Subject Lessons

The Western Education of Colonial India

Subject Lessons

Politics, History, and Culture

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Book Pages: 276 Illustrations: Published: August 2007

Author: Sanjay Seth

Asian Studies > South Asia, History > Asian History, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

Subject Lessons offers a fascinating account of how western knowledge “traveled” to India, changed that which it encountered, and was itself transformed in the process. Beginning in 1835, India’s British rulers funded schools and universities to disseminate modern, western knowledge in the expectation that it would gradually replace indigenous ways of knowing. From the start, western education was endowed with great significance in India, not only by the colonizers but also by the colonized, to the extent that today almost all “serious” knowledge about India—even within India—is based on western epistemologies. In Subject Lessons, Sanjay Seth’s investigation into how western knowledge was received by Indians under colonial rule becomes a broader inquiry into how modern, western epistemology came to be seen not merely as one way of knowing among others but as knowledge itself.

Drawing on history, political science, anthropology, and philosophy, Seth interprets the debates and controversies that came to surround western education. Central among these were concerns that Indian students were acquiring western education by rote memorization—and were therefore not acquiring “true knowledge”—and that western education had plunged Indian students into a moral crisis, leaving them torn between modern, western knowledge and traditional Indian beliefs. Seth argues that these concerns, voiced by the British as well as by nationalists, reflected the anxiety that western education was failing to produce the modern subjects it presupposed. This failure suggested that western knowledge was not the universal epistemology it was thought to be. Turning to the production of collective identities, Seth illuminates the nationalists’ position vis-à-vis western education—which they both sought and criticized—through analyses of discussions about the education of Muslims and women.


Subject Lessons is a monograph which I am confident will remain a jewel among the other paperbacks which are rapidly becoming petrified wood on my bookshelf. In the academy, where one reads primarily for work-related purposes (as research, for teaching, etc.), it is always a treat to come across a book which is both enjoyable to read and informative. Seth’s prose is simultaneously descriptive and theoretical in such a way that I am able to get lost in the world of the text—in colonial India—but not forget that I am understanding the simultaneous historic and immediate rendering of ‘colonial India’ through western, ‘colonizing’ devices, namely, western philosophy and western education. Using hermeneutic historical analysis, Seth has successfully rendered a useful ‘fusion of historical horizons’ (Gadamer, 1976; Schrag, 2003) both within the world that the text seeks to report (i.e. between western and nationalist bodies in India) and between the world of the text and the reader.” — Craig Engstrom, Education Review

Subject Lessons is an excellent example of [the] fundamental concerns of postcolonial studies. . . . [it] is an elegantly written, lucid book, with many theoretical and historical insights.” — Ritty Lukose, Comparative Education Review

“[T]hought-provoking . . . further enriches the growing wealth of material on women’s and gender history and highlights the significance of educational history within it.” — Ruth Watts, Gender & History

“In all, Seth has painted a colourful, engaging portrait of education in colonial India. Subject Lessons is a good read and posits significant questions that have been investigated by historians of South Asia. . . . [A]n important and insightful contribution to general intellectual history. . . .” — Hayden Bellenoit, Indian Economic and Social History Review

“The most important contribution of Subject Lessons is its demonstration of the disjuncture between modern knowledge and modernity or, in the case of India, how India can be modern but not characterized by western knowledge, and its ability to tease out the very precise mechanism – colonial education – through which all this occurred and failed to occur. . . . [V]ery evocative and moving.” — Nita Kumar, Social History

“Thought-provoking. . .” — Victoria J. Baker, Anthropology & Education Quarterly

“Very rarely has the English education of colonial India and its contiguities been closely examined and problematized. Seth’s enquiry into the dissemination of western education poses larger questions about what we accept as history and historiography, modern and modernity, and more importantly, remains conscious of the inescapability from western epistemologies in knowing the world. . . . [A]n erudite starting point for those like me to critically examine the learning and unlearning of the canon from within the canon itself.” — Divya Anand, Thesis Eleven

Subject Lessons is a very important contribution to understanding of the coloniality of knowledge and of being. Imperial control is mainly control of subjectivity, and the control of subjectivity is largely based on education, on the formation of those to be subjected. Sanjay Seth’s study of education in colonial India has implications far beyond the subcontinent. Touching on epistemology, politics (governmentality), religion (Muslims in India), the idea of the nation, gender and sexuality, ethics and history, Seth describes how the logic of coloniality has been and continues to be globally enacted.” — Walter Mignolo, author of Idea of Latin America

Subject Lessons revives a field that has remained dormant for years: the history of education in colonial India. This in itself is no small achievement. But Sanjay Seth does a lot more than that. Weaving together history and philosophical critiques of historicity and modernity, Seth has produced a book that is at once thoughtful and provocative. This outstanding book makes an original contribution to postcolonial criticism.” — Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sanjay Seth is Reader in Politics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, and Professor of Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of Marxist Theory and Nationalist Politics: The Case of Colonial India and a coeditor of the journal Postcolonial Studies.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part 1: Subject to Pedagogy

1. Changing the Subject: Western Knowledge and the Question of Difference 17

2. Diagnosing Moral Crisis: Western Knowledge and Its Indian Object 47

3. Which Past? Whose History? 79

Part II: Modern Knowledge, Modern Nation

4. Governmentality and Identity: Constituting the “Backward but Proud Muslim” 109

5. Gender and the Nation: Debating Female Education 129

6. Vernacular Modernity: The Nationalist Imagination 159

Epilogue: Knowing Modernity, Being Modern 183

Notes 197

Bibliography 235

Index 259
Sales/Territorial Rights: World exc South Asia

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4105-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4086-7
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