Washington, April 17: 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 was worried that students would come away with a distorted and negative impression of her homeland's culture.
'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 Eastern cultures and religions began appearing in textbooks in the 1960s and 70s. But the presentations often lacked sophistication compared with lessons about Christianity, which was more familiar to authors.
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 DC, 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 overemphasised.
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'.