networks in an explicitly anti-colonial way.

Gandhi speaks to a crowd in rural India (1940s).

Gandhi’s Nai Talim was a response to the education system of the Empire, one not designed to benefit India, nor to accommodate the set of traditional Indian values. The new approach signified a sort of “national education” in the context of growing anticolonial movements, and was aimed at providing to all Indians the kind of education that would most suit them–in Gandhi’s mind, a vernacular and holistic education and one that emphasized “Indianness” in a modern, democratic context.


“The foundation that Macaulay laid of education has enslaved us. I do not suggest that he had any such intention, but that has been the result. Is not a sad commentary that we should have to speak of Home Rule in a foreign tongue?

~ Mohandas Gandhi


The British Empire formally left India in 1947. Still, long into the post-colonial era and with India a defined nation in the world, it has struggled to “decolonize” itself, and also to define what it would mean to decolonize itself, in order to pursue a national character that is without undertones of Western control. The project of post-colonial education in India was to redefine education itself in the absence of a looming superior power–India on its own would have to find a way to define all the multiplicities that had first put cracks in the monolithic hold of the Empire upon it.

India’s continuing mission to decolonize itself manifests itself especially in education. According to the Indian scholar Kalil Khapoor, the colonial education “has uprooted us in the sense that there is complete disjunction with our tradition of thinking. It infuses in us some kind of a spirit of self-denigration.” The issue is more complex because India propagated and propagates to this day the underpinnings of this British style of education. It’s perception of education still includes English and the sort of curriculum that was imposed upon the nation, merely repurposed for modern needs. In practice: “We have, by and large, broadly, entered into a relationship of intellectual subordination. The Indian academy is subordinate to the West — they are the theory and we are the data.


Further Reading


  1. Macaulay, Thomas B. “Minute by the Hon’ble T. B. Macaulay, dated the 2nd February  1835.” ay001.htm .
  2. Kalil Kapoor, “Decolonizing the Indian Mind,” National Seminar on Decolonizing English Education, at North Gujarat University, Patan,
  3. Batra, Poonam. “Curriculum in India Narratives, Debates, and a Deliberative  Agenda.” in Curriculum Studies in India:Intellectual Histories, Present  Circumstances, ed. William F. Pinar. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
  4. Jain, Manish. “Curriculum Studies in India Colonial Roots and Postcolonial  Trajectories.” In Curriculum Studies in India:Intellectual Histories, Present  Circumstances, ed. William F. Pinar. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).