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Not So Different After All: Connecting British and Bengali Education Systems

Connecting Histories of Education: Transnational and Cross-Cultural Exchanges in (Post)Colonial Education, edited by Barnita Bagchi, Eckhardt Fuchs and Kate Rousmaniere, has recently been published by Berghahn. The editors previously shared an excerpt from the volume’s Introduction, which can be read here. A second extract, this one from Mary Hilton’s chapter “A Transcultural Transaction: William Carey’s Baptist Mission, the Monitorial Method and the Bengali Renaissance,” gives readers insight into the education system shared between Britain and Bengal.



To understand the early-nineteenth-century reforming mentality that drove change in both Britain and Bengal, we must first sketch those systems of basic education that prevailed in their traditional rural communities before the English industrial revolution and before the development of the fully evangelical, self-righteous and reforming mercantile thrust of English imperialism.


In anthropological terms the education of the rural poor tends to be similar in different countries: small in scale, rooted in the customs and habits of village life, interrupted by illness, famine, seasons and festivals, with a curriculum shaped by necessary life skills, taught and administered by a local familiar figure. Within traditional rural society, as the anthropologist Gellner has pointed out, the main work is the production of food, which does not ‘presuppose an initial generic training by an unspecialized centralized education system’.


By the eighteenth century, the ubiquitous ‘dame’ schools had served the residents of English rural villages for several centuries. Slightly more learned than their neighbours, the dame or master taught basic literacy and arithmetic so that humble children could read the Bible and carry out the age-old business of life and survival in village and farm. Similarly in Bengal, the rural village pathshalas (small schools) were run and taught by gurus (teachers) from local, more learned families, and were attended by children from all walks of life. The guru post was often hereditary, and classes were generally conducted in the house of the teacher, the portico of a mosque or simply in the shade of a tree. The gurus taught basic literacy, local arithmetic, local accounting and moral codes. The instruction was generally secular in character: reading, writing, arithmetic, letter writing, a little Sanskrit, versified Puranic tales, Zamindari (agricultural accounts) and Mahajani (commercial accounting) were taught in Bengali without printed or manuscript texts.


In Britain, the so-called industrial revolution was rapidly transforming traditional society by the late eighteenth century. As the dispossessed rural poor made their ways to the sprawling cities, they formed a burgeoning urban underclass of unprecedented youth, deprivation and poverty. The historically invisible dame schools – now called working-class private schools – continued to serve many of them, and the new Sunday schools, often run by humble artisans, also attempted to teach the basics of literacy and religion. Nevertheless, by the beginning of the nineteenth century huge numbers of the children of the industrial poor were beyond the reach of education, philanthropy or religion, and new enterprise was needed. English educators and politicians almost unanimously found the ‘mutual instruction’ or ‘monitorial’ method, an idea derived from South Indian Sanskrit schools by the Anglican Andrew Bell and simultaneously developed by the Dissenter Joseph Lancaster, the answer to the problem of educating vast numbers of poor children. For the next fifty years the urban landscape across England was increasingly dotted with large monitorial schools.




Mary Hilton is a Senior Research Fellow at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. Her numerous publications include Women and the Shaping of the Nation’s Young: Education and Public Doctrine in Britain 1750–1850 (2007), the co-edited volume with J. Shefrin, Educating the Child in Enlightenment Britain: Beliefs, Cultures, Practices (2009), and the co-edited volume with P. Hirsch, Practical Visionaries: Women, Education, and Social Progress, 1790–1930 (2000).