Education in Pakistan 
Macaulayism and Language

How nineteenth-century education reforms in Pakistan live on to this day

Donated English textbooks at a school in Pakistan. Photo by Hashoo Foundation USA - Houston, TX via Flickr.

Donated English textbooks at a school in Pakistan. Photo by Hashoo Foundation USA – Houston, TX via Flickr.

Sometime in 1834, a plump man ventured from the comfort of his “civilized” British homeland to “barbaric” India. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s world view very well reflected the ills of the 19th century. A racist colonist in full measure, the naivety of his knowledge in history prompted him to radically reform the education system in India.

Macaulay believed that to civilize the Indian barbarians, they should be tutored in Shakespeare’s classics and the Glorious Revolution; the expansion of European civilization was key to the progress of humanity. He seemingly ignored the wonderful history of India’s own civilization, of Asoka the Great’s militaristic feats and his philosophical notions of peace that followed. Romeo and Juliet was a Shakespearian masterpiece, but Macaulay was blind to the legend of Rama and Sita.

The colonists did not realise that Pashto, Saraiki, Sindhi, Bengali, etc. are all beautiful languages in their own right, that the Indus and Ganges rivers flow for more miles than any of their European counterparts, and that, discounting Russia, India was larger even in size to the militaristic Europe.

Macaulay’s education reforms are relevant even today: he succeeded in creating a colonial elite. English-medium schools did not seep into India’s core, rather, in modern day Pakistan, they lie on the fringes, available only to the social class that took over from the British, as most people still live in the harsh reality of blinding poverty.

With the elite now primarily English-speaking, Pakistan’s other languages have been degraded. Yet English isn’t the only nuisance in this confusing linguistic puzzle. Urdu, controversially set as Pakistan’s national language and a key element of Bangladesh’s secession in 1971, is a first choice for a mere 7% of Pakistan’s population.

Textbooks in Kenya

In the early 1990s, Harvard professor Michael Kramer was looking for a simple test to evaluate policy intervention in a developing country. He looked at schools in western Kenya that had a shortage of textbooks. It’s a near-universal consensus that textbooks are essential inputs in the education process.

Twenty-five schools were chosen at random, and they received the officially approved textbooks for those specific classes. Remarkably, the study found that there was no difference in the average test scores of the students that received textbooks and those that did not. However, interestingly, those who had scores near the top when the study began, made marked improvements in the schools where the textbooks were given out.

Here’s how it all comes together: Kenya’s language of education is English, and the textbooks were in English too. But most children speak English as a third language, after Swahili and the local tribe language. The same study has been repeated with other core inputs like improved teacher ratios and increased technology in education, but they’ve all yielded similar results.

The study above shows that improving the inputs to classrooms is essential for bettering performance. However, as language is the gateway to learning, these inputs have to work around a linguistic framework suited to the student. Be it Kenya or Pakistan, only a small minority (that are proficient in English or Urdu) will excel in this colonial education system.

British Council Report, 2010

In a 2010 report, the British Council, after a severe analysis of Pakistan’s education system, proposed some far-reaching changes. Their core argument was for Pakistan to embrace her multilingual identity, and reflect it in classrooms. Children, at least at a primary age, should be schooled in the language they are most familiar with.

Pakistan has more than 70 languages, yet Urdu, the medium of instruction, is spoken by a small migrant minority. The language was attached to the concept of Pakistan in the 1930s and 1940s as individuals tried to create a culture around their nationalism. But, with the prominence of regional languages, Urdu has always remained a minority and a second language for most, and the unifying culture took root. It’s time to drop homogenous notions and build a culture around diversity in light of Pakistan’s multilingual landscape.

Children learning in Urdu as second language face many obstacles in their early years. Their progress in reading and writing will naturally be hindered, as would the support they get from their parents.

The British Council’s report proposed a schooling system based around seven major regional languages, including Urdu. This, they claimed, would help provide a first-language education to 85 per cent of the population.

Currently, in order to gain access to the civil service and higher education in Pakistan you need to have a qualification in English. British academic Hywel Coleman suggests, “people should have to demonstrate competence not only in English but also in Urdu and one of the other main regional languages. If that were to happen you would find that the elite private schools would start teaching other regional languages. Something like that would put the three languages on a more equal footing.”

In the same breadth, public schools, charter schools, and schools in remote villages, should introduce English at a later stage, after a child’s primary schooling. This would help break the linguistic barrier to wealth in Pakistan.

As children are taught basic skills in their primary language, and individuals from all social classes begin to embrace Pakistan’s myriad of languages, Pakistan’s school dropout rate is bound to go down as the literacy rate increases. And, importantly, women’s involvement both in the education sector and civil service will increase, as Pakistan’s finally rids itself of Macaulay’s chains on a path to progress.

All this is not meant to undermine the necessity of inputs such as teachers and textbooks, but since language is the basis of communicating with knowledge, the system has to be reformed before the inputs can do their job.

I realise that my ability to criticise the current situation comes from the fact that this colonial residue was in place when I was born. I studied in English at a school still “run by the Church of England” and I wrote this for an English newspaper originally created with separatist-nationalist intentions in a colonial society. I am not just a product of the system I so vehemently criticise, I am the system. I am Macaulay’s child.

Sameer Tayebaly studies History and Economics at McGill University, Montreal. This article appeared first on and again on our partner website, Graphite Publications, here: