Origin of English Literature as a Mode of Instruction

from: "Currying Favor: The Politics of British Educational and Cultural Policy in India, 1813-1854" by Gauri Viswanathan. Social Text, No. 19/20 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 85-104.

Antonio Gramsci illuminates the relations of culture and power through the useful insight that cultural domination works by consent and often precedes conquest by force. Power, operating concurrently at two clearly distinguishable levels, produces a situation where "the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as 'domination' and as 'intellectual and moral leadership.' . .. It seems clear . .. that there can, and indeed must be hegemonic activity even before the rise to power, and that one should not count only on the material force which power gives in order to exercise an effective leadership."...

Arguably, detailed records of self-incrimination are not routinely preserved in state archives. But where such records do exist, the evidence is often compelling enough to suggest that the Gramscian notion is not merely a theoretical construct but an uncannily accurate description of historical process, howsoever subject it may be to the vagaries of particular circumstances. A case in point is British India, whose checkered history of cultural confrontation conferred a sense of urgency to voluntary cultural assimilation as the most effective form of political action. The political choices are spelled out in the most chilling terms: "The Natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other rulers they could possibly have."

Implicit in this statement by a high-ranking British official in the Bombay administration is a recognition of the importance of self-representation, or the production of an image of the "ideal" Englishman. Logically, there were two sources from which the colonial subjects could derive an idea of the humaneness and justness of their rulers, one actual (that is, through British actions and behavior) and the other representational. Of the two, the former posed more serious problems of control and consistency. The East India Company servants who were sent to India were often charged by Englishmen themselves with intemperance and rapacity. Their actions in India belied the fondest hope that colonial subjects would be convinced of the superiority of English ideals. Since the actual image could not supply the appropriate model, representational sources increasingly came to be relied on to do the work. This essay deals with the ways in which the literature and arts of England were gradually put to use to convey an image of the "ideal" Englishman. ...

One cannot fail to be struck by the peculiar irony of a history in which England's initial involvement with the education of the natives derived not from a conviction of native immorality as the later discourse might lead one to believe, but from the depravity of their own administrators and merchants.One cannot fail to be struck by the peculiar irony of a history in which England's initial involvement with the education of the natives derived not from a conviction of native immorality as the later discourse might lead one to believe, but from the depravity of their own administrators and merchants.One cannot fail to be struck by the peculiar irony of a history in which England's initial involvement with the education of the natives derived not from a conviction of native immorality as the later discourse might lead one to believe, but from the depravity of their own administrators and merchants.

This mission to revitalize Indian culture and learning and protect it from the oblivion to which foreign rule might doom it merged with the then current literary vogue of "Orientalism" and formed the mainstay of that phase of British rule in India known as the "Orientalist" phase. Orientalism was adopted as an official policy partly out of expediency and caution and partly out of an emergent political sense that an efficient Indian administration rested on an understanding of Indian culture. It grew out of the concern of Warren Hastings, governor- general from 1774 to 1785, that British administrators and merchants in India were not sufficiently responsive to Indian languages and Indian traditions. The distance between ruler and ruled was perceived to be so vast as to evoke the sentiment that "we rule over them and traffic with them, but they do not understand our character, and we do not penetrate theirs. The consequence is that we have no hold on their sympathies, no seat in their affections." Hastings' own administration was distinguished by a tolerance for the native customs and by a cultural empathy unusual for its time. Underlying Orientalism was a tacit policy of reverse acculturation, whose goal was to train British administrators and civil servants to fit into the culture of the ruled and to assimilate them thoroughly into the native way of life.

Opposing Orientalism was the countermovement of Anglicism, which gained ascendancy in the 1830s. Briefly, Anglicism grew as an expression of discontent with the policy of promoting the Oriental languages and literatures in native education. In its vigorous advocacy of Western instead of Eastern learning, it came into sharp conflict with the proponents of Orientalism, who vehemently insisted that such a move would have disastrous consequences, the most serious being the alienation of Indians from British rule. ...

