Follow-up on California Schools Controversy: In Which I Rethink My Position

A little more detail is in order regarding the proposed changes to California school curriculum.

First of all, I did not know when I posted Wednesday night that the report by the Content Review Panel at the California Department of Education also contained requested changes from representatives of other religious groups. There is a long and detailed list of all the requested changes in this Word document at the CDE website (it's 100+ pages long, so I hope you have a minute!). In it, you’ll find quite a number of detailed change requests from ICS, which represents Jewish interests, and the Council for Islamic Education, which did not submit line-by-line edits. I've read only the parts relating to the representation of ancient India and early Hinduism, but I think the changes requested by the other groups might be worth seriously investigating as well -- both for their historical accuracy and for ideological bias.

Another prefatory point: the committee notes a considerable difference between the quality of the requests made by the Hindu Education Foundation and those made by the Vedic Foundation. The HEF requests are detailed line-by-line changes, while the Vedic Foundation complaints are more general (and are treated with more suspicion by the Curriculum Panel). All of my examples below are HEF requested changes; I don't take the VF requests very seriously.

A lot of the controversy in the blog-world has thus far been about who is involved, not the substance of their claims. My own first post was an example of this -– I named the organizations and accepted the characterization of the proposed changes in the Christian Science Monitor, but I hadn’t looked at the actual changes proposed. And while the credentials of a scholar do matter a great deal -– a professional scholar’s views do count more than those of an amateur scholar who is simply a member of a religious community -– it is nevertheless important to consider the specific points made even by amateurs. This is especially true when the requests concern phrasing that has more to do with values than with historical facts, and also when senior scholars concede that many historical facts involving antiquity remain unresolved.

I was also surprised after reading the document above that many of the requested changes do not resemble to the outrageous types of statements found on the websites of these organizations. Some are in fact direct corrections of obvious errors in the original textbooks (one textbook describes Indian languages as written in Arabic script). More commonly, the requested changes take loaded historical descriptions and neutralize them -- bringing them closer to 'good' history than they were before. But other requests are admittedly ideological, and ought to be rejected.

Rather than go through all 100 or so requested changes, let me just give a couple of examples illustrating the kinds of changes the HEF has requested the school board implement, including claims I think might be legitimate as well as some more questionable changes.

1--A brief example. The HEF wants to replace the phrase “worship many Gods” with “worship many deities” in a given textbook. It’s worth considering. Are all sacred Hindu figures really Gods ("deva," "devi")? I tend to think not. Perhaps the word "deity" is more neutral, and perhaps describes better the status of certain Hindu mytho-religious figures who are somewhere in between human and God. This is the kind of change I might support.

2--Aryans. Quite a number of the changes involve the Aryan Invasion Theory, which the Hindu Education Foundation in particular wants to downplay. A sample change along these lines is their request to change "the Aryans conquered India" to "the Aryans came to India." A more detailed requested change is as follows:

"The Aryans": current text, “Also about this same time, tribes of people called Aryans began to move into the Indus Valley. These Aryan people came from the area around the Caspian and the Black seas. […] Eventually some of them crossed the Hindu Kush mountains into India where they slowly spread over the subcontinent.” Replace with, “Since the 1800s it was believed that about this same time, tribes of people called Aryans began to move into the Indus Valley. These Aryan people came from the area around the Caspian and Black Seas. The recent archeological proofs are negating the Aryan invasion theory. The new theory suggests Aryans were not the outsiders."

I’m not enough of an expert to speak with confidence on the Aryan Invasion Theory, which I know has been attacked quite a bit in recent years (see Abhi's recent post). At least in this case, changing "conquered" to "came to" seems relatively innocuous to me. But the last two sentences are both badly written ("The recent archeological proofs" ??? try "Recent archeological evidence") and poorly placed. Some kind of indication that this is a controversial theory can be given, but I don't like the way it's done in the last two sentences above.

While I must underline that I am no expert on the AIT, the direction of these changes seems correct, if poorly executed in this particular instance.

3--Asoka and tolerance. Many other changes involve characterizations of Asoka. For instance:

"The popularity of Buddhism meant that fewer people were worshipping Hindu gods. Early Hinduism had a set of complex sacrifices that only priests could perform. They conducted the rites in Sanskrit, which few people spoke any more. This caused people to feel distant from the gods. Many people turned to Buddhism instead. Rulers who had come under the influence of Buddhism encouraged this shift.” Add at a suitable point the following: “As a result of Asoka’s patronage, Buddhism attracted the elites to its monastic order. Asoka and the Buddhist rulers that followed him sent missionaries to bring new converts to Buddhism.”

The requested changes clearly aim to neutralize a negative image of Hinduism while also insinuating a story of Buddhist proselytization -- a somewhat ideological addition. But maybe the HEF has a point: it might be worth questioning whether we really have evidence for why people turned to Buddhism under Asoka. Couldn't it also simply be that he was a charismatic leader? The remoteness of Sanskrit and caste-based limits on who could perform rites seem like speculation unless we have accounts from people specifically saying, "This is why I converted to Buddhism." The prevalence of the same two features in Hinduism today has not been seen as a turn-off to the millions of Hindus who are quite comfortable with both Sanskrit and Pandits.

In short, the HEF's requested addition may be questionable, but so is the received characterization of religion under Asoka.

4. Now let's not get carried away. Some of the requested changes are things I would flat-out oppose. For instance, take the following requested change:

“Mathematics and Other Sciences”: current text, “The ancient Indians were also very skilled in the medical sciences.” Replace with, “The ancient Indians were also very skilled in the medical science known as the Ayurveda. Ayurveda is derived from Sanskrit ayus, meaning long and healthy life span, and veda, meaning theory and practice. The psychosomatic dimension of ayurveda incorporates significant input from the tradition of yoga. Though principally a pathway to spiritual liberation, yoga as a discipline of breathing and bodily functions finds a place of honor in most medical and healing traditions of India.”

First, I’m not sure whether a lecture on Ayurveda is really called for at all in a high school textbook. Even if a little bit about Ayurveda might be appropriate given the context, the last sentence is both too woolly (“a pathway to spiritual liberation”) and off-topic (I thought we were talking about Ayurveda, not Yoga).

5. Women. Another change that bugs me is the attempt to make ancient India sound more woman-friendly. As in:

Page 244, second paragraph: current text, "Men had many more rights than women. Unless there were no sons in a family, only a man could inherit property. Only men could go to school or become priests." Replace first sentence with, "Men had different rights and duties than women," and add after last sentence, "Women’s education was mostly done at home."

Come on, now. This is whitewashing, is it not?

* * * * *
Preliminary conclusion: In short, while there are some changes that are clearly motivated by ideology (i.e., the desire to have Hindu culture be seen in a better light), more than a few of the changes requested by the HEF in particular seem like improvements to me. At the very least, their requested changes ought to be openly debated. And if refuted by scholars armed with empirical evidence, the refutation should be line-by-line rather than overarching.