Sarita Sarvate

Politics in Education

Jun 29, 2006

India Currents

BY SARITA SARVATE

Textbooks are becoming vehicles for political propaganda

It was when I was helping my older son with his middle-school homework that I first came across a tome titled A Message of Ancient Days. So I read about Mesopotamia and the birth of agriculture, about Iceman, about the Ming and Hang dynasties. Frankly, I was getting educated along with my son, because, growing up, I had not studied ancient world history in such depth.

My son and I eagerly awaited the chapter on India. Alas, it came in the very end of the school year, and seemed scant in comparison with the others. What shocked me, however, was not the slimness of the material, but its content. The only thing that the chapter seemed to discuss was a man named Manu who had allegedly introduced the caste system in India. Ironically, studying the history of my own country back home, the importance of Manu had not registered.

I thought of writing a letter to the School Board, but, like most parents, got caught up in something else.

It’s not that I endorse the evil caste system or think of Indian history only in glowing terms. It’s just that I think the emphasis on the caste system is akin to talking only of slavery while teaching U.S. history and ignoring the great ideals of men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

I was not surprised therefore to learn recently that an Indian group was suing the State for bias in textbooks.

No sooner did I become excited about the move, however, than I became weary of it. Because it turned out that the people who were suing the Board had their own axe to grind.

That axe, I found out, was Hindutva.
Soon, the other side jumped into the fray, writing op-ed pieces and commentaries.

I suppose to some extent the Indian Americans are following the model of the Jewish people, who, under the guise of organizations like Anti-Defamation League, have long controlled the media portrayal of their own religion, history, culture, and politics.

But where does activism stop and lobbying begin? What is the point at which a fight against bias creates its own bias?

And what is truth, particularly when it pertains to histories that were written by conquerors and kings?

I learned recently that the lawsuit has been settled and a compromise reached on language to be included in textbooks.

So in the future can we expect lawyers to write histories in place of kings and conquerors?

The other problem with such lobbying efforts is that our children’s history and science textbooks are ever growing in weight.

While reading about the aftermath of World War II and the creation of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in my son’s book recently, for example, I became so confused that I wondered how children who were not writers like me, who did not have the advantage of having read The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly for the last 25 years, who were not familiar with some of the greatest literature in the English language, would fare. When I asked my son’s teacher about it, he said frankly, “You know how it is; the children who do well have figured out strategies for cramming the right information, just like you and I did when we were students.”

Of course, Indian history, particularly history of India under British rule, has been biased because it was written by the British.

But must we make the same mistake in treating our living history? Are we capable of being unbiased in representing the events that are happening in the world today? Can we claim to be fair and egalitarian with the ethnic minorities and the underclass in our homeland? Or are we distorting the truth even as we make history for future generations, just as the British did when they were the head honchos?

I am tempted to say, “Leave the textbooks alone,” because I am afraid that once politics gets involved in education, it will be the end of academic freedom and the pursuit of truth.

Would it not be better to teach our children to be critical in their thinking; to encourage them to find alternative versions of history on their own?

For example, one of my son’s recent history assignments involved reading some information about the Suez Canal blockade of the 1950s and writing an essay about it. Predictably, the information he had been handed in class happened to be from some website like Wikipedia and contained all sorts of glowing reasons why Israel had kicked the Palestinians out of their homes.

So we discussed the piece at home and decided to include in the essay some discussion of how the information provided was biased and how it had failed to represent the Palestinian side altogether.

But even as I write these words I am afraid that the ship has long sailed.

I am afraid politics has entered the education arena, whether we like it or not. The result is that some of the books that are being prescribed as literature in schools today are third-rate and will be judged poorly with the hindsight of history. And the revisionist history that is being taught in schools today will continue to be fine-tuned and diluted until it will read like a report of an ad hoc committee.

But then again, probably, by that time, everyone will just be studying the web, and no one will read books, and the whole question will be moot.

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com