Although chaplains [Clapham Evangelicals] had hitherto been appointed by the East India Company to serve the needs of the European population residing in India, the English Parliament had consistently refused to modify the Company charter to allow missionary work in India. The main reason for government resistance was an apprehension that the Indians would feel threatened and eventually cause trouble for England's commercial ventures. Insurrections around the country were invariably blamed on proselytizing activity in the area. The fear of further acts of hostility on religious grounds grew so great that it prompted a temporary suspension of the Christianizing mission. In keeping with the government policy of religious neutrality, the Bible was proscribed and scriptural teaching forbid- den. The opening of India to missionaries, along with the commitment of the British to native improvement, might appear to suggest a victory for the missionaries, encouraging them perhaps to anticipate official support for their Evangelizing mission. But if they had such hopes, they were to be dismayed by the continuing checks on their activities, which grew impossibly stringent. Publicly, the English Parliament demanded a guarantee that large-scale prosely- tizing would not be carried out in India. Privately, though, it needed little persuasion about the distinct advantages that would flow from missionary contact with the Indians and their "many immoral and disgusting habits."

Though representing a convergence of interests, these two events-of British involvement in Indian education and the entry of missionaries-were far from being complementary or mutually supportive. On the contrary, they were entirely opposed to each other both in principle and in fact. The inherent constraints operating on British educational policy are apparent in the central contradiction of a government committed to the improvement of the people while being restrained from imparting any direct instruction in the religious principles of the English nation. The encouragement of Oriental learning, seen initially as a way of fulfilling the ruler's obligations to the subjects, seemed to accentuate rather than diminish the contradiction. For as the British swiftly learned to their dismay, it was impossible to promote Orientalism without exposing the Hindus and Muslims to the religious and moral tenets of their respective faiths-a situation that was clearly not tenable with the stated goal of "moral and intellectual improvement."

This tension between increasing involvement in Indian education and enforced noninterference in religion was productively resolved through the introduction of English literature. Significantly, the direction to this solution was present in the Charter Act itself, which ambiguously stated that "a sum of not less than one lac of rupees shall be annually applied to the revival and improvement of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives of India."7 While the use of the word "revival" may weight the interpretation on the side of Oriental literature, the almost deliberate imprecision suggests a more fluid government position in conflict with the official espousal of Orientalism. Over twenty years later Macaulay was to seize on this very ambiguity to argue that the phrase clearly meant Western literature, and denounced in on uncertain terms attempts to interpret the clause as a reference to Oriental literature:

It is argued, or rather taken for granted, that by literature, the Parliament can have meant only Arabic and Sanskrit literature, that they never would have given the honourable appellation of a learned native to a native who was familiar with the poetry of Milton, the Metaphysics of Locke, the Physics of Newton; but that they meant to designate by that name only such persons as might have studied in the sacred books of the Hindoos all the uses of cusa-grass, and all the mysteries of absorption into the Deity.

Macaulay's plea on behalf of English literature had a major influence on the passing of the English Education Act in 1835, which officially required the natives of India to submit to its study. But English was not an unknown entity in India at that time, for rudimentary instruction in the language had been introduced more than two decades earlier. Initially, English did not supersede Oriental studies but was taught alongside it. Yet it was clear that it enjoyed a different status, for there was a scrupulous attempt to establish separate colleges for its study. Even when it was taught within the same college, the English course of studies was kept separate from the course of Oriental study, and was attended by a different set of students. The rationale was that if the English department drew students who were attached only to its department and to no other (that is, the Persian or the Arabic or the Sanskrit), the language might then be taught "classically" in much the same way that Latin and Greek were taught in England.

Though based on literary material, the early British Indian curriculum in English was primarily devoted to language studies. However, by the 1820s the atmosphere of secularism in which these studies were conducted became a major case for concern to the missionaries who were permitted to enter India after 1813. One missionary in India, the Rev. William Keane, argued that while European education had done much to destroy "heathen" superstition, it had not substituted any moral principle in its place. The exclusion of the Bible had a demoralizing effect, he claimed, for it tended to produce evils in the country and to give the native mind

unity of opinion, which before it never had ... and political thoughts, which they get out of our European books, but which it is impossible to reconcile with our position in that country, political thoughts of liberty and power, which would be good if they were only the result of a noble ambition of the natural mind for something superior, but which when they arise without religious principles, produce an effect which, to my mind, is one of unmixed evil.9

