A Historic Compromise

Discontent over a sixth-grade textbook roils California's South Asian community and scholars


| March 9, 2006


It's said that history is written by the winners. But it's also written -- and rewritten -- by textbook publishers. From Texas to Japan, textbooks have been the objects of heated controversy, with protesters often seeing nothing less than history at stake.

One recent clash occurred in California. The weekly newspaper India-West reports that South Asian groups there bumped heads with each other and religious scholars over the representation of Hindu culture and religion in the state's sixth-grade textbooks. Points of contention included the caste system, Aryan migration, and the treatment of women. As India-West reported in a piece picked up by the Pacific News Service in December, among the changes sought were replacing the sentence 'Men had many more rights than women,' with 'Men had different duties (dharma) as well as rights than women. Many women were among the sages to whom the Vedas were revealed.'

The suggested changes kicked up a storm of critics, including a band of prominent religious scholars led by Harvard Sanskrit professor Michael Witzel. In a letter to the California Board of Education (CBE), Witzel wrote, 'The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature, and are primarily promoted by Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their area of expertise.' As proponents insisted the changes were necessary to correct 'biases and distortions,' the academics argued that they tended to cast a warm light on the colder aspects of Indian culture.

After months of fiery debate between the groups, a CBE subcommittee voted in favor of editing the state's sixth-grade social science and history textbooks. Seventy percent of the changes presented by the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) and Vedic Foundation were approved, according to the HEF, in a compromise largely accepted by the groups involved. The full board is meeting to make a final decision on the changes from March 8-10. Meanwhile, the ramifications of these changes could cross state borders. Since California buys more textbooks than any other US state, the decision made there could set the precedent for schools across the nation.

Go there >> Panel Accepts Some Textbook Edits After Compromise

Go there too >> Hindus and Sikhs Protest Curriculum Changes in Calif. Textbooks