Macaulay’s Minutes : A Critical Analysis

Britishers started giving education to Indians during the first part of nineteenth century, as they were badly in need of office workers for running their rule  in India in a more effective manner. As it was a Himalayan task to bring office workers from Britain, they decided to give modern education to Indians. They published two charters in 1813 and 1817 which stated about the funding of institutions for spreading education. Mean while there occurred a controversy called Oriental-Occidental controversy. It was two contradictory views on the mode of education and medium of education to be given to Indians. As it was a controversy between the orientalists and occidentals, it is known as oriental-occidental controversy. The orientalists were of the view that eastern literature and culture should be transacted by making use the then commonly used languages such as Arabic, Sanskrit and Urdu in educational institutions.. According to them the traditional cultural aspects of the nation could not be ignored. On the other hand, the occidentals argued that education system should concentrate on European literature and culture, and the medium of instruction should be English.

Macaulay's Minutes-5

This controversy darkened the whole educational scenario of the period in India. As this controversy occurred at the initial stage of the implementation of modern education in India, the Oriental-Occidental controversy was a real curse and great hurdle to be removed for the effective implementation of modern education in India. The Britishers wanted to solve the problem as early as possible. As a result, they assigned the duty of solving the problem to Lord Macaulay , a law member of the then Governor General’s Executive council in 1834.He submitted his so called ‘ Macaulay’s Minutes’ in 1835. Any one who wants to study the history of Indian education, can never ignore ‘Macaulay’s Minutes’ or you may tell that any person who hears the term British education in India, would first think about the ‘Macaulay’s Minutes’ of 1835. The ‘Macaulay’sMinutes brought positive as well as negative responds from different corners of the country. Had there twitter, Facebook or Quora, the famous social media platforms during the era, the Macaulay’s Minutes would have been a hot subject to be spread and trolled.

The major recommendations of Macaulay’s minutes were the following

  1. English should be the medium of instruction at all the levels of education in India
  2. European Literature should be taught at educational institutions
  3. All regional or indigenous institutions should be converted into modern English educational institutions.
  4. Downward Filtration theory should be adopted for Mass Education in India

Let me diagnose all the above mentioned recommendations of Macaulay’s minutes

English Should be the medium of Instruction at all the levels of education:

He declared that the views of orientalists should be neglected and ignored, and the government should take necessary actions for making English as the medium of instruction at all the levels of education in India. He listed a number of arguments for supporting this first recommendation. His first argument was that English is the key to modern knowledge. As almost all the scientific books are written in English language, it is an inevitable instrument for learning modern scientific theories. The second argument of Macaulay’s Minutes in this regard was that English is the language of the ruling class. So what is wrong with imposing the language on the citizens. The third argument of Macaulay’s Minutes to support their recommendation to use English as medium of instruction was that Indians were eager to learn English and speak in it.Another argument by the Minutes in this regard was that English would bring renaissance in India as it had done in  many a country in the world. We can’t help agreeing some of  the above mentioned arguments in a general perspective. No one can deny that English is a key to modern education. As an international language, it carries different genres of modern knowledge with it. However, the second argument smells a little bit arrogance, at least in a democratic set up. Though Britishers were following autocracy in India, they always used to pretend to be democratic. More over they used to boast that they were the apostles of democracy. The third argument of Macaulay’s Minutes related to the first recommendation is a reality. Indians were, and still are eager to learn and speak English. And the fourth argument seems to be again a sort of arrogance. The attitude of the people is important not the language in bringing renaissance in any country in this world. The arguments of the Macaulay’s minutes for promoting English language are realistic in one sense and unrealistic in another. But the matter is that it created a sort of feeling that Britishers were imposing it on Indians.

European Literature should be taught at educational institutions:

Here also, he rejected views of orientalists. As we mentioned earlier, a group of people called the orientalists were of the view that Eastern literature i.e. literature written in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit should be taught at schools and other educational institutions. They also advocated that the socio-cultural aspects of India should be given more preference in educational institutions. But Macaulay’s Minutes gave no space for any of the arguments put forth by the orientalists. Macaulay even made some controversial  statement related to this recommendation.

A single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native                                literature of  India and Arabia” Lord Macaulay

It was highly devastating and insulting the ego of Indians. Macaulay did not even hide his intention or the agenda by implementing the English education in India-creating ” a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. The second recommendation, thus became something illogical and awkward.

All regional or indigenous institutions should be converted into modern English educational institutions : 

The third recommendation of Macaulay’s Minutes, too, was capable of creating stir among the people of India. In the first Charter Act of 1813, Britishers had taken a decision to offer a financial aid of Rs.100000 for indigenous educational institutions. Later in 1817, they  increased the amount to Rs. 200000. But, Macaulay’s Minutes recommended that this grant-in-aid system should be vanished, and the amount should be utilised for the spreading of English education in India. It really created great fuzz among the people of India, as the indigenous educational system had been their major centres of education as well as transmission of culture.

Downward Filtration theory should be adopted for Mass Education in India: 

Macaulay’s minutes was against mass education in India. It stated that it was impossible to give education to each and every one in such a vast country. It would be wastage of money and energy.So the minutes recommended that ‘Downward Filtration Theory’ might be adopted for spreading education for all. Downward Filtration Theory is a theory which tells that by giving education to elite people of the society, it will be filtered down to the lower classes of the society, as the members of lower class people would always try to imitate the upper class people. The introduction of the theory by Macaulay shows that he had had a great expertise in human psychology, as well. It is a human tendency that human beings always look upwards and desire to own what the elite people has owned. Look at these words by Helen Keller:

“I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”    

But there is another human tendency that the elite people never wants to offer what they have got to the lower class sections of the society. There is a beautiful short story by Khushwant Singh titled ‘ Karma’ . It beautifully describes the tragic end of a train journey by an English educated man during the British era. The man’s name was Mohan Lal. He was on a journey with his uneducated wife Lachmi. Mohan Lal was to travel in the elite class compartment while lady Mohan Lal was to in the inter-class zenana compartment next to the guard’s van, as Mohan Lal did not want his wife sit with him, as she was uneducated. Two British soldiers threw Mohan Lal out of the compartment while the train was just to depart the platform, though he tried to please them with his ‘Oxford English’.  This story shows how the Indian elite people were eager to follow the models of English men, and how they neglected the uneducated lower class people.  So the hidden agenda of Macaulay’s minutes to create two sections of people was realised with this notorious ‘Downward Filtration Theory’.

Merits of Macaulay’s Minutes: 

Actually Macaulay was assigned the duty of solving the ‘Oriental-Occidental Controversy’ which had been hanging just like the ‘Sword of Damocles’ over the head of educational system in India. But his report called ‘Macaulay’s Minutes’, in fact, worsened the scenario with its arrogant nature and imposing attitude. Still it has got some merits. The first advantage that Indians could enjoy with Macaulay’s Minutes was that it helped in spreading English language in India. it is an undeniable fact that English later played an important role in the freedom fighting campaigns in India. The second advantage that Macaulay’s Minutes offered to Indians was that it laid the foundation stone of the modern education in India. It was a shift from the traditional indigenous educational system into a systematic modern educational system. Another advantage offered by Macaulay’s Minutes was that it opened the window to the world literature. As a result, new modes of writing and genres of literature came into existence. More over it became a model for Indians to study about the existing educational system and prepare reports for enhancing the quality of educational system in India.

Demerits of Macaulay’s Minutes: 

Macaulay’s Minutes was, actually, adding more fuel to the burning fire, instead of solving the problem called ‘The Oriental- Occidental Controversy’. Macaulay gave no ear to any one of the views of the orientalists. He not only rejected their requests, but also insulted them so brutally. Though his argument that English was the key to modern knowledge, was a reality, it was impractical to give education to Indians at all levels in English medium during the time, as it was the starting stage of modern education in  India. Similarly, his statement that  ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of  India and Arabia’, humiliated the native people. The notorious ‘Downward Filtration Theory’ put forth by Macaulay’s Minutes caused for creating two groups of people as educated and uneducated. The upper class people never helped the lower class people in gaining better education and improving the quality of their life. It only created people like Mohan Lal who humiliated even their wives on account of their lack of education.     

macaulay's minutes -7


About Hathib KK

I am an Assistant Professor of Education in a reputed BEd. College under the title Keyi Sahib Training College in India.

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