Curriculum

Calif. Texts Tied Up in Debate Over Portrayal of Hinduism

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 07, 2006 5 min read
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California education officials have been caught off guard by an aggressive campaign by two Hindu organizations to recast sections of several middle school history texts dealing with the religious and cultural history of ancient India—and a resulting counter campaign by other groups and scholars.

Now, the California state board of education has launched its own review of the textbooks and the suggested changes, which is expected to be completed later this month.

“We agree with state board President Glee Johnson when she said, ‘History is probably one of the most emotional and difficult subjects to sort out,’ ” Deborah Keys, who chairs the state curriculum commission, said in an e-mail. “People care about these issues, but it is not always easy to tell what is factual in this arena.”

California adopts history/social studies textbooks every seven years after extensive reviews by the state curriculum commission and public hearings. School districts can use state funds to buy those that end up on its approved list.

The state has seen its share of tugs of war over the content of textbooks in the past decade or so, particularly between religious groups and history scholars. Still, the outcome over this most recent flap could influence textbooks across the country.

California is the largest of the so-called textbook-adoption states, which must review and approve textbooks for elementary and middle schools. As the nation’s most lucrative textbook market, publishers often model their instructional materials around the state’s strict guidelines for academic content. Publishers may be asked to make dozens, if not hundreds, of changes.

Adverse Effects?

The latest controversy started to simmer this past fall when the Hindu Education Foundation, in the San Francisco Bay area, and the Vedic Foundation recommended more than 500 changes.

The groups argued that Hinduism is largely presented in a negative light and, in some cases, inaccurately, violating the state’s prohibition of content that “adversely affects” racial, religious, or ethnic groups.

“We’ve documented the inaccuracies and biases in the textbooks, … and this misinformation affects people very deeply,” said Janeshwari Devi, the director of programs at the Austin, Texas-based Vedic Foundation, whose goal is to “re-establish the greatness of Hinduism” by educating Americans about the religion. “The actions [opposing groups] have taken are hurting the children of California by trying to perpetuate the misinformation.”

One disputed section describes India’s caste system as evolving from a belief that light-skinned people, or Aryans, “were better than dark-skinned people they encountered in India.” The groups recommended rewording the section to say the system was created “to obtain efficient organization and functioning of the society in ancient India.”

The group also called a headline on one section on vegetarianism—titled “Where’s the Beef?”—culturally insensitive and asked that it say simply “Vegetarianism.”

After consulting with a scholar of ancient Indian history, the state’s curriculum commission approved many of the changes.

“I tried to evaluate the edits and corrections based on their historical accuracy and cultural authenticity,” said Shiva Bajpai, a professor emeritus of ancient Indian history at California State University-Northridge. “In the 6th grade, you have to be sensitive to what’s taught to young, impressionable minds, … [and] these textbooks are talking about only the negatives of Hindu history and culture.”

But when the recommendations were sent on to the state school board in November, an urgent letter by a Harvard University professor, and signed by other prominent historians both in the United States and abroad, warned that “the proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature.” The letter by Michael Witzel, a scholar who studies Sanskrit, the ancient writings of India, says of the Hindu groups’ recommendations: “These opinions do not reflect the views of the majority of specialists on ancient Indian history nor of mainstream Hindus.”

A similar debate erupted in India several years ago when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or the Indian People’s Party, came to power and pushed for similar changes to textbooks.

Mr. Witzel wrote that the state board would “trigger an immediate international scandal … if it were to unwittingly endorse religious-nationalistic views of Indian history.”

Other groups responded as well, including the San Francisco-based Friends of South Asia, a non-profit working for a “demilitarized, nuclear-free South Asia,” which agreed with Mr. Witzel that the proposed changes were an attempt “to distort history texts with propaganda.”

As a result of the outcry, the California state board put off voting on the revisions.

‘Examine the Process’

Such debates have resulted from the growing involvement of interest groups in the textbook-adoption process in key states, particularly California and Texas, according to Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the American Textbook Council, a New York City-based organization that reviews history textbooks.

“I am surprised by the extremely close reading of the textbooks on these issues,” said Mr. Sewall, who has documented similar efforts by groups that want to revise the portrayal of Islam in texts. (“Review of Islam In Texts Causes Furor,” Feb. 19, 2003.)

“No matter what the writers write,” he said, “the activists come to the table and want to apply coats of varnish or euphemisms or tone anything down that might reflect unfavorably on the culture.”

Michael Matsuda, a high school teacher who is member of California’s curriculum commission, said the dispute reflects broader problems with the state’s textbook-adoption process. Given that the panels reviewing the textbooks are volunteers with inadequate time to devote to the task, some issues raised by the public can take state officials by surprise.

Without adequate input, or sufficient information about the subject matter, the curriculum commission, which advises the state board on textbook content, is vulnerable to the pressure from interest groups, he said.

“The state really needs to examine the overall adoption process,” Mr. Matsuda said. “There was so much at stake on this adoption, but it wasn’t adequately resourced.”

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