Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Divya Kannan.
Divya Kannan is currently pursuing her PhD in Modern Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her study seeks to examine the history of education and discourses on poverty in the late 19th and 20th century Kerala, particularly amongst so-called lower caste groups.
The history of education in India is relatively a new field of research compared to its counterparts in sociology and psychology. Although, there have been studies on the system of modern education in the country from the 19th century onwards, most debates have tended to look at policy shifts. These can be broadly classified into two categories. One category of research comprises chronological histories of Indian education, detailing major policy shifts and the impact of western education on Indian society and polity. This group has argued within the simplistic framework of impact-response of the benefits of English education for India. One of the debates which has occupied scholarly attention in this regard has been the Anglicist-Orientalist controversy of the 1830s. Another loosely defined category, particularly in the post-independence period, has mined rich sources (albeit a majority of them official) to understand the trajectory of schooling in colonial India by looking at aspects of technical, vocational and mass education. The historical study of education has moved beyond the noting of enrolment figures towards assessing the role of education in shaping political contexts and social relationships. Questions of inequality, poverty, discrimination, assertion, empowerment and politicization have come to the forefront of new research on education.
Despite their evangelical agenda, mission schools became an important factor in local societies by enabling formal schooling opportunities to hitherto excluded groups. These mission schools provided instruction in the three Rs as well as subjects such as history, geography, elementary science and basic vocational training. For labouring populations, this opened up new opportunities, albeit limited, to develop new modes of expression, participation in the literate public sphere and to aspire for social mobility through new jobs. Missionary schooling, particularly for Christian converts also had a dual objective. European protestant missionaries aimed at moulding a new sense of self amongst their converts by attempting to break down caste markers. Education was the domain to introduce new habits, patterns of work, social organisation, gender roles and language for Christian converts.
It is this aspect of forging a new ‘individual’ that characteristically marks the project of schooling the poor in colonial India. It can be argued that it was a ‘double civilizing mission’ on the part of European missionaries and colonial government. On the one hand, in tune with the colonial idea of a civilizing mission for Indians, as a whole, and on the other, ‘the civilizing of the lower caste/classes’ in particular. In villages, missionaries opened schools for marginalised groups, and vernacular instruction was often provided only up to the elementary level, owing to financial constraints, among other reasons. They, however, actively engaged in the secondary and higher education in the towns, chiefly aimed at attracting the upper castes/classes and providing an English education which many wanted to gain government employment. This gulf in the educational provision tended to perpetuate existing social divisions. This research seeks to examine these overlapping motives by directing the historian’s lens to the education of the poor in the late 19th and 20th century Kerala, in south-western India.