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Is The Pre-Colonial Education System Something To Aspire To?

Ziyad Faisal analyses PM Imran Khan’s statement where he said that the British rulers destroyed the Muslim education system under a “well-thought out plan.”

Unfortunately for our world today, policy-making is increasingly being taken over by the worldview of right-wing populist leaders. In a number of countries where such parties have come to power, their leaders have brought a specific attitude to public office.

This attitude can be summed up as one of nostalgia for a rosy past. When those romantic perceptions clash with the actual challenges of today’s world, they breed resentment. And when that resentment is brought to the corridors of power, it leads to an irrational rush to ‘right’ the ‘wrongs’ of the past – some real, many purely imagined.

That is just the kind of place where Prime Minister Imran Khan Niazi’s view of education in Pakistan comes from.

His rise to power has been predicated on stoking the resentment of urban middle-class populations – and one of their pet preoccupations is ‘fixing’ the educational system in the country.

Without a doubt, this is a very important issue.

The story we are told is that there is a class divide in the country. The PM himself recently summarised this divide as follows: there is an Urdu-medium curriculum of public education, a madrassah-based system of religious education and then a tiny elite which has access to an English-medium curriculum leading up to foreign high-school qualifications (primarily O- and A-levels).

We are told that if we are to eliminate this obvious divide, we must replace it with a ‘uniform’ curriculum which emphasises our religion, culture and the needs of the 21st century.

There had already been an abortive announcement to this end a few months ago from Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood. Assuming that the government is serious about eventually pushing through with this, it remains to be seen how they plan to accomplish such a huge task as building a uniform educational system for a population of 200 million at a time when the very survival of our educational system is at stake.

In 2018-19, our educational expenditure was at 2.4 per cent of GDP – already the lowest in the region. The current disastrous austerity programme being pursued by the government under IMF supervision is slated to cut educational spending even further below the abysmal levels at which it stood.

Under such circumstances, one wonders how the task of introducing a uniform new educational system can be accomplished – which would have been a daunting objective even if Pakistan were not going through one of its most difficult eras.

Moreover, let us assume for a moment that by some miracle, the government were to actually set up a new system of education with a uniform curriculum. The existing educational system is already moving out of the reach of many in the country, as educational institutions engage in fee hikes to deal with austerity. The mathematics of it all does not appear to add up, no matter what direction you examine the matter from.

But the problem is not just that the government is making wild promises without any consideration for the fiscal and logistical aspects. There are some fundamental questions about the very vision which drives the government’s approach to the education system.

The Prime Minister appears to be convinced – much like Hindu nationalists in India – that there was a thriving educational system in place before the British arrived to destroy it, thereby enslaving the minds of generations to come.

According to his recent remarks in public on this issue, the British were implementing a carefully thought out plan to destroy the educational system of the Muslims (soch samajh ke Mussalmanon ka taaleemi nizam tabah kiya).

This view of the past, as mentioned earlier, is shared by Hindu nationalists in India. Conservatives are often found quoting an alleged statement by Lord Macaulay to Parliament in Britain on social media. Urban middle-class nationalists in both India and Pakistan are convinced that in 1835, Macaulay said something like the following:

“I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”

This is a fake quote. He never said any such thing.

The British colonialists in the early- to mid-19th century, as represented by Macaulay, were obviously not very interested in teaching knowledge from the Indian and Islamicate traditions to the populations that they were conquering.

But to what extent did the British really ‘destroy’ the educational system of ‘the Muslims’?

The fact is that when we today speak of an educational system, we are thinking of conditions existing under modernity. Modern educational systems are geared towards specific requirements – such as industrial needs – which did not exist in India as such. These needs arose only after the arrival and expansion of British colonialism. It was the British who gave India an educational system, at least in the sense that we today understand ‘education’.

Unsurprisingly, the pre-colonial educational system was so different from what we are today familiar with that bringing it up as a model for 21st-century educational reform sounds quite ridiculous. That educational system was just as different from today as the political and economic realities of that time were.

The pre-colonial system of education was geared towards producing men of learning for courtly and administrative positions. As such, learning outcomes focused on classical texts and metaphysics. There was some rudimentary understanding of mathematics and the natural world – but nothing close to the requirements of educational systems under modern conditions.

The kind of thought processes that a modern educational curriculum requires would have often appeared offensive in that era. Over time, there was more emphasis on manqulat (transmitted knowledge) than on maqulat (rational sciences).

It was quite a far cry from the ‘uniform’ curriculum that Pakistan’s Prime Minister wants today. Education was highly localised for the vast majority of the population. It depended on your region, communal-religious background, social position and gender. Depending on their station in life, a Muslim student in pre-colonial India might go to a local village maktab attached to the mosque, or a Sufi khanqah administered by a mystical order or a madrassah affiliated with a particular religious scholar. The educational curriculum was largely a matter for the institution itself to decide.

This system depended on patronage from courts, nobles, Sufi orders or local communities. Education was not considered a fundamental human right as it is today – the very concept of universal human rights being alien to pre-modern societies. In fact, education was seen as being unsuitable for the vast majority of the populace, who were expected to be toilers or else followers of the family profession.
Even among the small segment of the population with actual access to education, it was primarily for men. Educated women were expected to be taught primarily religious sciences rather than worldly affairs – and this learning was imparted to them primarily at home in a private setting.

Prime Minister Imran Khan noted in his recent remarks on educational reform that the colonial educational system produced ‘classes’ (iss nizam ne tabqay paida kiay). Such a statement is completely ignorant of the reality of pre-colonial India, where caste and class played an even larger role in determining your educational access and outcome.

In fact, it was the colonialists who, for a variety of reasons of their own, established a modern educational system in India as we today understand it. The very idea of imparting education on a mass scale, as we today understand it, came with them.

British measures were not, of course, done for purely altruistic reasons. While the initial educational efforts in the 19th century were spearheaded by Christian missionaries, eventually the issue of education become an important aspect of colonial policy.

In fact, the 1813 renewal of the East India Company’s charter was specifically linked to the Company having to promote education in India. Educating Indians was something which Christian missionaries had so far been interested in, but the Company had actually opposed.

As a result of the 1854 ‘Wood’s Despatch’, written by politician Charles Wood to the Governor-General of India Lord Dalhousie, colonial educational policy became the machine which we today know as the ‘educational system’.

The process by which the British established a modern or ‘Western’ system of education in India has been extensively studied and written about, and we will not go into it here.

The point here is to emphasise that one might have many criticisms of colonial education in India, but it would be simply a right-wing fantasy to claim that pre-colonial education was ‘superior’ by the standards that we today hold for an educational system. In fact, given the vastly different context of pre-colonial and colonial India, the very comparison of educational systems often appears like comparing apples and oranges.

Today, it can be said without a doubt that Pakistan does need massive educational reforms and overcoming the horrific class divide in education ought to be a priority for any administration. However, setting alight the existing system under conditions of austerity and then promising a new, ‘uniform’ curriculum at what is perhaps the lowest point in our educational history does not appear to be a very wise idea.

PM Imran Khan may have turned his back on the big bad West in his imagination, but he and his government would do well to avoid policy-making based on whims and inaccurate fantasies. There are many educationists, academics and experts who could guide the government – once it snaps out of middle-class conservative posturing, revivalism and bluster.


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