Missionaries and Education in Bengal Essay

This essay has a total of 2550 words and 12 pages.


Missionaries and Education in Bengal





Nineteenth Century Missionaries and Education in Bengal:
An Analysis of Historical Literature

This paper is about how missionaries implemented education and how their reforms reflected
the cultural, political, religious, social, and economical situation of Bengal throughout
the years of 1793-1837.

Michael A. Laird is clear to state that missionaries did not actually arrive in Bengal
until around 1800. However, it is important to analyze the educational climate of England
from whence they came. It is true that the state of education in both Bengal and England
was in bad need of reform. Even so, Laird argues that although both places had a network
of institutions of elementary, secondary, and higher education, Bengal was in greater need
of reform.

Elementary teachers were reported as ill-qualified and harshly disciplinarian. Secondary
teachers were described as “much superior in intelligence.” However, they
failed to exert any more of a moral influence over their pupils than the former. Some of
the pandits, or teachers, of Indian higher education, were more moral and intellectual
than the former. Education in this realm entailed many subjects, but learning was slow,
nonetheless.

Another important factor to add to the backdrop of the educational scene was the decline
of the entire educational system. There was next to no funding, obstinacy to modern
scholarship, and no longer any creative thought. As a result, people were learning
without passion under the thumb of their apathetic teacher who would not hesitate to
discipline the smallest mistake.

Laird does state that the English system of education shared some of the same problems.
He states that one of the greatest areas of concern in Bengal was the inaccessibility to
new modern knowledge such as new medical findings, scientific innovations, and modern
social thought. These would be the tools that would unshackle the Indian from his
prejudice, religion, and social orientation which would effectively reform the society as
a whole.

Laird describes the period between 1793 and 1813 as “a kind of prologue to the great
outburst of educational activity which immediately followed.” In 1793, William
Carey arrived in Calcutta. He was the first missionary to make a lasting and significant
contribution to the education of the people of Bengal. Immediately he took analyzing
the educational situations of the indigo-plantation of which he was superintendent. He
wrote a plan of reform that apparently did not come to fruition until the foundation of
Serampore College in 1818.

It was not until 1813 that a Charter Act was passed legalizing missionary work in East
India Company Territory. The Act not only forced the East India Company to allow
missionary activity, it committed the Company to pay for the missionaries’
educational reform. Therefore it christened a new era “full of possibilities for
missionary educationalists.”

Laird divides the discussion of the development of mission schools between 1793 and 1823
into two chapters. The first focuses on the transformation of educational thought and
procedures that took place during that time. Between these years, the interest switched
from the study of the ancient languages, Persian and Sanskrit, to English. Also, the
missionaries emphasized that a sound education must start with teaching the pupils
effectively to read and write their mother tongue. Bengali was, then, implemented as the
medium of learning, making education more accessible while mixing English thought into
Bengali culture.

It is important to note the change in educational practices, as well. Missionaries were
interested in conversion. That is they wanted pupils to think and analyze, not just
memorize. Through these means, the missionaries believed that the Hindus and Muslims
would then logically see the faults of their religions and the Truth of Christianity.
Laird suggests, that missionaries acted as “instigators of an intellectual
awakening, or even revolution” because they taught Hinduism, Islam, as well as
Christianity, challenging pupils to analyze each. This was effective in appealing to the
parents of the students who might have felt that Christianity would be forced. Although
parents were not at all open to Christianity or conversion therein, they were open to the
education that the Westerners had to offer.

Missionary schools were mostly conducted with the educational principles of Lancaster and
Bell who were secular educationalists from Europe. Christianity was supposedly only to be
presented in the comparative arena during ethics class. However, missionaries were
hopeful that the general attitude and conduct of the school would create an atmosphere of
conversion for the Indian people.

The second of Laird’s chapters on the development of missions schools between 1793
and 1823 focuses on missionary publications, teachers, caste and class, secular
contributions, and relations between missionaries. One of the most significant
contributions of the missionaries during this period was their compilation of textbooks,
for both the introduction of the ‘new learning’ of the West in the Bengali
education system, and the improvement of methods of teaching reading, writing, and
arithmetic. The missionaries were also responsible for the publication and circulation
of the first Bengali newspaper ever to be published, the Samachar Darpan. They also
published an educational magazine, the Dig Darshan, that presented history, astronomy,
geography, and ethics to the Bengali people in English and Bengali. As there was little
available to read during this time, these publications were extremely popular.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the missionary educationalists in Bengal was the lack of
qualified teachers. Laird explains the difficulties that the missionary educationalists
encountered in finding and training suitable teachers. They were generally of low social
status and from the pre-existing system of education. The missionaries had to overcome
competition from the traditional indigenous schools. In general, they found it difficult
to implement their ideology of open discussion and free thought among traditional Indian
educators. There were attempts to cultivate new teachers, mainly by Robert May.
Unfortunately, his attempts ended in failure as the teacher-trainees were more interested
in learning English than in teaching.

A most interesting dynamic of the missionary schools, was that pupils were mixed in caste
and were of the same class as those who attended the pathsalas. The pupils were then
placed in categories based on their merit. As a result, sometimes the boy of inferior
class would excel a brahmin. According to the missionaries, this was ideal because it
taught in practicality the Christian creed that God created all men equal. Interesting
furthermore is a missionaries report stating, “no wish has ever been expressed by
[the brahmins] to be formed in a separate class; nor do we recollect a single instance of
a brahmin youth’s having left the school in disgust because associated with
soodras.”

Laird concludes his book praising the missionary educationalists for drawing the first
comprehensive schemes for education in modern times. He goes on to acknowledge the width
of their curriculum as unfounded even in the contemporary schools of England.
Furthermore, Laird states that “the missionaries came to play the leading part in
the early nineteenth century in introducing the people of Bengal to the elements of modern
knowledge.” He commends the missionaries usage of Bengali as the chief medium of
education, giving impetus to the ‘Bengal Renaissance.’ He also mentions
their success in printing the greatest number of textbooks before 1837.

Overall, Laird attributed much success to the missionary educationalist movement in Bengal
of 1793-1837. However, he did end his book with a conflicting statement which rebuked
the missionaries for their “bigotry and prejudice” regarding Hinduism, Islam
and all other creeds other than Christianity. Furthermore, he mocks the
missionaries’ implementation of education for the broadening of heathen minds
without keeping their own minds open. This striking statement confused the lector as it
seemed to contradict the attitude of the rest of the book.

Kanti Prasanna Sen Gupta effectively dismantles the missionaries’ ideology that
education is inevitably followed by conversion using the educational climate of the Hindu
College of the time. Although the college was not founded by a missionary, or for the
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