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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Härmä

The history lesson we shouldn't have skipped

Updated: Jun 3

Indian School Calcutta, 1859, William Simpson

In this blog I am going back in history in more ways than one: I am going back to my original academic discipline which was the study of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews. Curiously, the subject matter goes back to a figure significant to the fate of education in both India and Britain who emerged from St. Andrews, one Reverend Dr Andrew Bell. Dr Bell was born in St. Andrews in 1753 and graduated from the university in 1774. He travelled to Chennai (then called Madras) in India in 1787, later to bring back the centuries-old Indian method of primary education which he dubbed the Madras System (more widely called the ‘monitorial system’, an off-shoot of which was called the Lancastrian System) to be applied in British schools[i]. He also went on to found Madras College in St. Andrews.

I am sorry to say that I believe, had anyone ever asked me to speculate on education in India or in any other ex-colony before the British installed themselves, that I probably would have assumed that organised education was probably not ‘a thing’, and that it was likely just the wealthy and the royal who will have arranged for their children’s education, probably within the home. I would certainly never have guessed that Indian educational methods were widely used in the early development of mass education in Britain. It has been eye-opening to read the painstaking work of Dharampal, an Indian historian who spent years in British and Indian archives, reading, photocopying and, where necessary, hand-copying our meticulously-kept records of national shame. He published his several volumes of research on how the British systematically drained India’s national wealth and undermined her institutions, including a thriving village-based society with all necessary institutions. Volume III of his collected writings, published in 1983, is entitled The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century.

At the very same time I have been reading Roger Jeffery’s newest volume, India in Edinburgh: 1750s to the Present, which outlines the impact that all things Indian have had on Edinburgh (as elsewhere in Scotland and the rest of the UK[ii]). What has been most painful has been the corroboration of Dharampal’s account, from the Edinburgh end, through George McGilvary’s chapter entitled ‘The benefits to Edinburgh and Leith from East India Company connections: c. 1725-c. 1834’. The chapter outlines clearly the economic pillaging of India during the period, during which the country’s wealth was systematically hoovered up and expatriated, benefiting greatly both private individuals and Edinburgh (and Britain) more widely. McGilvary documents personal fortunes of up to the staggering sum of £300,000 resulting from Indian trade[iii]; he estimates that from the 1750s to the 1780s, £500,000 per year entered Scotland from Asia [iv]. Part of the wealth will have come from another shameful aspect of our colonial history, the opium trade with China. McGilvary describes the town-houses and mansions built or bought with India’s wealth, and the development of areas of Edinburgh including Charlotte Square, George Street, entire stretches of Edinburgh’s Southside, George Square, Abbeyhill, the Grange, Morningside, Corstorphine and Ravelston. He goes on to outline specific infrastructural projects such as the Union Canal and also Scotland’s agricultural and industrial revolutions from the 1760s onwards, which he states would have been unlikely to have been possible without India’s wealth. While this economic ransacking presents a simple win-lose scenario, the educational advancements that the British gleaned from exposure to India’s culture of learning and her village education system need not have diminished the educational fortunes of the donor – India – in order to benefit Britain’s growing body of school children. At least, the economic undermining of India’s village schools which was a necessary consequence of commercial exploitation need not have been followed up with the cultural imperialist assault on these schools that followed in the 1830s and later.

It came as a shock to me to read that a traveller in India, Peter Della Valle, described the ‘Monitorial System’ of education employed in so many parts of India and picked up on by Dr Bell, documenting the methodology in great detail in Tkkeri on the Malabar coast on the 22nd of November 1623 (with another source stating that the same methodology had been in use for some 2,000 years). The schools consisted of four classes under one teacher. In each of the four groups or learning levels, those who had learned the material most thoroughly supported the others. Early literacy was done using a stick or finger in fine sand spread over a board for practicing letters; as children’s skill progressed, so they graduated to using increasingly more sophisticated writing materials. Literacy and numeracy were mastered, along with crucial skills of keeping accounts, measuring land and many other subjects (including key religious texts) and skills.

Children came to school for the first time ranging from age 5 to age 8, usually spending years on this primary phase of their education, and spending many hours per day in school. Beyond this phase, there were elementary schools and ‘colleges’ of higher learning teaching a staggering array of subjects. A large number of commentators cited in Dharampal’s work note that it was ‘widely known’ or acknowledged that there were (primary) schools in every village, and several in the larger villages. Elementary schools and colleges necessarily meant that students had to travel further or live away from home. Contrary to what might have been suspected today, children of lower castes participated with those above them in caste status in schools. For the most part only boys attended these village schools, but girls and women were far from left out of learning, but they would be educated in the home – Hindu and Muslim alike. The great detail in which these schools have been documented, with some finding them to be of extremely high quality (proven through the high attainment and ability of the students) and others not so much (often based on the prejudices of the observer as betrayed in their descriptions), is beyond this blog, but is provided in Dharampal’s work. British officialdom acknowledged at the time that participation rates were similar to that of Britain and other European powers, while the amount of education each child received (in terms of years but also the length of the school day) was apparently considerably greater in India.

The village schools had originally been supported through what we would call tax revenues gathered at the local level, while most did not have a school building as such but were granted space within the community to meet. Some schools were given funding or grants of land from the local nobility or king. The teacher would also receive support from the parents of his charges in the form of grain or small payments. Dharampal notes that ‘the sophisticated operative fiscal arrangements of the pre-British Indian polity’ made this possible; ‘through these fiscal measures, substantial proportions of revenue had long been assigned for the performance of a multiplicity of public purposes. These seem to have stayed more or less intact through all the previous political turmoils and made such education possible’[v]. However, these arrangements were not able to survive the British with their centralisation of revenues and excessively heavy taxation that removed the financial foundations for these pro-social systems. ‘Writing as early as 1804, William Bentinck, the young Governor of the Madras Presidency, wrote to the President of the Board of Control, Lord Castlereagh, that “we have rode the country too hard, and the consequence is that it is in the most lamentable poverty”’[vi]– at the same time British traders were returning home to Edinburgh and elsewhere fabulously wealthy, to develop their own private estates and wider communities.

‘There is a sense of widespread neglect and decay in the field of indigenous education within a few decades after the onset of British rule. This is the major common impression which emerges from the 1822-25 Madras Presidency Data, the report of W. Adam on Bengal and Bihar 1835-38, and the later Punjab survey of G.W. Leitner’[vii]. This decay brought about by the British is set out at length and in detail by the Collector of Bellary, A.D. Campbell, in his report of 1823[viii]. This decay meant that the communal revenues that had supported education had mostly all disappeared, leaving the remaining schools to the funding provided by parents and charitable individuals within the villages. By the time of the 1822 Madras school census, several district collectors document many decades of decline, with many fewer schools existing than previously.

And here we come to the link to our very modern, 21st Century times. James Tooley writes extensively about Dharampal’s work in his book also entitled The Beautiful Tree, in honour of Dharampal and Gandhi (whose term it originally is). Tooley dedicates his chapter 11 to India’s pre-British schools, proclaiming them to be ‘private schools’ entirely dependent on user fees, basing this on the returns from the District Collectors as part of the 1822-25 Madras Presidency school census, one of the research questions for which had been to establish whether any schools were then receiving public funding of any kind. Tooley seizes on the returns to state that today’s low-fee private schools are the modern incarnation of these original schools started by the people, for the people. However, this interpretation is disingenuous, since the full picture presented by Dharampal makes it clear that these schools had fallen entirely on the mercy of parents due to the systematic starving of funds by the British of India’s village institutions, this denuding of funds having already taken place for at least 50 years at the time of the census in 1822, and more likely decades longer than that. It is only as a response to a slow-burning crisis of funding that these schools had come to be user-fee dependent. They had originally been locally-publicly funded community or public schools, some with endowments from higher levels within kingdoms. By 1823, as Collector Campbell of Bellary notes, the foundation for India’s situation 200 years later were laid: the difficulty faced by poor parents to pay school fees with no other realistic alternative, and also the new and painful need for child labour that had not existed before the British began to starve and squeeze communities.