The missionaries got further support from an unexpected quarter. The military officers who testified in the parliamentary sessions on Indian education joined hands with them in arguing that a secular education in English would increase the natives' capacity for evil because it would elevate their intellects without providing the moral principles to keep them in check. Major-General Rowlandson of the British Army warned, "I have seen native students who had obtained an insight into European literature and history, in whose minds there seemed to be engendered a spirit of disaffection towards the British Govern- ment."10 While obviously the missionaries and the military had different interests at stake, with the latter perhaps not quite as interested in the souls of the heathen as the former, they were both clearly aiming at the same goal: the prevention of situations leading to political disunity or lawlessness. The alliance between the two undoubtedly proved fruitful insofar as it loosened the British resistance to the idea of religious instruction for the natives and made them more conscious of the need to find alternate modes of social control.

In English social history the function of providing authority for individual action and belief and of dispensing moral laws for the formation of character had traditionally been carried out through the medium of church-controlled educa- tional institutions. The aristocracy maintained a monopoly over access to church-dominated education and instituted a classical course of studies that it shared with the clergy, but from which the middle and working classes were systematically excluded. The classical curriculum under church patronage in England became identified as a prerequisite for social leadership and, more subtly, as the means by which social privilege was protected. This alliance between church and culture consecrated the concept of station in life and directly supported the existing system of social stratification: while the classical curricu- lum served to confirm the upper orders in their superior social status, religious instruction was given to the lower orders to fit them for the various duties of life and to secure them in their appropriate station. The alliance between church and culture was thus equally an alliance between ideas of formative education and of social control.

As late as the 1860s, the "literary curriculum" in British educational establishments remained polarized around classical studies for the upper classes and religious studies for the lower. As for what is now known as the subject of English literature, the British educational system had no firm place for it until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the challenge posed by the middle classes resulted in the creation of alternative institutions devoted to "modern" studies.

It is quite conceivable that educational development in British India may have run the same course as it did in England, were it not for one crucial difference: the strict controls on Christianizing activities. Clearly, the texts that were standard fare for the lower classes in England could not legitimately be incorporated into the Indian curriculum without inviting violent reactions from the native population, particularly the learned classes. And yet the fear lingered in the British mind that without submission of the individual to moral law or the authority of God, the control they were able to secure over the lower classes in their own country would elude them in India. Comparisons were on occasion made between the situation at home and in India, between the "rescue" of the lower classes in England, "those living in the dark recesses of our great cities at home, from the state of degradation consequent on their vicious and depraved habits, the offspring of ignorance and sensual indulgence," and the elevation of the Hindus and Muslims whose "ignorance and degradation" required a remedy not adequately supplied by their respective faiths.1l Such comparisons served to intensify the search for other social institutions to take over from religious instruction the function of communicating the laws of the social order.

Provoked by missionaries on the one hand and fears of native insubordina- tion on the other, British administrators discovered an ally in English literature to support them in maintaining control of the natives under the guise of a liberal education. With both secularism and religion appearing as political liabilities, literature appeared to represent a perfect synthesis of these two opposing positions. ...

The first stage in the process was an assertion of structural congruence between Christianity and English literature. Missionaries had long argued on behalf of the shared history of religion and literature, of a tradition of belief and doctrine creating a common culture of values, attitudes, and norms. They had ably cleared the way for the realization that as the "grand repository of the book of God" England had produced a literature that was immediately marked off from all non-European literatures, being "animated, vivified, hallowed, and baptized" by a religion to which Western man owed his material and moral progress. The difference was rendered as a contrast between

the literature of a world embalmed with the Spirit of Him who died to redeem it, and that which is the growth of ages that have gloomily rolled on in the rejection of that Spirit, as between the swreet bloom of creation in the open light of heaven, and the rough, dark recesses of submarine forests of sponges.12

This other literature was likened to Plato's cave, whose darkened inhabitants were "chained men . . . counting the shadows of subterranean fires."

