The Early Seeds of Modern Education
The modernization process among the Parsis was accelerated by travels by sea to England. For the Hindus at that time it was a taboo to travel by sea. Since the first Parsi had visited England in 1723, the number of Parsis who studied or transacted business in England grew especially during the 19th century. For Indians and the Parsi community in particular, the most effective agent of socio-cultural change proved to be the education system. It must also be remembered that a section of Parsis had already achieved outstanding positions before the rudiments of a modern educational system appeared in India. After the ‘Bombay Native Education Society’, which was to start a number of schools and the Elphinstone College was founded in 1820, a large group of Parsis came forward realizing the new possibilities of social and occupational mobility. While some wealthy Parsi families still hesitated and preferred to get their children educated by private schools (in 1849, there were 9 private English schools in Bombay) and private teachers, it was above all, members of the middle and poorer Parsi classes who made use of the new educational institutions. At the Elphinstone College a group of young Parsis came together to introduce basic and far reaching reforms in the community around the middle of the nineteenth century.
Impact of Education on Parsis
The educational system newly introduced in Bombay and the intensive use that Parsis made of it, impacted the community in two ways:
1) A higher than average number of Parsis acquired the lingual and educational qualifications necessary for access to new occupational roles in the administrative, health, legal and educational systems, as well as for new technical and commercial occupations. This explains the lead and exceedingly high participation of Parsis in higher professions during the 19th century;
2) Around 1850, new educational institutions had generated such a desire for reforms among the Parsis, that the subconscious assimilation process was turned into channels of consciously initiated social and religious reforms.
Education of Women
In 1848, one year before Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy laid the foundation of an independent Parsi educational system with Bombay’s first Parsi school, a group of young reformers under the leadership of Dr. Dadabhai Naoroji, started along with English teachers and some Hindus, the ‘Students’ Literary and Scientific Society”, the primary aim of which was to raise the educational standards of the population by providing school facilities and voluntary, partially unpaid teachers. Two months later, they recruited 44 pupils for four Parsi classes and 24 pupils for three Hindu classes. As the schools got into financial difficulties after 6 months, 4 Parsi donors helped out, among them 3 from the Cama family. Without financial support of Parsis, this society would have met with an early demise.
This society considered education of young women particularly importance, something which had been neglected by the Elphinstone Institution up till then. In this regard, Parsis proved to be decades ahead of all other Indian communities. The society’s 9 schools for girls were attended in 1855 by 740 girls, 475 of them Parsis, 178 Maharashtrian Hindus and 87 Gujarati Hindus.
In 1857, Parsis took over the management of schools attended by Parsi girls through the ‘Parsi Girls School Association’, and extended their dominant position almost to a monopoly. Dr. Reid, the English Chairman of the Ssociety, pointed at this Parsi monopoly in a strong censor of the Hindus stating, “Let the successful efforts which are now being made by our Parsi fellow citizens stimulate you to healthy exertion. Over 1,200 I believe of the daughters of that enterprising and progressive people are now receiving instructions whereas 10 years ago there were not perhaps 20.”
While Parsi schools initially taught in Gujarati, English was added as a language of instruction after the 1970s. As a forerunner of this trend the ‘Alexandra Native Girls Educational Institute’ founded by Maneckjee Cursetjee in 1863 had come into prominence.
The high participation of Parsi pupils was not limited to the Elphinstone Institute and to the Parsi schools but could be observed just as well in the mission schools and colleges, particularly the Wilson College (1861) and Xavier’s (1868). This indicates that Parsis did their best to grasp every educational opportunity offered. From Bombay, the focus later moved to Gujarat and Sir Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy endowed the first school in Navsari in 1853 and Sir Cowasji Jehangir established another in 1854. Initially, there was opposition from orthodox quarters with regard to the introduction of the English language and the concept of co-education, and therefore Dosabhai Framji established the first girl’s school in 1858.
The Parsi education system was built up with élan and enormous expenditure in the second half of 19th century. It was ahead of all communities in India and made it possible for the community to move at that time into key economic, cultural and even political positions. However, later, other communities marched ahead and Parsi schools went out of date. They lacked flexibility and willingness to modernize. The well-to-do Parsis started to send their children to private Jesuit schools and many Parsi schools remained institutions for the lower classes.
The role of the Parsi community in promoting education and particularly education for girls is stellar. Even today it remains an ethnic minority in India that boasts cent per cent literacy. What’s more, young Parsi girls pursue higher education more than young Parsi boys and this often leads to inter-faith marriages because, reportedly, highly educated Parsi girls are unable to find equally educated Parsi boys. High literacy also leads to late marriages and often no marriages. This is the supreme irony the Parsi community lives with. Investing in education has given this community empowerment and emancipation, but, it has also contributed to its declining numbers.