The story becomes more and more distressing (for India) and shameful (for the British). After the cataloguing of the existing schools, some of the British sources show concern for the Indian need for good-quality education. Other sources show contempt and misplaced superiority in statements that the ‘indigenous’ schools were of no value whatsoever. These schools were to be replaced by schools in the British model with ‘proper’ buildings and ‘properly trained’ teachers, to be trained in the new training colleges to be built. The British ‘reforms’ worse than decimated Indian schooling participation, with numbers enrolled recovering back to 1822 levels (i.e. an already contracted level as compared to the pre-British era) only after 1890[ix]. Indian people were totally alienated from this new, more Europeanised form of schooling that was not available in all villages due to the heavy investment needed for each school; but its introduction in any case proved the death knell to the original form of schooling. There is now no going back to the culturally appropriate and contextually relevant, environmentally sustainable form of schooling that came before. The British model with its associated costs and relative exclusivity was slow to take off in the 19th and first half of the 20th Centuries, but now is fully entrenched and will never loosen its grasp on the psyche, involving the desire for English medium education and the conventional form with the heavy burden of textbooks and heavy psychological burden of examinations and ruthless competition.

What has been perhaps the most unsettling for myself in light of my previous incarnation as an ‘international education consultant’ is reading British people corresponding with each other about their plans for India’s education. Enter: the Education Consultant and Policy Entrepreneur in perhaps his first iteration in 1823, also manifested through and self-documented by the Collector of Bellary. In paragraph 24 of his report he begins his proposed plan for the new education system, suggesting the establishment of ‘experimental schools with the view of improving the education of the natives’. Over the next two pages he sets out his proposals and offers a preliminary costing of his plan. The parallels with work I have participated in as recently as 2017 in Liberia with regard to their early childhood education system makes me cringe at myself and the work I was willing then to participate in due to my own ignorance of the context at the time.

There is so much to be said from my last week’s careful reading of Dharampal’s masterpiece of historical documentation, and it is truly remarkable that his work is so overlooked. It was enlightening that the teaching methodology that was so effective as to apparently render children literate and numerate (and more) within about two years of education (just for starters) was adopted by thousands of schools in Britain, with Andrew Bell fighting with Quaker rival, Joseph Lancaster, over who was responsible for its introduction to Britain[x]. It is also ironic that this direction of pedagogical policy borrowing apparently worked well, while the later Britain-to-India flow of ideas essentially killed education in India. Indeed another Scot, Thomas Munro who was also stationed at Chennai, had ‘observed that “if civilization is to become an article of trade” between England and India, the former “will gain by the import cargo”. As symptomatic of this high state of Indian civilisation, he also referred to “schools established in every village for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic”. When Thomas Munro made this statement [to Parliament in 1812] he already had had 30 years of intensive Indian experience.’[xi]

The parallels are striking between the exchanges between ‘northern’, rich-country people and people of the poorer global south 200-300 years ago and the machinations of today’s international education industry (in which ‘industry’ I include the international institutions that set education goals and the donor organisations that push various means of fulfilling these goals in countries whose particular cultures and contexts they do not understand). I look on our current situation with dismay, that the latest round of learning catastrophe pushed on poor countries (roughly 1990 to the present) through the promotion of educational expansion that countries were not ready for in terms of suitable teachers and the resources they needed has led to the ‘mushrooming’ of low-fee private schools as a response. Today’s slow-boil crisis response of low-fee private schooling in so many countries is now the rope in a tug of war between the ‘education as a human right’ lobby who says these schools are not good enough so should be discouraged and regulated to death when there is no acceptable alternative to take their place. Gandhi’s 1931 speech cited at the end of this blog strikes another startling parallel with the present day, talking about how schools that local people have set are not (now) and were not (in the 19th Century) considered ‘good enough’. On the other end of the tug-of-war rope is the pro-private lobby who also claim that locally- and individually-owned low-fee private schools are not good enough and should be competed out of existence at the hands of international branded chains of semi-low-cost private schools. The latter’s intention is to return once again to the old East India Company modus operandi of hoovering profits away from the countries where they ply their trade.

Where are the local views in all of this? Where is the local policy making? It rather strikes me that foreign actors of all stripes might cause less harm if they ceased and desisted, based on the enormous harm done to India, for whom the road to hell was seemingly at least partially paved with good intentions. After all, many of the British whose correspondence is cited by Dharampal evince a genuine concern for the ‘natives’ whose interests they were seeking to further (while others were clearly looking down their noses in the most racist possible manner). He refers to the British thus: ‘burdened as they were with a sense of mission, the British could not accept any criticism of their actions, deliberate, or otherwise, in India (or elsewhere) during the two centuries of their rule.[xii]’ I assert again that the parallels are terrifying and should give all ‘development professionals’ pause, long pause to consider whether they too may be burdened with a similar sense of mission that makes it difficult to question themselves and to examine deeply whether the courses of action embarked upon are really appropriate, or whether they might be continuing the colonialist tradition. I would urge the human rights lobby to likewise consider their own ‘mission burden’, because the various, competing demands on poorer countries are great, at a time when the world should really be working with singular purpose to achieve the one most pressing issue of our time: the removal of the mortal threat to our environment and our continued existence.

Britain is interested in trade with the countries that its aid programmes operate in, with these trade relationships often erring on the side of severe power imbalance if not exploitation. The government’s intention to subsume DFID within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office signals clearly that this self-interest is only to become ever more formalised and institutionalised. Through trade and aid we enter countries whose cultures, customs and development we have little knowledge of (and no time on the job to learn), and we make suggestions and do costings for what should be done from a position of paternalistic knowing-what’s-best.

It is crucial that we come to know our own history[xiii], particularly now as it appears that we are doomed to keep repeating it, failures and all. Of note, Munro who was keen to implement Britain’s new plans for Indian education, writing in 1826 stated that the expenses outlined[xiv]would ‘be incurred only by degrees, because it will be long before a sufficient number of qualified teachers can be obtained[xv].’ Munro realised something that development experts and government officials did not take account of some 170+ years later, that it would not make any sense to try to expand an education system before well-prepared teachers would become available. Even realising important points such as this, the outcome of British actions (Munro sounding like yet another early education consultant) proved disastrous, with the impacts on Indian culture felt strongly now, some 200 years later[xvi].

Lastly, it is not only people abroad that lose out through our ignorance of our own history: children in British schools should learn the history of the British Empire which should be taught through a lens of contrition similar to that employed in German schools in their teaching about the Holocaust. It is possible that a full, frank reckoning with all that was stolen from India (materially, spiritually and culturally) and all of the other colonies might change the way British people in general view South Asians, Africans and those from the West Indies, such as the Windrush generation; that from such honest education at home an awareness might result that our cultures are now forever entwined and that much greater atonement is owed to Commonwealth and other countries than can ever be delivered through DFID, whatever guise it operates in in the future.

Gandhi speaking at Chatham House, London, 20th October 1931[xvii]:

I say without fear of my figures being challenged successfully, that today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out… The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came out with his programme. Every school must have so much paraphernalia, building, and so forth. Well, there were no such schools at all. There are statistics left by a British administrator which show that, in places where they have carried out a survey, ancient schools have gone by the board, because there was no recognition for these schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people, and therefore they could not possibly overtake the thing. I defy anybody to fulfil a programme of compulsory primary education of these masses inside of a century. This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education.’

An example of an overly-expensive, British-imposed school courtesy of the London Missionary Society: Bengali Girls' School, 1869

Recommended: Anyone interested in truly understanding India should read Dharampal's five volumes of collected writings, available here. Just scroll to the bottom of the homepage, but do explore the entire site!

