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New Battleground in Textbook Wars: Religion in History


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[Reproduced from The Wall Street Journal, Jan 25, 2006]
Hindu, Islamic, Jewish Groups Fault Portrayals of Events And Often Win Changes
The Untouchables Weigh In
January 25, 2006

The victors write the history books, the saying goes. But increasingly, religious advocates try to edit them.

Religious pressure on textbooks is growing well beyond Christian fundamentalists' attack on evolution. History books are the biggest battleground, as groups vie for changes in texts for elementary and secondary schools that cast their faiths in a better light.
Two Hindu groups and a Jewish group have been set up in the past three years as textbook watchdogs, adding to Islamic advocates who have monitored history textbooks since 1990. In addition, some Sikhs have started to complain about being short-changed in history textbooks.

All are seeking to extract concessions as California holds its periodic approval process for history textbooks. The process drives school-district purchases in the most populous state, and books adopted for California typically are the ones that schools in the rest of the country end up using for several years.

Hindu groups, in particular, have swamped California authorities with proposed revisions, which would delete or soften references to polytheism, the caste system and the inferior status of women in ancient India. For example, the Hindu Education Foundation, a group linked to a Hindu nationalist organization in India, proposed replacing a textbook's statement that "men had many more rights than women" in ancient India with: "Men had different duties ... as well as rights than women. Many women were among the sages to whom the Vedas [sacred texts] were revealed."

California's Curriculum Commission endorsed this and most other changes pushed by Hindu groups, moving the matter along to the state board of education, which usually follows its advice. But then a strong objection to such changes arrived from a group of U.S. scholars, led by a Harvard professor, Michael Witzel. The scholars' protest, in turn, led to a lawsuit threat, a call for Harvard to disband the professor's department, and finally an unusual state-sponsored head-to-head debate between two scholars of ancient India.
Underlying such free-for-alls is the question of whether lobbying by religious groups yields a more sensitive and accurate version of history or a sugar-coated one -- and also whether students are served better or less well. "It tends to be scholar pitted against believer," says Kenneth Noonan, a member of the state education board.

For textbook publishers, meanwhile, to ignore religious groups is to risk exclusion from markets. One of the nation's largest school districts, Fairfax County, Va., dropped a McGraw-Hill Cos. 10th-grade text from its recommended list last year after complaints from Hindu parents, keeping it out of classrooms there.

Religious protests nearly crippled Oxford University Press's effort to enter the U.S. world-history textbook market. The prestigious university press sought to impress California authorities with cutting-edge scholarship and narrative verve, but the Curriculum Commission initially recommended against adopting Oxford's sixth-grade book last fall after Jewish and Hindu groups objected to it.

The Institute for Curriculum Services, a Jewish group set up in 2004 to scrutinize textbooks, was upset by the book's statement that archaeology and ancient Egyptian records don't support the Biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. While conceding this was true, the group said the book didn't apply the same skepticism to Islamic or Christian events, such as when it said that "ancient writings" and the Gospel according to Matthew relate that "wise men (probably philosophers or astrologers) followed a brightly shining star" when Jesus was born. Similarly, the book said that "according to Muslim tradition," the prophet Muhammad flew into heaven from the site of the Dome of the Rock mosque.

The Hindu groups, meanwhile, called the book's tone insensitive, such as its heading over a column about vegetarianism in India: "Where's the Beef?" The state board finally put the book on its approved list after Oxford cut the passages found objectionable and added a paragraph saying that for Jews, the Exodus is a "central event in their history" and "powerful symbol of the importance of freedom."

Casper Grathwohl, an official of Oxford University Press, says it preserved its integrity, and the give-and-take improved the text. But he complains that "the process is skewed toward giving the loudest voices what they want."

Every six years, California adopts a list of history books for kindergarten through eighth grade, and districts can spend designated state money only for books on this list. Publishers typically roll out new textbooks for the state, whose districts are expected to buy nearly $200 million of history books over the next two years. California alone represents 10% to 12% of the national textbook market.

In the 1970s and 1980s, history texts shied away from religion. "They didn't use the 'capital G' word," says Roger Rogalin, a publishing consultant. "They said the pilgrims gave thanks on Thanksgiving, but they didn't say to whom."

