Huffington Post: California Frameworks Efforts about Cultural Competency

Washington, D.C. (March 22, 2016) - As a regularly featured blogger on the Huffington Post, HAF's Director of Education & Curriculum Reform, Murali Balaji, PhD, provides a Hindu American perspective on various issues. Below is Mr. Balaji's latest piece. Please post your comments directly on the Huffington Post by clicking here.

In an increasingly diverse and multicultural American social landscape, the battles over the histories of different communities - coupled with communities’ right to self define - are becoming more prominent.

Unfortunately, American classrooms are turning into battlegrounds, with teachers and students getting caught in the crosshairs of such conflicts.

Part of the challenge has been to move away from Eurocentric paradigms that have Othered underrepresented groups and into ones that embrace accuracy and cultural competency. As noted historian James Loewen argues in Lies My Teacher Told Me, instructional content has largely been shaped by a mentality of excluding voices that contradict preconceived “grand narratives.”

But even as we attempt to move away from those narratives, challenges remain. This week, the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission is set to make recommendations on a history and social science framework, which, if approved by the State Board of Education in May, will define the way diverse histories are taught for the next decade or longer. More problematically, these narratives are drawn from the state’s outdated content standards, which continue to depict diverse groups like Hindus in outdated, archaic, and simply inaccurate ways.

In 2014, the California State Senate and Assembly both approved a measure that would have revised the state’s content standards, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, despite overwhelming and bipartisan support from legislators and from a coalition of more than 100 educators, diverse community and education groups, and government leaders. As such, communities like Hindu Americans had to rely on the state’s curriculum framework revision process, which began in the fall of 2014, in order to see a more inclusive set of guidelines for teaching about diverse religions like Hinduism and diverse communities like Indian Americans.

Because California is home to the largest community of Hindus in the country (numbering about 1 million), having an inclusive, accurate, and culturally competent history and social science curriculum would seem like a mandate for the state’s Board of Education. Since the revision process started, HAF has worked constructively with the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission to ensure a culturally competent and accurate draft narrative was adopted.

Given that these frameworks are for 6th and 7th grade teachers to guide their teaching to middle school students, HAF’s requests were in line with academic consensus and best practice pedagogy. Its primary goals were to note that the origins of Indian history are contested, as evidenced by current scholarly battles; that caste in India developed over many centuries and needed to be nuanced for a better understanding of how a social practice arose - often in contradiction to religious teachings; and that Hinduism’s core philosophies, including its inherent pluralism, were included in the frameworks.

We made sure commission members understood our concerns and worked in a constructive and positive manner to ensure that the Hindu community had a voice in the process. Other Hindu organizations representing diverse constituencies also have been active in the process. While each of the groups have the same goal of seeing a more accurate depiction of Hinduism, the scale and scope of suggested improvements in the frameworks have varied. In other words, the Hindu community’s involvement in California cannot be reduced to a homogeneous or monolithic effort. Instead, these efforts reflect Hinduism’s diverse and pluralistic ethos.

What made this effort more encouraging was the number of scholars - professors of religion and history - who made independent (or jointly signed) recommendations that aligned with what HAF and other Hindu groups were seeking. These scholars wanted a more accurate, accessible, and culturally competent document that emphasized Hinduism’s role as a living tradition. They also pushed for an understanding of world history as a period of exchange and interaction, and that such interactions must be treated with nuance to respect diverse perspectives and social histories.

Similarly, the Hindu community’s efforts drew widespread support from a diverse coalition of over 100 interfaith and civil rights leaders, as well as members of cultural and educational organizations, who collectively urged the Instructional Quality Commission in November to represent Hinduism, Jainism, and India accurately and equitably in the framework.

In December, the commission released a draft that many felt was close to a more inclusive document. However, last week, the commission’s new recommended revisions - which included a set of last-minute edits from a small group of South Asia faculty members - undid many of those positive changes and seemed to ignore the recommendations of a much larger body of educators, academics, and community members. These edits maliciously sought to erase Hinduism and India from many parts of the sixth and seventh grade sections of the framework, and re-link caste with Hindu religious beliefs, for example.

While the commission’s vote won’t take place until Thursday or Friday, it’s already being set up as a politicized showdown among a variety of groups. Instead, what it should be about is how to improve the state’s curriculum to empower educators to teach about religions such as Hinduism.

It is critical that frameworks and textbooks depict not just Hindus, but all groups accurately, fairly, and equitably, in order to better educate all students and prepare them for an increasingly globalized society. Just as we would condemn Islamophobic, racist, homophobic, or sexist language in the frameworks, we would expect that language that seeks to undermine or erase Hindu history and contributions would be excluded.

The commissioners, and subsequently, the Board of Education, must use their best judgment to ensure that Hindu community members’ concerns are taken into consideration. Removing outdated or archaic terminology is essential for cultural competency. This is not just a question of protecting the “hurt feelings” of Hindu American students, but of ensuring that children are allowed to feel secure in their identity in an educational environment and are not bullied due to their religious beliefs.

As our soon-to-be released national survey highlights, anti-Hindu bullying - often fueled by classroom stereotypes - continues to have an impact on Hindu American schoolchildren. For example, the survey found that more than 3 out of 5 of the respondents said that their social studies classes focused on caste and Hinduism, including claims about the religion and Indian social practice that have been long debunked.

It’s also important to see exactly what’s being proposed. The public comments about the frameworks are available on the California Department of Education’s web site, while our suggested edits - couched in scholarly input and consensus - can be found here.

Hindu Americans deserve the right to have a say in how their faith is defined. Perhaps, in acknowledging the concerns of Hindu Americans, particularly children, the new frameworks could strive for language that acknowledges groups’ right to self define, doesn’t adversely impact others, and promote a new way of bringing Californians from all backgrounds to the table together. Such an accomplishment would uphold the ideals of pluralism and cultural competency that are becoming more important than ever in classrooms across the state and throughout the country.