A Beautiful Tree

‘A Beautiful Tree’ by Dharampal, led me to this intriguing story about Andrew Bell and his Madras System.

Most of us think, we owe our education system to the British. But I was completely surprised to learn that the Madras System, which was inspired by what Bell saw in the late-18th Century India and his experiments in a Madras Asylum,sowed the seeds for the dramatic improvement in education standards in England in the first half of 19th Century, along with Joseph Lancaster who had modified Bell’s system.

From a mere 40,000 students attending school in Britain in 1792, the number increased to 21,44,377 in 1851.

In contrast, one-third of the boys (but hardly any girls), surprisingly belonging to a wide variety of castes, went through the native primary schools, in Madras Presidency in 1820s.

It is, however, the Madras Presidency and Bengal-Bihar data which presents a kind of revelation. The data reveals the background of the teachers and the taught. It presents a picture which is in sharp contrast to the various scholarly pronouncements of the past 100 years or more, in which it had been assumed that education of any sort in India, till very recent decades, was mostly limited to the twice-born amongst the Hindoos, and amongst the Muslims to those from the ruling elite. The actual situation which is revealed was different, if not quite contrary, for at least amongst the Hindoos, in the districts of the Madras Presidency (and dramatically so in the Tamilspeaking areas) as well as the two districts of Bihar. It was the groups termed Soodras, and the castes considered below them who predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of these areas.

But the decay had started setting in much earlier with the advent of the British and got worse over the next century. The situation was similar in Bengal, Punjab and elsewhere. The quality of content taught in schools can be subjected to scrutiny and debate, but, these schools, at the minimum, ensured basic literacy and arithmetic.

Macaulay and others, whatever were their intentions – not all of them were nefarious, seem to have only led to the reversal of the gap between UK and India.

Most of these arguments had been put forth by others earlier, especially some of Gandhi’s associates, based on the reports of the early English administrators. Dharampal has developed on that work by meticulously going through the old archives and piecing together the whole story.

I am usually a skeptic, when it comes to grandiose claims about our past glory. But going through this book, and all the supporting archives that have been published in detail in the annexures, and glimpsing through a couple of other books which had been published much before this one, my skepticism has definitely been shelved for now.

I will be curious to read any criticism of Dharampal’s work. Interestingly, a strong criticism is already in the book, in the form of the decade long debate between Sir Philip Hartog and Gandhi.

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