But decision by state Board of Education is supported by some Hindu Americans
Sacramento — A tumultuous chapter in California textbook history reached a climax this week when the state Board of Education rejected demands from some Hindu groups for many changes in new textbooks’ treatments of ancient India.
The 8-0 vote with two abstentions followed a passionate 90-minute public hearing Wednesday and capped months of other hearings and intensive lobbying by activists and scholars that attracted national attention.
“What is at stake here is the embarrassment and humiliation that these Hindu children (in America) continue to face because of the way textbooks portray their faith and culture,” said Jihane Ayed of Ruder Finn, a New York-based public relations firm representing the Vedic Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation.
The foundations say Hinduism is tarnished by textbook portrayals of the untouchable caste and inferior status of women in ancient India more than 2,500 years ago. They also object to depictions of Hinduism as polytheistic and the inclusion of the theory that an Aryan migration played a key role in the development of Indian civilization.
Other Hindu Americans applauded the Board of Education.
The conflict arose as the board of education underwent its once-every-six-years textbook adoption process for history and social science textbooks for grades K-8 in public schools.
“What one person considers historically accurate, another person views as a racist text,” board member Ruth Green told the packed hearing room in Sacramento.
Janeshwari Devi, Vedic Foundation projects director, said the board’s action “leaves a lot of inconsistencies, distortions and negative slants in the books.”
The two foundations submitted about 500 proposed changes, and more than 80 percent were not approved, Devi said.
The Department of Education’s curriculum director, Thomas Adams, told the board that the approved changes included the ones that all parties agreed to, such as removing “Where’s the Beef” as the title of a section about India.
Anu Mandavilli, a representative of Friends of South Asia, a group that includes Hindus and that opposed the controversial changes sought by the Hindu foundations, called the board’s action “a big victory for secular history.”
“The board stood up to threats of lawsuits and voted in favor of historical accuracy instead of strong tactics by community groups,” she said.
Deborah Caplan, a lawyer representing the Hindu American Foundation, told the board it violated the law during the approval process and would be sued if it adopted the recommendations forwarded by the Department of Education staff and a board subcommittee vote on Feb. 27. It is those recommendations the board essentially adopted.
Caplan said Thursday that she expects to file the suit against the board of education early next week.
California textbook battles are not new, but this year’s dispute attracted extra attention, and the process was delayed several months.
The Department of Education received more submissions than ever before, with 11 publishers in April offering history and social studies textbooks and supplementary materials for sixth grade, when ancient India is usually taught in California.
“We’ve literally been deluged with reams of comment,” said Rebecca Parker, an administrator for the Board of Education. “Schools need these materials. Publishers are really worried about having time to do all the printing.”
Nine publishers were approved to publish sixth-grade textbooks for next fall. The two Hindu foundations sought changes in all nine textbooks offered by the publishers.
California is closely watched in large part because it has a huge influence on what other states use.
“What California adopts today will be sold across the nation tomorrow,” says a new report on California textbook adoption by the American Textbook Council, an independent research organization based in New York.
Islamic and Jewish organizations also lobbied the state during the adoption process. The leading Islamic watchdog of textbooks, the Islamic Council on Education, urged changes in descriptions of Muhammad and early Islam.
A Jewish group called the Institute for Curriculum Services also sought many changes. In the Houghton Mifflin and McDougal Littell textbooks, for example, the group sought removal of a reference to early Hebrews believing they were “God’s chosen people” because the phrase is often used to denigrate Jews.
But the groups that were most vociferous in the final stages were the Vedic Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation, who say they speak for the Hindu American mainstream, a claim that is disputed.
Critics, including many U.S. scholars and many American Hindus, say the two foundations are linked to right-wing nationalist Hindu movements in India.
“The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but a religious-political nature,” Harvard Sanskrit Professor Michael Witzel said in a Nov. 8 letter to the Board of Education that was co-signed by 47 scholars of India.
“We have no political affiliation,” said Devi of the Vedic Foundation, which she described as the educational arm of Barsana Dham, a Hindu temple in Austin, Texas.
Even though the board resisted many of the changes sought by activist groups this time, the conflict could still impact future textbooks with publishers being tempted to soften the content on their own initiative, said Stanford University professor of education Sam Wineburg.
“Publishers will tread on this territory ever more lightly,” Wineburg said, noting that publishing companies are private, profit-driven multinational companies.
Attempts to obtain comment from several of the publishers were not successful.
Adding fuel to a long-running debate, adversaries battled over whether historical accuracy is sacrificed on the altar of political correctness and whether textbooks promote negative stereotypes of religious and ethnic groups.
“The result,” said Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, “is textbook editors censor themselves. They fall all over themselves to try to cater to one pressure group.”