Colonialism and the Question of Medium of Instruction

In 2009, I had written a review of Prof. James Tooley‘s book The Beautiful Tree on my English blog, Karnatique. My basic critique of the book was, and is, that Tooley is so focused on looking at education as a market, and private as God, that he fails to see that his favorite low-cost private schools openly defy the principle that mother-tongue based education is the best scientific choice for children. Let me make a few comments on the topic here, since an interaction with the author on Twitter earlier this week has provided me new insights that I think are worth sharing.

Tooley thinks the market is making an independent decision in choosing English as the medium of instruction in India. But he seems not to see that it is basically an effect of colonization – a word I haven’t seen him use. World over, the low-cost private schools he visits are run in the language of the colonial power, current or past. He hardly advertises this fact but makes a big deal of the privateness of the said schools. Because he sees no coercion in the ‘market transaction’ of admitting children to these schools, he claims, everything is in order. But many things are not in order, and the open neglect of the mother-tongue is foremost among them.

When I began the Twitter discussion on language with him, Tooley asked me whether I tweet in my mother tongue. I told him I do, and also the other things I do related to Kannada. But what I want to dissect here is the nature of Tooley’s argument. He seems to want to prove, if possible, that I myself don’t respect my mother tongue, and claim that, therefore, I had better give up this line of argument. It’s not disrespect for my own language, if it exists, that he is interested in criticizing, but a possible hypocrisy or inconsistency in my argument.

Indians have not yet come out of their colonial experience. In fact, places like Bengaluru are facing their second colonization, this time from what calls itself as India. Due to the reckless fetish of including diverse peoples under one administration, the British could not give patronage to education in Indian languages. T.B. Macaulay has stated this very clearly in his arguments for English as the medium of instruction in the education system he helped erect. The independent Indian nation, which continued that colonial fetish, also treats Indian languages as necessary evils, not more, and this is most visible in large cities like Bengaluru. Now, if Indians use English and dump their mother tongues, it does not illustrate a free choice made in the Utopia of pure liberty but the effect of these historical assaults on liberty.

I must admit that I am fortunate not to appear hypocritical in this whole argument. My family, especially my wife, has stood by me in my decision to continue my non-paying Kannada work and in my decision to get my son admitted to a Kannada medium school by choice. Unfortunately, I see that every educated Indian cannot claim to be this fortunate. But that does not take away the merit of the argument that mother-tongue education is best for children. Circumstances force them to send their children to English medium schools; it would be folly to think pure liberty is at play here, as Tooley seems to think. It is a case of pure coercion, with the subtle detail that the coercion has occurred in the past.

Tooley is not worried about any of this. His view is rather myopic, unfortunately, and the basic line of his argument is that the choice of language of instruction is an inexplicable market phenomenon that we had better respect. His first response to my question regarding the medium of instruction betrays the feeling that any inconsistency between the walk and the talk of the questioner, with regard to language use, can be used to defeat him in the argument. But even such an inconsistency, where present, is itself a result of colonization. Colonization makes the colonized individual a mess of inconsistencies and contradictions. It is a similar inconsistency that led Mahatma Gandhi to hate the Indian Railways on the one hand but use it to travel all over India on the other. I write in English, and Indians want to send their children to English medium schools, because history coerces us to do so. Those whom I have to call away from English are today immersed in it, and I have no option but to use a thorn to remove this thorn.

In short, by neglecting the medium of instruction and dedicating his book to the privateness of the low-cost schools, Tooley proves to be not so much of an educationist in the first place. His arguments are ethics-free and education-theory agnostic, and threaten to make the world forget, even celebrate, the gory history of colonialism and its adverse impact on education. His are arguments that legitimize the neglect of the world’s linguistic diversity and thereby the true education and liberty of the people of the world, all in the name of a strange thing that has come to be known as liberty in some Western scholarly circles.

But the Indian who is truly concerned about the future of his children, as of India in general, has no option but to recognize the importance of mother-tongue education. He might not be able to send his own children to mother-tongue schools for various reasons today, but that neither diminishes the truth nor relieves him of his duty to tell his children why they are being sent to English medium schools. They’re not being sent because of an inexplicable and sacred market phenomenon, but because of our colonial history.

If children are told this truth, a day will dawn on which we can claim to have fully reversed the effect of that history, a day on which Tooley’s favorite low-cost private schools will fall head over heels to offer education in the mother-tongue (not that he particularly cares). Indian children will not take too long to recognize that the phase of English-medium craze we’re going through is a temporary one which they can stop in their own lifetime, even if they have themselves had to undergo English education.

Only, most of us will have to stop hiding the truth from them or think we’d be hypocritical to use English at work and send children to English medium schools but advocate for mother-tongue education. This is not hypocrisy but one of the many contradictions introduced by colonialism. I see no reason for Indians to feel guilty for using English at work or sending our children to English medium schools. But at the same time, we must not downplay the importance of the mother tongue in education. The apparent contradiction is put in place by our colonial past, not by us. At no cost must we let our thought side with untruth, however much we may be forced to act against our will. It will take time and effort, but the truth will ultimately triumph.