Hindu Parents Challenge California Textbooks

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In California, Hindu parents are taking aim at textbooks from the state's public schools. Two groups are demanding revisions, claiming that some history texts shortchange the Hindu culture. The case raises questions of how far the state should go to accommodate these groups and others with complaints.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In California, a special commission charged with approving history textbooks is in the middle of a contentious debate. It is not about evolution or creationism or even Christopher Columbus. The fight is over the portrayal of ancient India and the rise of Hinduism.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the argument has far-reaching implications because schools across the country adopt the textbooks that California uses.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

The California Board of Education was lobbied by Hindu activist groups who claim that the real story of Hinduism isn't told in history textbooks. They objected to passages on the caste system, the origins of Hinduism, and the rights of women in ancient India.

For example, here's one of the passages they wanted changed:

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: "Men had many more rights than women. Unless there were no sons in a family, only a man could inherit property. Only men could go to school or become priests."

GONZALES: Instead, the Hindu activist groups proposed this change:

UNIDENTIFED WOMAN: "Men had different rights and duties than women. Women's education was mostly done at home."

GONZALES: Michael Woodsell (ph), a linguist and professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, calls this change a whitewash.

Mr. MICHAEL WOODSELL (Harvard University): As far as women are concerned, it is clearly a misrepresentation of history.

GONZALES: Woodsell is associated with a group of Hindu scholars who say the textbook changes are promoted by Hindu Nationalists who are trying to re-write history. But Shiva Bajpai, a retired history professor at Cal State Northridge, disagrees. He says it would be a mistake to look at ancient Indian society through the prism of modern concerns.

Mr. SHIVA BAJPAI (Cal State University, retired): To read modern concerns of inequality and equality into ancient society is not advisable, because it distorts the study of our ancient society, their value systems, and their worldview.

GONZALES: This kind of debate isn't new. School boards in California and elsewhere have become embroiled in similar controversies over history instruction as it relates to various ethnic, religious, and cultural groups.

And that troubles Diane Ravitch. She's a historian of education at New York University, and she's written a book about the huge impact of pressure groups on public school textbooks.

Ms. DIANE RAVITCH (New York University): What happens is you get a large numbers of groups coming in and saying, delete this, it offends me. And every time something is deleted on grounds of political pressure, the text ends up being distorted. We end up teaching children half-truths, omissions, and lies.

GONZALES: The result, says Ravitch, is a history determined by whatever group shouts the loudest. But California historian Kevin Starr says that this conflict comes with the territory in a global culture with scores of different groups who want their version of the events to be told.

For example, he says, 50 years ago, a history of the west would probably say nothing about women, Latinos, or environmental degradation. Now, Starr says, as newer groups assert themselves, they will make demands the state school board will have to negotiate.

Mr. KEVIN STARR (Southern California University): They have to say to themselves, number one, we cannot put false history in our textbooks. We cannot. Number two they have to say, in putting history in our textbooks we have to be as sensitive as possible to those for whom this is a living tradition. Now that comes down to, really, a lot of very hard negotiation and decisions that will not completely please either side.

GONZALES: Neither side in the latest California textbook battle is relenting, as they trade charges of ideological bias and distorting history. The dispute over how Hinduism will be depicted is now in the hands of a sub-committee of the State Board of Education, which is withholding comment until this controversy is resolved.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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