Letters of Support
|[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
By DANIEL GOLDEN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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."
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
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
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
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
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.