If not in quite the same eloquent terms, some missionaries tried to point out to the government that though they pretended to say they taught no Christianity, they actually taught a great deal, for it was virtually impossible to take Christianity out of an English education, and much more of scriptural teaching was imparted than was generally admitted. The Rev. W. Keane tried to persuade officials that

Shakespeare, though by no means a good standard, is full of religion; it is full of the common sense principles which none but Christian men can recognize. Sound Protestant Bible principles, though not actually told in words, are there set out to advantage, and the opposite often condemned. So with Goldsmith, Abercrombie on the Mental Powers, and many others books which are taught in the schools; though the natives hear they are not to be proselytized, yet such books have undoubtedly sometimes a favourable effect in actually bringing them to us missionaries.13

The missionary description was appropriated in its entirety by government officers. But while the missionaries made such claims in order to force the government to sponsor teaching of the Bible, the administrators used the same argument to prove English literature made such direct instruction redundant. Several steps were initiated to incorporate selected English literary texts into the Indian curriculum on the claim that these works were supported in their morality by a body of evidence that also upheld the Christian faith. In their official capacity as members of the Council on Education, Macaulay and his brother-in- law Charles Trevelyan were among those engaged in a minute analysis of English texts to prove what they called the "diffusive benevolence of Christianity" in them. The process of curricular selection was marked by weighty pronouncements on the "sound Protestant Bible principles" in Shakespeare, the "strain of serious piety" in Addison's Spectator papers, the "scriptural morality" of Bacon and Locke, the "devout sentiment" of Abercrombie, the "noble Christian sentiments" in Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments (which was hailed as the "best authority for the true science of morals which English literature could supply").14 The cataloguing of shared features had the effect of convincing detractors that the government could effectively cause voluntary reading of the Bible and at the same time disclaim any intentions of proselytizing. ...

The characterization of English literature as intellectual production suggested a different process of reading, requiring the exercise of reason rather than unquestioning faith. The history of the "despotic Orient" was adequate proof from the British viewpoint that a literature claiming to provide divine revelation diluted the capacity of the individual mind to resist the manipulations of a priestly caste. By the terms of this argument, not only did Oriental literature lull into the individual into a passive acceptance of the fabulous incidents as actual occurrences; more alarmingly, the acceptance of mythological events as factual description stymied the mind's capacity to extrapolate a range of meanings for analysis and verification in the real world. The logic of associating reason with an approach to literary texts as types of human activity was a simple one: The products of human consciousness must submit to interpretation because their creating subject is man not God, man in all his imperfection and fallibility. Because interpretation by definition entails a plurality of response, the receiving mind is pressured all the more to weight the truth-value of each possibility, thereby activating rational processes of discrimina- tion and judgment-intellectual skills unanimously held to be utterly alien to a literature conceived as divine agency.

Two, as an example of human invention drawing its material from a rationally perceived world, English literature disciplined the mind to think and reason from the force of evidence. The Cartesian influence is especially strong in this description, particularly in the argument that the element of doubt attending upon the senses sets the mind in a state of intellectual ferment, forcing it to do battle with error until a full knowledge of the truth is reached. Since an individually realized truth would have proceeded through the stages of rational investigation-of detached observation, analysis, verification, and application- its claims to universal, objective knowledge were unquestionably greater, it was concluded, than the claims to truth of received tradition. ...

In effect, the strategy of locating authority in English texts all but effaced the often sordid history of colonialist expropriation, material exploitation, and class and race oppression behind European world dominance. Making the Englishman known to the natives through the products of his mental labor removed him from the plane of ongoing colonialist activity-of commercial operations, military expansion, administration of territories-and de-actualized and diffused his material presence in the process. In a crude, parodic reworking of the Cartesian formula, production of thought defined the Englishman's true essence, overriding all other aspects of his identity-his personality, actions, behavior. His material reality as subjugator and alien ruler was dissolved in his mental output; the blurring of the man and his works effectively removed him from history. The English literary text functioned as a surrogate Englishman in his highest and most perfect state, and to quote again from Trevelyan, "[The Indians] daily converse with the best and wisest Englishmen through the medium of their works, and form ideas, perhaps higher ideas of our nation than if their intercourse with it were of a more personal kind." The split between the material and the cultural practices of colonialism is nowhere sharper than in the progressive rarefaction of the rapacious, exploitative, and ruthless actor of history into the reflective subject of literature.

Created by: allen.webb@wmich.edu Revised Date: 1/10