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Feb 16, 2006


FOSA/CAC Position

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Letter to the California State Board of Education
from Dr. Shefali Chandra, Assistant Professor, History and Women's Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Glee Johnson
State Board of Education
1430 N Street, Room 5111
Sacramento, CA 95814

Cc: Jack O’Connell, Superintendent
California Department of Education

Dr. Thomas Adams, Director
Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division
California Department of Education

SUBJECT: Dismay over proposed, sectarian edits to California State textbooks

Dear Ms. Johnson and Members of the Board of Education,

I write to you as a professor of Indian and South Asian history in the United States, with a specialization in the history of women and gender, especially in the history of women’s education in India. Just as urgently, I write to you as a woman, an Indian, and a Hindu. I would like to place on record my deep opposition to the proposed, sectarian changes being suggested by certain organizations to text-books in the state of California.

The Curriculum Commission’s decision to accept some recommendations made by ideologues of the Vedic Foundation (VF) and the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), despite the timely interventions proposed by established scholars from leading universities in the United States, is of urgent concern. Most particularly pressing is the issue of re-writing the history of gender relations in ancient India. Allow me to discuss a few specific examples, and to re-emphasize why these changes will be detrimental to the education of young students in California.

The original assertion in the Harcourt School Publishers text (p. 245) which states that ‘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’ is being substituted by the claim that ‘men had different rights… women’s education was mostly done at home.’

This is an appalling distortion of history. It discourages us from learning how gender difference was deepened through the propagation of knowledge. Indian society was certainly not the only one that used ideas of gender difference to sanction male access to, and the restriction over, forms of knowledge. This is one of those essential lessons of history that every student - regardless of national or ethnic affiliation – needs to know. In my own history classes I discuss the differential access of men and women to education so my students may better appreciate why certain forms of knowledge were especially conducive in producing social difference; I also evoke this important example so they may better comprehend the necessity of an equal access to education today.

Similarly, the assertion that ‘men had many more rights than women’ (in the Glencoe/ McGraw –Hill textbook, p. 245) is being replaced with the claim that ‘men had different duties … Many women were among the sages to whom the Vedas were revealed.’ Once again, this is a gross fabrication. The Vedas were a compendium of social observations culled over time through debates between generations of male scholars. Women were not allowed to learn Sanskrit, the language in which the Vedas were later codified. That these texts could be ‘revealed’ – to anyone, leave alone those prohibited from learning Sanskrit - is an egregious misrepresentation. It encourages a fanstastical view of history, and diverts our attention away from learning about the mutually reinforcing connections between language, social class and knowledge.

The textbooks under review are not perfect, yet they permit some understanding of the existence of gender difference throughout the world. The imbalance between men and women in other cultures is presented by these textbook series – the McGraw Hill/Glencoe publication (Discovering Our Past. Ancient Civilizations (2006)) describes the differing power between men and women throughout the world: “In ancient Egypt, the father headed the family” (p. 164); among ancient Israelites as, “Sons were especially valued because they carried on the family name” (p. 218). In China it is represented as, “Men were respected because they grew the crops. They went to school, ran the government… Chinese women could not hold government posts (p. 287); in Sparta, Greece as,“Wives lived at home while their husbands lived in the barracks” (p. 346); and women in Athens as “For Athenian women, life revolved around home and family. Girls married early --at 14 or 15-- and were expected to have children and take care of household duties. .... they could leave the house only if a male relative went with them” (p. 362) and so on.

Hindu and Indian women have made tremendous contributions to the world, one of which is to combat those inequalities originally sanctioned by the male control over knowledge and language. Why then is the HEF and VF invested in mystifying our knowledge of gender difference in ancient India? Their agenda is propelled by a conviction in cultural policing. Ultimately the effect will be to destroy our understanding of the tremendous change in knowledge and power that our world has witnessed over time.
Educators cannot hide behind false history simply because it smoothes the cultural embarrassment of a small section of the population. I trust that the State Board will add my letter to the concerted outrage expressed by established scholars of Indian and South Asian history on this terrible misrepresentation of history.

I thank you for your consideration.

Shefali Chandra
Assistant Professor of Indian and South Asian History; Gender and Women’s Studies
University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign
309 Gregory Hall
810 S. Wright Street
Urbana IL 61801

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