Difficult Goals
Prodded by religious groups, states began requiring more coverage of the topic. But they imposed goals that can be hard to reconcile: both maintaining historical accuracy and enhancing the pride and self-esteem of believers. California's guidelines, for instance, say students "should understand the intense religious passions that have produced fanaticism and war." But also, texts should avoid "reflecting adversely" on anyone's creed or instilling "prejudice against...those who believe in other religions."

Such cautions provide an opportunity for religious activists such as the Council on Islamic Education in Fountain Valley, Calif. In California's most recent review, the council called for extensive changes, most of which the state appears likely to accept.

One target: A Prentice Hall text said the medieval spread of Islam was partly due to military conquest. "Actual conversion to Islam did NOT occur...at the point of a sword," the council told the state. A specialist appointed by the state board to review Islamic coverage recommended dropping the reference, and Prentice Hall says it will do so.
Publishers often hire the Council on Islamic Education to prescreen manuscripts. In California, the council is a "content consultant" for Houghton Mifflin Co. and Ballard & Tighe Co., an educational publisher in Brea, Calif. The council has sometimes advised Prentice Hall and other publishers as well.

Publishers have allowed the Islamic group to "dictate" content, charges Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, a New York nonprofit group that reviews history texts and has said they often lack depth and factual fidelity. "Islamic pressure groups have been working energetically for 15 years to scrub the past in instructional materials," he wrote to California officials. He added that "textbooks submitted either gloss over jihad, sharia [Islamic law], Muslim slavery, the status of women and Islamic terrorism -- or omit the subject altogether."

Houghton Mifflin says it hasn't ceded any control to the Council on Islamic Education, and seeks Hindu, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Buddhist perspectives too. "We listen to their input and weigh it against what our scholarly authors believe is true," a spokesman says. Ballard & Tighe says its text was examined by Jewish and Hindu experts as well as the Islamic council. "We're mostly looking not to insult people," says an executive of the publisher. A spokeswoman for Prentice Hall says it has found the Council on Islamic Education to be a "solid resource for reviewing content."

The council's founder, Shabbir Mansuri, says that texts are treating Islam better not because of his efforts but because of state guidelines that stress sensitivity toward religious beliefs.

Disputes over textbook portrayal of Hinduism are a staple of politics in India, and the concerns have arrived in America along with many Indian immigrants. The conventional view of ancient India in U.S. history texts is that men enjoyed more rights than women and that, then as now, Hindus worshipped many gods and were divided into castes.
But the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation, the educational arm of a Hindu temple in Austin, Texas, say Hinduism is monotheistic because all of its deities are aspects of one god, Brahman. So when one textbook referred to Hindus visiting temples to "express their love of the gods," this should be changed to "express their love for God," said the Vedic group.

The groups repeatedly proposed deleting references to the caste system and making other changes that burnished the image of Indian history and culture. For instance, McGraw-Hill's book said of an early monarch called Asoka that his "tolerance was unusual for the time." The Hindu Education Foundation suggested changing "unusual" to "usual."

'Source of Misunderstanding'
At the Vedic Foundation, "Our motto is to re-establish the greatness of Hinduism, and part of that is to correct the textbooks," says Janeshwari Devi, director of programs. "Those are a source of misunderstanding, prejudice and derogatory information."
Some Hindu students say they're humiliated in school because texts dwell on customs such as ostracism of untouchables and an old tradition, rarely observed today, of "sati" -- widows immolating themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres. Trisha Pasricha, a high-school junior in a Houston suburb, says she used to deny being Hindu to classmates because she was tired of refuting stereotypes perpetuated by textbooks and teachers. "The textbooks bring up all these obscure practices, like bride burning, and act like they happen every day," she says. "The biggest mistake is that Hinduism is portrayed as polytheistic. And the caste system has nothing to do with Hinduism. But no one believes you, because it's in the textbook."

But some prominent scholars, both non-Hindu and Hindu, say the books were right. According to Madhav Deshpande, a Sanskrit professor at the University of Michigan who is Hindu, Hinduism is polytheistic and linked to the caste system, and women did have inferior status in ancient India.

