In response to Deepshikha Mahanta Bortamuly’s plea that it is high time we paid attention to the current situation of English as a discipline in India (‘English-vinglish, culture-vulture’, IE, June 9), I would like to explore what the discipline of English Studies has to offer to this country. Reflecting on English as a humanities discipline, leaving apart its different roles, offers exciting insights about the way we need to build up an intellectual culture. Reviving the tradition of reading classics in English will be more illuminating than treating it merely as an avenue for the job market.
Among all postcolonial nations, the case of India is unique as far as the teaching of English is concerned. When most Third World countries of the erstwhile Empire sought to teach English only as a language, India taught its citizens English through literature. In contrast to West Indian and African countries where English was mostly seen as a lingua franca and where the ELT (English Language Teaching) model of the British Council flourished, India chose to engage with literary texts. Several generations, including scientists, social scientists and humanists, acquired their idiom by reading the classics of English literature. It was not simply an education in Wren and Martin grammar, but an initiation into nourishing a taste, sense and sensitivity for the nuances of English.
However, the intellectual life of English in India is facing a serious threat. A large section of the English teaching community believes in developing only the communicative competence of students. Our curricula have shifted teaching focus from the pleasures of reading great works to speaking at the workplace and writing resumes. The narrowing down of the discipline merely to language teaching has impoverished not only humanities but also other knowledge systems, including the natural sciences and social sciences.
It is high time that we restore the moorings of the discipline to its present practice. It is worthwhile to look at it as a liberal arts education — as education in literature and culture, art and ethics — promoting what the Germans call bildung. If schools teach basic language skills, colleges shall teach English for knowledge use. The responsibility of producing the physicist who can read and understand advanced physics in English or the social scientist who can master Marx, Weber, or Freud in English rests on the vigour of this discipline. A scientist or a social scientist with a literary bent of mind, I believe, will do better science than those who have some data.
What is the speciality of learning language through literature? Apart from inculcating in ourselves literary sensibilities and the power of imagination, we acquire a fine sense of language. Because, poets are the purifiers of the dialects of a culture, they recycle the language corrupted by the media and the everyday erratic use of language by common people.
Whatever the ideological debates about the linguistic imperialism of English, the discipline has constantly reinvented itself by being open to different domains of knowledge. The landscape of its curriculum, at the global level, ranges from cultural studies to ecological studies. However, the rigour of the discipline is gradually fading in India. The discipline trained several generations in close reading, the art of deciphering complex systems of meaning, and in decoding the figurative language for deeper understanding of cultures. Now it is time to restore this philological spirit back to the practice of this discipline.
It also is time to rethink specific goals for the discipline. It is productive to take a look at the formation of vernacular literary cultures in India during the pre-modern period. Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men shows how the Kannada literary culture was shaped by its interaction with the Sanskrit cosmopolis. Similarly, the present cosmopolis of English has much to offer to our regional languages to form their identity as languages of knowledge. It is also equally important to write about local literatures and cultures in English. The recent instance of Vanamala Viswanatha’s translation of Harischandra Kavya, a Kannada classic into English published by Harvard University’s Murthy Classical Library, is an exemplary move. Thus, we have to nurture these two best practices enabled by the discipline — the shaping of local knowledge systems and the translation of the local culture for a global readership. The task of the English discipline is not to produce the monolingual teacher who can teach “spoken English” and the art of email writing, but a bilingual scholar and intellectual who can read cultural codes when he engages with different texts.