Panel resists textbook changes

Sacramento, USA - A special commission charged with approving California textbooks has resisted appeals to overhaul the way some sixth-grade textbooks describe Hinduism, leaving in references that scholars say are historically accurate but that many Hindus say are disrespectful, even humiliating.

Dozens of Silicon Valley parents and students testified Monday that the textbooks create racial prejudice due to excessive emphasis on negative aspects of ancient culture, such as the caste system and discrimination against women. But professors from Stanford, the University of California and other college campuses argued for leaving them in, saying history should not be tampered with, even if it is unpleasant.

``There clearly is no right answer on this,'' conceded Glee Johnson, a member of the committee and president of the State Board of Education. ``We did our best to come up with the best solution possible . . . so we can move forward.''

Every six years, as California reviews its textbooks, it invites public opinion. This year, it got more than it bargained for, as hundreds of Californians demanded changes to the history and social studies textbooks used in the state's sixth-grade classrooms.

The committee will present its decision at the March 8 meeting of the full Board of Education, which generally endorses its recommendations. The revised textbooks will be on students' desks in the fall.

At Monday's crowded hearing, the wide spectrum of opinions reflected the growing diversity of the state, with each voice asserting its own interpretation of past events.

The committee sought to find middle ground in the contested space of ancient history and religion. For instance, it changed some language that referred to a ``caste system'' to a ``class system.'' This angered those who say that social stratification is a part of the larger South East Asian culture, and is not intrinsic to the Hindu faith -- as well as those who say that ``class system,'' as the term is commonly used in America, inaccurately suggests social mobility in the rigid class-based society of India.

The committee rejected many changes proposed by two Hindu activist groups, the Vedic Foundation of Austin -- which includes many local members -- and California's chapter of the Hindu Education Foundation.

``The hearing was a farce,'' said Suhag Shukla, legal counsel for the Hindu American Foundation, which also sought changes. ``There are grounds for a lawsuit . . . A flawed process leads to a flawed outcome.''

Bhaavika Patel, a 10th-grader at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, said: ``Hindu kids are embarrassed about their religion, afraid to show their pride because their classmates make fun of them.''

``How many California students know that there is more to Hinduism than just the caste system?'' she asked. ``Learning from history is important. But it is the way that it is done -- how it is portrayed . . . We only hear of the negatives, and that makes us feel inferior.''

According to Charu Bhare, a science and math teacher in the Cupertino school district, ``How it is taught degrades the Hindu philosophy and faith, and all that is pride that we teach our children.''

The academic community and its defenders did not prevail on every point, but scholars who attended the hearing were relieved that many changes were not made.

``We have been greatly concerned over claims that equitable portrayal would prevail over historical accuracy,'' although academicians sought to be respectful of the faith, said Lawrence Cohen of the University of California-Berkeley. ``It is a slippery slope.''

``History is not written to make us feel better,'' said Simmy Makhijani of San Francisco. The inferior status of women and the ``untouchables'' of India should not be ignored, she said, because it is uncomfortable. ``It is important to recognize inequities, and combat them -- to challenge injustices in the system.''

Mohan Gillji of Yuba City, who was born into the poorest, ``untouchable'' class of India, said, ``Please do not hide any chapter of my oppressed people . . . If we remove or delete the `untouchability' from the books, they turn into worthless materials.''

Committee member Joe Nuñez, assistant director of the California Teachers Association, said, ``We sought to find a compromise that would work for most people . . . that is historically accurate, religiously neutral and represents the plurality of interests that have come to the table.''

To include every perspective, he said, ``would have meant publishing many, many textbooks.''