Finding good marks in the empire's educational record

Colonial Educators

May 28, 2004

The academic literature on imperialism is almost uniformly anti-colonial in spirit and outlook. If colonialism had any good or even neutral consequences on the colonised, you would not suspect it from the countless scholarly works on the subject. Clive Whitehead's book could have joined Niall Ferguson's Empire: How Britain Created the Modern World as one of the exceptions.

Whitehead's theme is a novel one - education has not been a big topic in recent colonial history - and his blunt rejection of the political line on cultural imperialism could have led to some bracing debates.

"During many years of studying British colonial rule at the grassroots level I have never been convinced that the imperial record was as black as some writers would have us believe," Whitehead declares.

Referring to members of the Colonial Education Service, he says: "They left behind perhaps the most enduring legacy of colonial rule. Western education led to the social, economic and political transformation of what was commonly referred to as the developing countries in the post-independence era, and continues to shape their hopes and aspirations in the so-called global village of the 21st century."

The book ends with a less-than-admiring allusion to "armchair theories of colonialism". The history of the Indian Education Service, which provided administrators and university lecturers to the subcontinent and the Colonial Education Service, which did the same for the rest of the British Empire, is, Whitehead implies, one way of questioning the conventional wisdom on cultural imperialism. He is, in essence, right, and right about the need for such questioning, but his book does not quite do the job.

The first part looks at the general administrative history of the Indian Education Service and the Colonial Education Service, providing detailed information on those who joined, their conditions of service and their changing relationship with the British government. This is supplemented in the second part of the book by a series of biographies of major members of the two services.

Whitehead is an indefatigable chronicler of facts. If you wish to find out exactly where some luminary was born, what his father did for a living, or his hobbies after retirement, this book is for you. But if you want a deeper understanding of the institutional and pedagogical projects these men were engaged in, it is unlikely to satisfy you.

Another problem is in the book's total lack of interest in the "native" response to Western education. Without the conscious complicity of indigenous peoples, could Western education have succeeded to the extent it did in the colonies? As Nirad C. Chaudhuri pointed out, the British wanted only to train clerks; it was the colonised who used their Western education to read Dante. Because it ignores such themes, Colonial Educators fails to shatter those comfortable ideas about cultural imperialism that its author, justifiably, discredits.

Chandak Sengoopta is senior lecturer in history, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Colonial Educators: The British Indian and Colonial Education Service 1858-1983

Author - Clive Whitehead
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 286
Price - £42.00
ISBN - 1 86064 864 9

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