In this blog, we are going to learn about the Dilemma of Colonial Education. French colonization was not based only on economic exploitation. It was also driven by the idea of a ‘civilizing mission’. Like the British in India, the French claimed that they were bringing modern civilization to the Vietnamese. They took for granted that Europe had developed the most advanced civilization. So it became the duty of the Europeans to introduce these modern ideas to the colony even if this meant destroying local cultures, religions, and traditions because these were seen as outdated and prevented modern development. Education was seen as one way to civilize the ‘native’.
But in order to educate them, the French had to resolve a dilemma. How far were the Vietnamese to be educated? The French needed an educated local labor force but they feared that education might create problems. Once educated, the Vietnamese may begin to question colonial domination. Moreover, French citizens living in Vietnam (called colons) began fearing that they might lose their jobs – as teachers, shopkeepers, policemen – to the educated Vietnamese. So they opposed policies that would give the Vietnamese full access to French education.
The French were faced with yet another problem in the sphere of education: the elites in Vietnam were powerfully influenced by Chinese culture. To consolidate their power, the French had to counter this Chinese influence. So they systematically dismantled the traditional educational system and established French schools for the Vietnamese. But this was not easy. Chinese, the language used by the elites so far, had to be replaced.
But what was to take its place? Was the language to be Vietnamese or French? There were two broad opinions on this question. Some policymakers emphasized the need to use the French language as the medium of instruction. By learning the language, they felt, the Vietnamese would be introduced to the culture and civilization of France. This would help create an ‘Asiatic France solidly tied to European France’.
The educated people in Vietnam would respect French sentiments and ideals, see the superiority of French culture and work for the French. Others were opposed to French being the only medium of instruction. They suggested that Vietnamese be taught in lower classes and French in the higher classes.
The few who learned French and acquired French culture were to be rewarded with French citizenship. However, only the Vietnamese elite – comprising a small fraction of the population – could enroll in the schools, and only a few among those admitted ultimately passed the school-leaving examination.
This was largely because of a deliberate policy of failing students, particularly in the final year, so that they could not qualify for the better-paid jobs. Usually, as many as two-thirds of the students failed. In 1925, in a population of 17 million, there were less than 400 who passed the examination. School textbooks glorified the French and justified colonial rule.
The Vietnamese were represented as primitive and backward, capable of manual labor but not of intellectual reflection; they could work in the fields but not rule themselves; they were ‘skilled copyists’ but not creative. School children were told that only French rule could ensure peace in Vietnam: ‘Since the establishment of French rule, the Vietnamese peasant no longer lives in constant terror of pirates. Calm is complete, and the peasant can work with a good heart. We hope we answered your query on the Dilemma of Colonial Education. Keep Reading!