Curriculum

Calif. Texts Tied Up in Debate Over Portrayal of Hinduism

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 07, 2006 5 min read

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.”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum School Halts Use of Fictional Book in Which Officer Kills a Black Child
Fifth graders in at least one Broward County school were assigned to read a book that critics say casts police officers as racist liars.
Rafael Olmeda, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
5 min read
Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff listens during a meeting of the Broward County School Board, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff listens during a meeting of the Broward County School Board in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Alhadeff told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that she does not feel like the book "Ghost Boys" is appropriate for 5th graders.
Lynne Sladky/AP
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Whitepaper
6 Insights for Educators on Using Databases
Discover how teachers are effectively using databases with insights from educators who use Gale In Context: For Educators to collect, org...
Content provided by Gale
Curriculum Opinion Introducing Primary Sources to Students
Five educators share strategies for introducing primary sources to students, including English-language learners.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Curriculum Opinion Eight Ways to Teach With Primary Sources
Four educators share ways they use primary sources with students, including a strategy called "Zoom."
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty