Let’s take advantage of the openness and flexibility of our educational system which allows parents to be actively involved in their child’s school
Our textbook goes to school: Tushar Pandya is avidly promoting the use of The History of Hindu India by parents and teachers in California
BY TUSHAR PANDYA
THE PRESENTATION OF RELIGIONS, CULTURES and civilizations throughout school have a strong impact on the self-identity of students. The resulting opinions formed in classrooms and through a child’s peers wield great influence throughout their lives. This is especially evident in middle school and particularly the 6th grade. It is vital that parents actively participate in shaping the way Hinduism is presented in schools.
In K-12 education in the US, Hinduism is discussed primarily—and very briefly—in the 6th grade. For many students, their classes on ancient civilizations offer them their one and only exposure to Hinduism throughout school. This is simply not enough and needs to change. Other religions are addressed over multiple years, allowing a study of central religious concepts in multiple contexts.
Hinduism is fundamentally different from other religions. Its all-encompassing nature embraces a complex diversity of traditions, practices and philosophies, while other religions strive for homogeneity. Presenting Hinduism in the same simple light as Abrahamic religions creates many misunderstandings. Hinduism needs to be presented from a Hindu perspective. We have a great tradition where science, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, music and art are embedded in religion. It is this brilliant, inherently sustainable, holistic nature that has made our tradition long lasting.
In today’s US school system, children are encouraged to seek different sources, compare them and look for evidence of support. There has never been a more opportune time to improve the presentation of our religion. There are massive amounts of misinformation about our faith. In correcting this we face serious challenges: benign ignorance, the Abrahamic missionary mindset and the widespread secular humanist, atheist, anti-religious, anti-spiritual views of our culture—with everything portrayed through European goggles. A top-down approach to changing curriculum and teaching standards is fundamental, but educated parents can make a big difference right now in their local communities, one school at a time. With new laws and funding formulas, especially in California, schools have flexibility and considerable freedom in choosing teaching materials. We need to be active in making our voice heard as teachers and districts look for ways to better teach youth about India and Hinduism.
Let me share my experience. I have two daughters, one just completing 6th grade and the other finishing 7th. In my older daughter’s middle school, the social studies teacher also taught English. The final Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests address English but not social science, so her teacher focused on language. The class never studied Hinduism. I was glad my daughter was not exposed to the misinformation in the textbooks—which would have been problematic for her—but this was still less than ideal, so I decided to start a dialog with the principal and the superintendent about it. The superintendent encouraged me to give presentations at the school. Both were aware of the issues and understood that bringing about a shift in traditional teaching or changing the mindset of teachers takes time and effort applied in a variety of areas.
I learned that my younger daughter’s 6th grade teacher did have plans to introduce world cultures and religions, so I wrote to her praising her decision. I also pointed out that while other religions are presented in a fair and systematic way—covering their saints, scriptures, theology and positive features—Hinduism is presented in a mostly negative way. I asserted that perpetuating the misinformation about Hinduism is not in the best interest of children or the community. It amounts to a failure in preparing our children to be tomorrow’s informed leaders in a global world. I offered her alternative materials and said I would be happy to help as a guest speaker.
The teacher wrote back agreeing with me and acknowledging the hypocritical double standard. She concurred that it is wrong to present minority cultures in a negative light, especially when these cultures are part of our local communities. It is simply not healthy. She told me that a post-9/11 class presentation by a Muslim group had made a huge impact on her.
When I met with this teacher in person, she lamented her ignorance of any religion other than her own (Catholicism), having never studied them in school. She confessed that she was uncomfortable about discussing religion in classrooms, not being certain of the parameters. How should she respond to questions such as “Is there a God?” She had her own beliefs but didn’t want to be disrespectful of others or unconsciously proselytize any faith.
I gave her copies of Chapter One of The History of Hindu India, written by the editors of Hinduism Today in collaboration with eminent Hindu historian Dr. Shiva Bajpai, and showed her the lesson plans for teachers, all available on the Himalayan Academy website (www.himalayanacademy.com/hhi). I also gave her a copy of Chapter Two, which covers the period from 300-1100 ce, and recommended the 23-minute History of Hindu India movie produced by the same team, which can parallel the Hollywood movie the children are shown when studying Judaism.
Mission to Sacramento: Acharya Arumuganathaswami, Dr. Shiva Bajpai (sixth from left), Tushar Pandya (to Shivaji’s right), Dr. Nalini Rao (third from left), students and their parents gather outside before the Department of Education sign following a meeting of the Department’s Instructional Quality Commission at which each testified to the treatment of India and Hinduism in California schools
The teacher wrote back, excited about The History of Hindu India and how it offers a more rounded view, showing both the ancient and modern relevance of Hinduism. She had learned a lot from it and decided to base her instruction on Chapter One. Time permitting, she would present the California textbook as well, allowing the kids to compare and contrast these sources and learn how widely presentations can differ. Chapter Two would be reading material for advanced students. She also gratefully accepted my offer to speak to the class, saying such visits inspire the kids and can cover a lot of ground in a short time. Various school district administrators have admitted that the social science curriculum is dry and a guest speaker can bring the material to life.
The children listened to my talk with rapt attention. The Q&A session showed how hungry they were to learn about Hinduism. Many stayed on after the bell rang and came forward to ask more questions. Some had done their own prior research on the subject.
My lecture covered five points. First, we talked about the Vedas and Sanskrit. I showed how our principal scriptures, the Vedas, preserved through oral tradition, impact everyday life. Then I touched on the Vedangas—scientific texts covering linguistics, astronomy, mathematics and music. I kept things lively by interspersing historic facts on Hindu contributions to the world and to modern science. Next we covered four core Hindu concepts: karma, reincarnation, moksha and One God manifesting in many forms. I covered a lot of ground, knowing this was likely the only introduction to Hinduism many of them would have in their entire life. I strived to speak at their 11-year old level. The candid words of one 6th grader: “No one in class reads social-science textbooks. They do not understand what the books are talking about.”
My experience with the 7th grade teacher was different. At this stage students study medieval world history, from about 300 ce to 1300 ce. India was the Earth’s most populous nation during this period, contributing around 30 percent of world GDP—but the school textbook contained no references to India. The teacher acknowledged the book’s Eurocentric view and hoped that the upcoming Common Core State Standard would be more global. Despite new laws allowing teachers flexibility, she noted that present standards do not require her to teach about India. She gratefully accepted The History of Hindu India material and promised to try to include it in coming years. I am pursuing this issue with the superintendent to obtain more satisfactory results.
Many parents are hesitant to broach this issue with schools, concerned that they or their children will stand out in a negative way. My experience was the opposite: teachers and administrators genuinely want to do their job well and are generally open to input. Teachers do take you more seriously if they know you have already spoken with the principal and the superintendent. Change is not easy, and parents need to be aware of the teacher’s challenges so we can relate to them effectively. For example, it is difficult for a teacher to admit his or her own ignorance, so it is important to respect their courage in doing so. A parent who talks openly about these challenges in a non-accusatory tone and offers solutions is welcomed. To parents I say: one parent has the ability to impact many children in a school. After some years of persistent engagement, a new district standard may even be adopted.
School district administrators may claim they are helpless because they have to teach from the textbooks and the state standards. However, parents can remind them that state standards also require that materials: 1) Be historically accurate; 2) Instill in each child a pride in his/her heritage and; 3) Avoid adverse reflection on a religion. We can remind them also that recent changes give them the freedom and responsibility to address the needs of their communities. Parents educated about this can be effective in bringing a quick change at the 6th grade level and then take it to higher grades. For parents at (non-religious) private schools, all this is much easier. Private schools are eager to better serve their customers.
Due to the large numbers of Hindu families in the San Francisco Bay Area, parental engagement can effect changes in every school district—and what happens here can start a nationwide trend. I volunteer myself to make a presentation at any school in the Bay Area if a parent arranges this with their school. The time has never been more favorable. Together we can improve how Hinduism is presented in schools.
TUSHAR PANDYA, 47, is a technology professional living near San Jose. He actively pursues the study of Hindu texts and volunteers in causes related to Hinduism and Indian sciences. See: californiahindus.org; contact: email@example.com