He says the Hindu groups hold a mistaken position that dates to when India was ruled by Britain in the 19th century and under pressure from Christian missionaries. The missionaries told prospective converts Christianity was superior because it had one god, treated women fairly, and didn't have castes, Mr. Deshpande says, adding that to counter, Hindu intellectuals made up an argument that their religion had once been the same way. The foundations' contention that the caste system developed separately from Hinduism is incorrect, he maintains, because "in ancient texts, there is no distinction between the religious and nonreligious domains of life."

Jackson Spielvogel, a retired Penn State professor and author of McGraw-Hill's "Ancient Civilizations" textbook, says, "You can't allow Hindu nationalists to rewrite the history of India.... It becomes an issue of censorship."

To review changes proposed by the Hindu groups, California hired an expert recommended by one of the groups: Shiva Bajpai, a retired California State University history professor. He endorsed most of their changes. "I want to recognize the negatives but project the positives," says Mr. Bajpai, who is Hindu.

With his blessing, the changes were rolling toward ratification by the state board when Harvard's Prof. Witzel unexpectedly intervened. Alerted by an Indian-American graduate student whom the Vedic Foundation had approached to support its changes, Mr. Witzel wrote to the board the day before a Nov. 9 meeting at which approval of the Hindu-backed changes was expected. "They are unscholarly [and] politically and religiously motivated," wrote Mr. Witzel, a Sanskrit professor. His letter was co-signed by nearly 50 scholars, including Mr. Deshpande of Michigan.

Mr. Witzel calls the Hindu Education Foundation a front for a prominent nationalist group in India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose leader caused a stir in November by urging Hindu women to have more children to keep up with the Muslim growth rate. A spokesman for the Hindu Education Foundation acknowledges a connection -- it was established by the U.S. counterpart of the Indian group -- but says it acts independently.
State officials did an about-face after they got Mr. Witzel's letter, inviting him and two like-minded scholars to scrutinize Mr. Bajpai's recommendations. When the three advised restoring much of the textbooks' original wording, angry letters began pouring in from Hindu groups. One, the Hindu American Foundation, threatened to sue the state. A petition from Hindu advocates called on Harvard to end its association with "Aryan Supremacist Creationist hate mongering." Harvard responded by defending Mr. Witzel's academic freedom.

The groups persuaded two members of California's congressional delegation to weigh in. Rep. Pete Stark, a Unitarian, and Rep. Linda Sanchez, a Catholic, asked the state superintendent of public instruction to investigate Mr. Witzel. The superintendent replied that the state had already held three public hearings on the history texts, received more than 1,000 pages of testimony, and considered more than 800 textual changes.

The pendulum swung back on Dec. 2, when the Curriculum Commission voted to support most of the changes sought by the Hindu foundations. "We have to err on the side of sensitivity toward religion," a commission member, Stan Metzenberg, said at the time.
The game wasn't over. Other Hindu groups -- including members of the "untouchables" caste -- entered the fray on Mr. Witzel's behalf. The Dalit Freedom Network, an advocacy group for untouchables, wrote to the education board that the proposed Vedic and Hindu Education Foundation changes reflect "a view of Indian history that softens...the violent truth of caste-based discrimination in India.... Do not allow politically-minded revisionists to change Indian history."

Caught in the cross-fire, the board of education summoned Mr. Witzel and Mr. Bajpai to an unusual private session Jan. 6. Before board and commission members, staffers and the board's lawyer, the scholars debated each edit.

"It was a gladiator combat," Mr. Bajpai recalls, "the most acrimonious thing I have ever done in my entire life. It deteriorated into me telling him he didn't understand anything." Mr. Witzel says Mr. Bajpai "mixed his religion with scholarship."

The duo did reach consensus on some changes. They agreed to narrow the McGraw-Hill text's statement that men in ancient India had "more rights" than women to "more property rights" -- but not to the Hindu groups' preferred wording of "different" rights.
Still, it isn't certain the compromises reached by the two scholars will stand. At a meeting Jan. 12, the state board of education created a subcommittee to reconsider the matter -- and to prepare for still more religious pressure when books are expected to be added to the list in two years.

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