Fairfax County businesswoman Sandhya Kumar teaches her three daughters about other countries, cultures and religions. She wants them to take pride in their Indian heritage and Hindu faith -- and to respect and understand other views.
But when Kumar of Lorton scanned several world history textbooks recommended for Fairfax County schools, she worried that students would come away with a distorted and negative impression of her homeland's culture.
Georgetown University professor Ariel Glucklich, left, and Fairfax County teacher Asheesh Misra are shown with an assortment of textbooks.
(Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
"I thought the American children will think India is some Third World country with pagan beliefs and backward thinking, not a forward-thinking country," Kumar said.
She and dozens of other Indian American parents launched a campaign to change the way their history is taught in Fairfax, the nation's 12th-largest school system. Their lobbying has prompted school officials to rethink presentations of India and Hinduism in classrooms and has sparked efforts to develop a more sophisticated and thoughtful curriculum.
Susan Douglass, a world history curriculum consultant who has worked with Fairfax schools, said the changes mirror a broader shift in the way history and religion are taught nationwide. She said it was in the 1960s and '70s that Eastern cultures and religions began appearing in textbooks that largely focused on Western civilizations. But the presentations often lacked sophistication compared with lessons about Christianity, which was more familiar to authors.
"Before we'd set up this curio cabinet called Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism. We'd put in the foundation, the books, the acts of worship and add the components that are exotic compared to what the students know," Douglass said. "With Islam, for a long time it was four wives, no pork and no alcohol."
But now, she said, there is an increased effort by educators to teach aspects of each religion through the eyes of its followers.
Balaji Hebbar, a George Washington University religion professor who was one of three scholars hired by Fairfax County to review the books cited by the group of Indian parents, said he and his colleagues found few factual errors. But he said the lessons boiled down a complex culture to "karma, cows and caste."
"It's as if I were making a picture book of the United States, and I took pictures of the bad parts of D.C., the run-down parts of New York City and the smoke stacks of Cleveland and left out the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty," Hebbar said. "I would be telling the truth, but I would only be telling half the truth."
Hebbar and the other scholars, Ariel Glucklich, a Georgetown University theology professor, and Robert DeCaroli, an art professor at George Mason University, said caste sometimes was overemphasized.
Glucklich said he thinks the presentation in many of the books "completely removes the kids' ability to imagine . . . why anybody in his right mind would want to be Hindu."
Based on the concerns of Fairfax educators, five publishers made modest changes in the texts, and the professors recommended that the county purchase eight revised books, reject one and supplement the curriculum with other materials.
The concern over the books began last spring when Rakesh Bahadur's daughter, a fifth-grader, told him that the lessons in her history book were different from those she learned at home. Bahadur, a Reston engineer with two children in Fairfax schools, took his problem to school officials.
They sent a memo telling teachers that students who selected India as a topic for a project -- as Bahadur's daughter did -- should be guided away from the textbook and given other material.
In the fall, schools put forward for public review a new round of world history textbooks for fifth, ninth and 10th grades -- replacements for those approved in 1997. Officials invited parents and any other interested residents to take a look, and Bahadur returned with a long critique and the signatures of 118 people who supported his views.
"We read them, and we really couldn't fairly respond," said Ann Monday, assistant superintendent for instructional services. "Quite frankly, none of us had a depth of knowledge in the field." So Monday delayed submitting the books to the school board for approval and called in the professors as well as history teacher Asheesh Misra, who is of Indian descent, to weigh in on the matter.
The parents challenged some facts, but many of the complaints centered on emphasis, omission or even nuances in the way the authors presented Hinduism. For example, one fifth-grade book explains that Hindus "made up stories" to help explain holy texts, an assertion that Bahadur called "blasphemous."
Misra and the professors did not agree with all of Bahadur's conclusions. But they recommended that teachers expand their lessons on topics including Hindu writings; the value system, including the four stages of life; reincarnation and salvation.
School officials said that if members of other religions or ethnic groups raise concerns, they are ready to listen.
"This is not the end of a conversation," Monday said. "This is the beginning of a conversation about how we handle our increasingly diverse community."