Daniel Golden: New Battleground in Textbook Wars ... Religion

Roundup: Talking About History

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....

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