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Equity in educational content is neither a privilege nor asking too much

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Next week, the California State Board of Education is set to adopt new history and social science curriculum frameworks after a nearly two year process fraught with sometimes contentious public hearings and emotional pleas from diverse Californians.

Since March, media coverage in the United States and India have focused on California's frameworks adoption process, which would impact textbook content in the state for up to the next decade.

Misleading framing
A number of news analyses and opinion pieces have framed the issue as one between scholars and South Asian progressive activists versus "Hindu nationalists." That depiction greatly oversimplifies and misrepresents very complex debates among both Diaspora communities from the Indian subcontinent as well as within academia.

The California "textbook battle," as it has been frequently called, is not so much a battle as it is the result of a state's attempts at multiculturalism derailed by a lack of context and the persistence of ideologically motivated attacks.

Ironically, some of the attacks on the Hindu American community's efforts and curriculum reform have mirrored those--down to the same language--that right-wing groups have used against Muslim American attempts at trying to depict their faith in a more constructive manner. Given the prevalence of xenophobia that not only shapes public discourse but classroom environments, having a culturally competent and equitable curriculum is a right of communities of all backgrounds.

For Hindu Americans in California, the desire to move to a more diverse understanding of the faith, as well as its evolution over history, parallels what any faith community wants. Conflating the country's largest Hindu community with one nationality is a major disservice to its diversity--a bouillabaisse of Indians, West Indians, Bhutanese, Bangladeshi, South Africans, Fijians, whites, blacks, and those of multiple cultural and racial identities.

What really matters
What the last few months have really missed is the issue of equity. It's about a community that has never had a voice in how it is represented, simply asking for a chance to be included in the process of updating instructional content. Moreover, it's about recognizing Hinduism's heterogeneity and even the complexity of its development across Indian history and within the Diaspora.

In California, of which roughly 2-2.5 percent of the population of 39 million are Hindus of all backgrounds, such equity isn't just a "special ask"; it's a necessity. As diverse communities grow in number, it's unacceptable for a state to have instructional content that is outdated, inaccurate, and tone-deaf to the kaleidoscope of communities whose children are being educated in its schools.

Equity, cultural competency and creating safe learning environments
Highlighting Hinduism's contributions to the world and its global diversity does not hide its warts, but there is a larger question that California education officials need to ask: are all religions being treated with the same degree of scrutiny and critique within the curriculum frameworks?

The efforts of the Hindu American Foundation and other groups had actually resulted in wholesale improvements in the frameworks' contents regarding Hinduism. However, this work was overshadowed by the numerous and harshly negative edits proposed by a few South Asian scholars under the guise of objectivity. While many (if not most) of these edits were rejected or revised by the IQC in May, our analysis showed that if these edits had been accepted, Hinduism would be treated negatively in 10% of all statements about it--far more than Islam (6%), Buddhism (2%), or Jainism or Sikhism (0% each). Moreover, the net positive or neutral coverage of Hinduism would be reduced by 27% as measured in number of statements. This analysis just shows that even when HAF and other groups have made progress in how their religion is presented, academics with a biased mindset often try to derail them.

Moreover, while some of these debates are taking place between and among academics and activists, what also seems to get lost is the impact this content can have on students. As a report by HAF on the impact of bullying found, there is a correlation between inaccurate content, flawed teacher pedagogy (which is often the result of outdated and culturally incompetent content), and the bullying and alienation many Hindu American students experience. In that regard, the lack of equity in how religions such as Hinduism are taught may be having a profound impact on students.

Progress made despite white noise
To be fair, the most recent draft of the frameworks is still a significant improvement over one that was first proposed in 2009, and highlights a number of the positive contributions of Hinduism-- including sages of diverse backgrounds such as Valmiki and Vyasa, the Bhakti saints, the religion's scriptural acceptance of religious diversity, and its worship of God in both female and male form.

At the same time, however, certain activist groups from within India or based in California have pushed for Hinduism to be tethered to caste (despite almost universal acknowledgment that caste is an Indian social practice not confined to Hindus). What was intended to be a process to sustain equity and fairness in school curriculum devolved into sometimes shrill and often polemical attacks from South Asian activists.

Towards cultural competency
Indeed, Indian history--and the politics of the Indian subcontinent--is complex, nuanced, and at times, controversial, not unlike any other country or civilization. Teachers and curriculum creators shouldn't shy away from these realities and would be wise to encourage critical thinking and engagement from their students. However, they should also be aware that within the limitations of grade levels and the amount of information being presented, the teaching of diverse cultures should be equitable.

This is something many teachers in California are already embracing, and their understanding of equity has helped create learning environments in which Hinduism isn't marginalized, denigrated, or demonized within classroom instructional content. But the California Department of Education's curriculum frameworks still matter, because they'll provide a template for instruction to many teachers without the resources to present information in a culturally competent manner and a blueprint for publishers wishing to distribute their textbooks in the state.

With that being said, an equitable approach to teaching about world religions is critical to helping California students become more aware of their global citizenship. A culturally competent and equitable understanding of Hinduism--on par with any other faith--is a necessity for teachers, which is why the Board's vote next week will be so vital to ensuring a step closer towards that goal. For a progressive state such as California, a regressive approach to curriculum is simply not an option.

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