Thanks to community efforts, books for middle-school world history classes will have substantially improved chapters on India and Hinduism

The california state board of education concluded its History-Social Science Framework adoption process on July 14, 2016, having created a significantly improved (though not yet perfect) narrative on Hinduism and India. Hindu American groups generally felt positive and optimistic about the prospects of adopting new textbooks in the state. These groups, which included the Hindu American Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation, were hopeful that the improvements made to the Framework’s sixth- and seventh-grade sections would be reflected and expanded upon in the upcoming textbooks.

At the same time, there were fears about how the ensuing adoption process for new textbooks would play out. For instance, would publishers still be largely constrained by the state’s outdated Content Standards (which includes the abandoned Aryan Invasion theory and an over-focus on caste)? And how might that limit their ability to make improvements to the books?

Taking a Stand: Some of the hundreds of Hindu American parents and their children present at the November 9, 2017, meeting of the California State Board of Education, standing outside the building with signs protesting the treatment of Hinduism in some of the textbooks recommended for adoption

Furthermore, based on past history, Hindu American groups remained apprehensive about the possibility of a last-minute intervention by “South Asian” activists and academics. It was expected they would seek to disrupt the process or insert inaccurate depictions of Hinduism and India into the draft textbooks, as they had during the Framework adoption process.

California’s Review Process

In order to adopt new textbook programs, California must follow certain guidelines and create formal review panels. While the whole process is often called “textbook adoption,” these days the printed textbooks may be supplemented or even entirely replaced with web-based programs. This adoption process involved a total of ten panels with eight to ten members each. The members of each panel must include one Content Review Expert (CRE) who holds a PhD in the appropriate field and is usually a university or college professor, and several Instructional Material Reviewers (IMRs), who may be schoolteachers, parents or concerned community members, all of whom are appointed after a formal evaluation. In addition to these members of the public, Department of Education (CDE) staff were assigned to each panel to serve as facilitators and to provide support as necessary. The entire review process is open to the public; anyone may attend any meeting of these panels, make comments and listen to the discussion.

At a training in April and again during the review deliberations in July, the panelists were given written instructions that the materials had to meet specific acceptance criteria. These included compliance with the History-Social Science Content Standards, the History-Social Science Framework, Social Content Standards and provisions of the Education Code [see HINDUISMTODAY, January/February/March, 2017, pages 32-35 for details].

Panelists were instructed to reject any programs that would require major revisions in order to comply with the criteria. For qualifying programs, they could only suggest edits and corrections to the materials “to meet the social content standards, to ensure accuracy, or to achieve clarity and that are minimal in number.” At the end of the process, each history-social science program would be: A) recommended to be included for adoption, B) included with changes, or C) rejected.

The Panels Meet

These panels met from July 25–28, 2017, at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento. A total of twelve programs, mostly for grades six to eight, were submitted by eight publishers: Discovery Education, First Choice Educational Publishing, McGraw Hill, National Geographic, Pearson Scott Foresman/Prentice Hall, Studies Weekly, Teacher’s Curriculum Institute and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The panels were spread out in rooms across the hotel with specified public comment periods. These periods often overlapped with one another, which made it logistically challenging for Hindu American community members to provide feedback to all panels in a timely and effective manner. In addition, the review process was structured so as to prevent substantive meaningful improvements to the materials. “Edits and corrections” were narrowly defined to include imprecise definitions, simple factual or computation errors, mislabeled pictures, spelling or grammatical errors and incorrectly quoted content standards. There was no allowance to make substantive changes to the materials.

As a result, many of the review panels effectively ignored the issues raised through written and verbal comments by Hindu American groups and individuals, as well as other groups who had issues with the books, such as the LGBT community. These factors rendered the public commentary period decidedly less effective than hoped for. In some cases, even the concerns of panelists regarding actual violations of the acceptance criteria were glossed over or ignored.

During the panel deliberations, CDE staff members frequently gave contradictory guidance or sought to influence the panelists, ultimately impacting the decisions that were made. This occurred, for instance, with the Studies Weekly and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) panels. Gayathri Lakshmipathy, a teacher who served as one of the reviewers on the HMH K-6 panel, reported her dismay at the manner in which the panels were conducted. “My impression as an educator has always been that history has to be told as is and cannot be changed. I was particularly aghast and appalled at the way India and Hinduism have been portrayed in the HMH curriculum and the mass omission of 2016 Framework Content. I had pointed this out at length on various occasions during the deliberations in July but was overruled, either due to lack of understanding or knowledge or both… Though these issues were brought to the attention of the panel time and again, they were brushed aside by the Content Review Expert and some of the other members who felt that the mention of a word in a couple of places meets the ‘requirement’ of the Framework even though the Framework is very clear in its outline and accuracy as to the extent and depth of coverage of the said material that is needed. I also felt tremendous pressure being exerted over and again by not only the panel members but also the CDE staff to get the HMH curriculum recommended and moved up. As a result, speaking as someone who walked into the whole process with high expectations of having only quality curriculum being recommended for the children in California I walked out with complete disillusionment and heartbreak…”