[i] Incidentally, Wikipeadia ( has it totally wrong, claiming that this method was developed by Bell and Lancaster. It was developed in India centuries and possibly millennia before these British gentlemen were born. [ii] I am particularly interested in Edinburgh, being my own adopted city after years living and working abroad, similarly to many of the people who feature in Jeffery’s book and who spent often long periods of their lives in India. It is significant that Dharampal notes an interest in Indian culture at the University of Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Enlightenment from the 1750s onwards (which, according to Friederike Voigt’s chapter in Jeffery’s volume, had largely dissipated in the first half of the 19thCentury). Dharampal writes that these more enlightened Scots ‘had a fear, born out of historical experience, philosophical observation and reflection (the uprooting of entire civilizations in the Americas), that the conquest and defeat of a civilisation generally led not only to its disintegration, but the disappearance of precious knowledge associated with it. They advocated, therefore, the preparation of a written record of what existed, and what could be got from the learned in places like Varanasi’ (p.16). Clearly India and Edinburgh are part of each other, despite the widespread lack of awareness today of these ties. [iii] McGilvary, G. (2019) The benefits to Edinburgh and Leith from East India Company Connections c. 1725-c.1834, in R. Jeffery (Ed.) India in Edinburgh: 1750s to the Present, New Delhi, Social Science Press, pp.22-46. McGilvary provides context in that in 1778 a small fortune to arrive home with would have been in the region of £15,000; a medium fortune around £30,000; and a large fortune being £70,000 and above (p.39). [iv] McGilvary (2019), p.40). [v] Dharampal (1983) The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century, Collected Writings Volume III. Mapusa, Other India Press, p.21. In another relevant passage of Dharampal’s own commentary in his long introduction: ‘it is suggested here – and there is voluminous data scattered in the British records themselves which confirm the view- that in terms of the basic expenses, both education and medical care, like the expenses of the local police, and the maintenance of irrigation facilities, had primary claims on revenue. It was primarily this revenue which not only maintained higher education, but also – as was sometimes admitted in the British records – the system of elementary education. It is quite probable that, in addition to this basic provision, the parents and guardians of the scholars also contributed a little according to their varying capacities by way of presents, occasional feeding of the unprovided scholars, etc., towards the maintenance of the system. But to suppose that such a deep rooted and extensive system which really catered to all sections of society could be maintained on the basis of tuition fees, or through not only gratuitous teaching but also feeding of the pupils by the teachers, is to be grossly ignorant of the actual functioning of the Indian social arrangements of the time’ (p.75). [vi] Dharampal (1983) p.90. [vii] Dharampal (1983), p.60. Dharampal provides great detail from all of these sources, particularly the first from Madras which constituted the first school census recorded in India. [viii] His report is set out in full on pp.186-195. Paragraph 18 states: ‘I am sorry to state that this is ascribable to the gradual but general impoverishment of the country. The means of the manufacturing classes have been, of later years greatly diminished, by the introduction of our own European manufactures, in lieu of the Indian cotton fabrics. The removal of many of our troops, from our own territories, to the distant frontiers of our newly subsidised allies, has also, of late years, affected the demand for grain, the transfer of the capital of the country, from the Native Governments, and their Officers, who liberally expended it in India, to Europeans, restricted by law from employing it even temporarily in India, and daily draining it from the land, has likewise tended to this effect which has not been alleviated by a less rigid enforcement of the revenue due to the state. The greater part of the middling and lower classes of the people are now unable to defray the expenses incident upon the education of their offspring, while their necessities require the assistance of their children as soon as their tender limbs are capable of the smallest labour’ (p.191). Hence, the British administration of India can credit itself with the creation of child labour. [ix] Dharampal (1983), p.72. [x] Incidentally, the wikipaedia page on the subject has the story grossly wrong, stating that the British developed the model and exported it to the colonies. [xi] Dharampal (1983), p.90. [xii] Dharampal (1983), p.4. [xiii] Indeed there were some rather poor British attempts at education for the poor, referred to as ‘ragged schools’, given a rather lively description by Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend as ‘temples of good intentions’. He describes one such school as “a miserable loft in an unsavoury yard, crowded, noisy, and confusing [in which] the teachers had no idea of execution, and a lamentable jumble was the upshot of their kind endeavours". [xiv] These expenses to be paid by the government, but of course the funds would come from India’s own wealth that was being onerously taxed away from it. [xv] Dharampal (1983), p.252. [xvi] Dharampal cites in endnote 70 on page 91 a colourful description from 1908 from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy of the cultural confusion of the typical graduate of British-style university education in India. [xvii] Speech cited in preliminary pages, Dharampal (1983).

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