To India and back: the inspirational journey of English Literature

 I’m reading Urszula Clark’s War Words: Language, History and the Discipline of English. Using Basil Bernstein’s model of the pedagogic device, she traces the formation of “English” as a subject in schools.

Last week I read Chapter 2 Language and Education in the Nineteenth Century. I thought I “knew” about this process in general terms at least, but there were many processes at work which I now see in a new light, and one that I had never heard of: the influence of the Indian Civil Service on the teaching of English Literature.

I quote the relevant paragraph:

“The relationship  between language, knowledge and power can also be illustrated with regards to education policy in colonial India during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Very briefly, the 1835 English Education Act made it compulsory for Indians to study English language and English literature, with proficiency in both areas serving as prerequisites for employment in both the East India Company and the British colonial Civil Service. Learning English, it was thought, would have a ‘civilising’ influence on a non-Christian native population, primarily as a means of accessing the Bible and Christian morality. The curriculum provided a means whereby Indians would come to know an English lifestyle, with its literature acting as a kind of mould for reproducing that way of life. (So much importance was in fact attached to this idea that the Victorians also inserted English literature into the Civil Service examinations back in England: thus, ‘…armed with this conveniently packaged version of their national identity and …cultural superiority’ – Eagleton, 1983: 28-29). Consequently, the subject was called ‘English’ and not – as was the case in other European countries ‘literature’. But it was English literature then (rather than the Bible) which provided the ‘civilising’ influence upon Indian natives, in ways which were then imported back into England as a blueprint for a curriculum designed for mass education (Viswanathan, 1989; see also: Viswanthan, 1992; Donald and Tattansi, 1992)”

I have to read up on this fascinating insight into the interaction of empire, education and literature!



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