Similarly, Sandeep Dedage, who served as a reviewer on the Studies Weekly K-6 panel, wrote a dissent letter to his fellow panelists and to the CDE’s Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), detailing his objections to the process and disagreement with the decision to recommend Studies Weekly for adoption. The letter noted several specific areas where the draft materials failed to comply with the Framework and social content citations, and otherwise violated the acceptance criteria. For example, several topics in the Framework were missing from Studies Weekly materials. These included feminine divinity in Hinduism, the Tamil and Sangam periods of South India, the presence of Shiva and Namaste figures in Harappan archaeological artifacts, Jainism and Mahavira and the non-Brahmin sages Valmiki and Vyasa, to name just a few. His letter further outlined flaws in the process, including contradictions between instructions given at the April training and the July deliberations, attempts to steer the panel discussions, and undue influence on panelists to adopt submitted materials.

The Outcome of the Panel Review

The results of the textbook review panels were disappointing and frustrating. Although not perfect, the 2016 Framework had provided publishers an opportunity to significantly improve their coverage of the history of India and the Hindu religion. Some publishers, Pearson and TCI in particular, made sincere efforts to incorporate in their programs the changes and improvements in the new Framework, while others were seemingly oblivious to the Framework revision process or unwilling to make the requisite changes. As a result, some of the new textbooks are far superior to others, not only in regard to India, but in other areas as well. Despite significant concerns raised repeatedly during the public comment periods, including violations of the established acceptance criteria (i.e., failure to comply with the Framework, Social Content Standards and Education Code), every textbook was approved by its review panel. In most instances, publishers were only required to make very minor edits and corrections to their materials—even in cases where the reviewers themselves pointed out significant violations of the acceptance criteria.

In the eyes of the Hindu American parents, children and community advocates present during the panels, it appeared that the entire review process served as a rubber stamp to approve the textbooks, rather than an opportunity to make meaningful improvements. This view was shared by other participants as well, including those from the LGBT community. Based on the unsatisfactory results of the review panels, Hindu community and advocacy groups decided to adopt a collective strategy for the subsequent Instructional Quality Commission and State Board of Education hearings. The approach was centered around building a broad-based coalition of academics, diverse community organizations and government officials in order to get the most egregious textbooks rejected, while simultaneously trying to make as many substantive improvements as possible through written submissions.

The Final Board of Education Meeting

The final step in the textbook adoption process occurred on November 9, 2017, when the State Board of Education met to officially adopt, reject or change the recommendations submitted by the review panels. As early as 6:30 am, hundreds of Hindu American parents, children and community advocates from across the state began lining up at the California Department of Education building in Sacramento for this final hearing. Some carried signs asking for dignity and fairness in the treatment of Hinduism. As the morning progressed, hundreds more Hindu Americans from diverse backgrounds continued to arrive. They were joined by allies from other communities, including the Asian Pacific Islander Public Affairs Association, NAACP Sacramento Chapter and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The Hindu American Foundation reports that while Hindu Americans waited in line patiently and respectfully for their turn to testify before the Board, members of one group, South Asian Histories for All (SAHFA), tried to cut ahead of people in line and bypass CDE staff and security personnel.

Rejected and accepted: (left) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s grade 6 chapter opening for its India chapter—their book was rejected; (right) HMH section on the Maurya Empire shows laborers working alongside monkeys
Discovery Education—accepted—used this image of modern slums and poverty in their section on Ancient India

SAHFA had also been active at the end of the 2016 Framework adoption process, demanding—and achieving to some extent—increased emphasis on caste-based discrimination, even though social structure was already prominent in the Framework.

Far outnumbered by the coalition led by the Hindu American community, SAHFA activists attempted to halt the adoption process, even threatening a lawsuit. The board, however, disregarded their demands. Also of little impact were their written submissions and testimonies, which sought to perpetuate the colonial and Orientalist stereotypes of Hinduism as an oppressive religion and culture.

This was due in part to the much larger presence of Hindu Americans and their supporters. Hundreds had signed up to testify. The coalition included over 75 interfaith and community groups, 17 state and federal elected officials and 38 leading academics, all supporting the Hindu community’s quest for accurate and equitable textbooks. Prior to the hearing, the SBE received letters from state and federal political leaders, including Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and California state legislators Tony Mendoza, Bill Dodd and Kevin McCarty. California State Assembly member Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), the first Indian Hindu American to serve in the state legislature, spearheaded a letter from a bipartisan group of 11 state legislators. In addition, the board was inundated with 7,000 letters from concerned Hindu American parents, children, educators and community members from across California, including immigrant Hindus from Fiji, Caribbean and India.

After hearing hundreds of testimonies for several hours, the Board members unanimously rejected Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s textbook programs for Grades K-6 and Grades 6-8. Reasons included highly flawed content and adverse reflection of Hindus and the LGBT community. These books included the most egregious descriptions of Hinduism, describing the Vedas as a book of “spells and charms” and “secret rituals,” while entirely leaving out the Upanishads and misquoting the Bhagavad Gita. Similarly, their materials were replete with stereotypical images and content about Hinduism and ancient India.

