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Jewish World Review
June 1, 2010
/ 19 Sivan 5770
The English Language and Freedom
While playing a tiny part in Britain's recent election, I noted one aspect of it with concern: Some of the people to whom we'd given the right to vote spoke little or no English. As the electoral arguments, especially the televised debates between the party leaders, were conducted entirely in English, how could these voters know what they were voting for?
It's my view that Britain and the U.S. do not do enough to promote the spread of English, which thereby decelerates or even reverses the spread of democratic freedom. There's little doubt, for instance, that the hostility of the Muslim world toward the West is promoted by the failure of Muslim countries to develop democratic institutions, which, in turn, has been brought about by a resistance to the spread of English. Even among educated Muslims few have read the writings of British philosophers John Locke and Edmund Burke, not to mention those of America's Founding Fathers, which has lead directly to a lack of understanding of what the West is about.
This problem will intensify as China moves massively and confidently onto the world scene. Very few mainland Chinese speak English nor do they have any conception of the liberal tradition that the language enshrines. It's alarming to realize that the Chinese government is spending massive amounts of money and deploying large numbers of people (by one calculation more than 1 million) to spread its notions and influence in Africa--cultural and political ideas that differ greatly from the West's.
Fortunately it's a different story in India, and the responsibility for this rests largely with one man, the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. In 1834 Macaulay was sent to India as an administrator, and the next year he found himself president of the Committee of Public Instruction for Bengal. As such, Macaulay made up his mind that Indians--there were then fewer than 250 million--must be taught English and be exposed to Western culture because it would, as he put it, give them the key "to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the Earth have created and hoarded in the course of 90 generations."
Macaulay's policy was adopted, and as a result large numbers of Indians, especially those in the ruling, intellectual and clerical classes, began to learn English. In the process they began to absorb cultural and political ideas from the West, especially the need to uphold and establish the rule of law and to set up representative institutions.
Since India gained its independence in 1947 English has continued to spread, and India--now with a population exceeding 1 billion--has maintained democratic structures and methods and free courts of law, despite what was once a situation of overwhelming pover-ty and many difficulties. The contrast with China is fundamental.
Moreover, because India remained attached to the English language umbilical cord, ideas, methods and technology flowed into its educated and commercial classes on a scale and in ways that China, especially since its years of Communist totalitarian rule, has been denied. This gave India the advantage of being able to bypass an updated version of the Industrial Revolution and embark straightaway upon the communications and Internet revolution.
But China--once its government relinquished total control of every aspect of the economy and made a bid to create consumer institutions and raise living standards rapidly--had no choice but to begin with old-style smokestack industrialization. With its ultracheap workforce, China has become good at building conventional mills and factories and exporting low-priced goods globally. It is accumulating huge currency reserves and is financing the expansion of its armed forces. But these advantages will not necessarily last, and China is in danger of landing itself with a prematurely outdated economy, mass unemployment and huge problems regarding pollution and industrial waste.
As the century progresses India has a good chance of moving to the head of the innovatory field. It has both the freedom and the language to be receptive to new ideas and is in a position to produce technologies of its own that may become global winners.
India is about to overtake China in terms of population and will also outdistance it economically and financially well before the end of the 21st century. Where India will stand in relation to the U.S. I don't know. But America, with its own soundly based democratic institutions and traditions of intellectual and economic freedom, will be well placed to remain in the front ranks. I predict this will be a neck-and-neck race, with China running a poor third and Russia and Europe limping in as also-rans.
In the meantime we must make a much more concerted and determined effort to repeat the Macaulay initiative, pushing to have English spoken and read in large portions of the world, especially in western Asia, Africa and Latin America.
International finance and commerce, investment and travel are to some extent furthering this aim. But government policy could do much to help. It's important that the Obama Administration and Britain's new government take this point. I would like to see all of their agents--from diplomats to administrators of aid programs to commanders in the armed forces--say to themselves: "Am I doing enough to help the spread of English and Western ideas?"
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