What It Means

The decision to reject Houghton Mifflin Harcourt represented a clear victory for the Hindu American community and demonstrated its ability to impact the fortunes of a major publisher in the state. After the 2005 adoption process, for instance, the then-separate companies of Houghton Mifflin/McDougal and Harcourt represented, respectively, 19% and 11% of the California textbook market. These two companies later merged to form the current HMH publishing company, collectively accounting for 30% of textbooks used in California.

While most school districts will follow the SBE approved list of books, some may choose not to adopt new textbooks and others could still select HMH. But HMH’s new market share will likely be drastically less than it was in 2005, costing the company a substantial amount of money. The Board’s decision will also have larger implications, with other publishers taking notice and being more cognizant of the Hindu community’s concerns in the future.

Unlike the review panels, the SBE has the ability to require substantive edits to the texts. The board voted to approve positive edits to improve the depiction of Hinduism and India in many other textbooks. Some of the approved textbooks, however, such as McGraw Hill, still contain deeply problematic content. On the other hand, TCI and Pearson are much better than the rest, not only in their treatment of Hinduism, but of other religions as well.

These improvements for India and Hinduism across multiple publishers should eventually be reflected in textbooks nationally. As America’s largest textbook market, California sets the standard for the nation’s textbooks. For example, its progressive views of LGBT history and the inclusion of Sikhs will likely be reflected in books across the nation over time.

In terms of specific changes, many of the inaccurate, stereotyped and exotic images and captions depicting Hinduism and India as poor, primitive, weird and dirty were removed and will be replaced with more appropriate images depicting Hinduism as a lived tradition. Textbooks will contain more respectful and accurate descriptions of basic Hindu concepts, including dharma, karma, bhakti, moksha and yoga, and Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas and Upanishads.

Community effort: (left to right of front row) Mary Yin Liu, APAPA National Treasurer; Julian Canete, CEO, California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Samir Kalra, HAF Managing Director, Vijay Simha, Joint General Secretary of HSS (USA); Glenn Fujii, APAPA National Executive Director

Compared to previous versions, new textbooks do a better job of discussing Indian social structures and differentiating between the concepts of varna and jati. Some publishers cover the historical evolution of varna and jati when discussing caste and mention the contributions of Hindu sages from so-called low-caste backgrounds, such as Vyasa and Valmiki. Many have removed or minimized content that depict other religious traditions in India (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) as improvements over Hinduism, though some of that still exists. This is analogous to the manner in which Jesus and the development of Christianity were previously discussed in relation to Judaism—specifically, that Judaism was an imperfect prelude to Christianity. Comparisons that portray one group as inferior to others have long been prohibited by the SBE’s Standards for Social Content, which states, “No religious belief or practice may be held up to ridicule, and no religious group may be portrayed as inferior.”

Finally, the new textbooks will be more nuanced in their discussions on the origins of Ancient Indian civilization, dismissing the now-debunked Aryan Invasion Theory (even though it remains in the Content Standards) and presenting alternatives to the Aryan Migration Theory, while noting that there is still ongoing debate on this subject. There is also less emphasis on other Orientalist constructs, such as Brahmanism.

Individual school districts in California may adopt new textbooks from the approved list. And a new policy allows them to adopt other materials that are in accord with the Framework, even if not specifically approved by the SBE.

The new texts and programs will likely go into use with the 2018-2019 school year. Hindu Americans will continue working towards improving textbook content at the state and national level whenever opportunities arise. This effort includes several initiatives to provide supplementary materials for use in the classroom, such as through HAF’s Hinduism 101 teacher training program, various HEF programs, and HINDUISM TODAY’S History of Hindu India book and YouTube documentaries.

Hinduism Today editors, the Hindu American Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation all contributed to this report.

Lessons Learned

Samir Kalra, Managing Director, Hindu American Foundation: “The California textbook adoption process provided many critical lessons for the Hindu American community that can be applied to future challenges and situations. One of the most important lessons is to continually build and cultivate relationships with diverse stakeholders who can support Hindu American initiatives when necessary. In the context of the textbook issue, the community’s ability to leverage relationships and build coalitions was significant to showing the Department of Education that the culturally competent, equitable and accurate representation of Hinduism and Indian culture in textbooks is important to a broad cross-section of ethnic, religious, social, cultural and civil rights organizations, as well as political leaders. Furthermore, the process demonstrated that these types of challenges require a sustained long-term effort, patience and a multi-pronged strategy. Success and creating change often takes time and is frequently determined by a number of factors.”

Vaishali Vaval, a mother of two daughters who go to San Jose Union School District: “For me it underscored the need of community to get civically engaged in academic processes. It has been distressing to witness that irrespective of the Indian-American community’s significant contributions in mainstream America’s scientific, industrial and financial dimensions, we as a community remain so far behind in civic engagement in the academic dimension. Especially in matters that are sensitive to future generations of Indian and non-Indian Americans, we can no longer afford to be passive watchers of biases and prejudices that exist in textbooks. We must become involved civically, for everyone’s dignity.”