Stereotypes in Schooling

Stereotypes in Schooling:
Negative Pressures in the
American Educational System
by Yvette C. Rosser, PhD – A.B.D.

Yvette Claire Rosser is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The University of Texas at Austin. She has a M.A. -South Asian History and Culture & a B.A. (with honors), in Asian Studies from UT Austin.

(A shorter version of this paper was published in Hindu Diaspora: Global Perspectives, ed., T.S. Rukmani, Concordia University, Montreal, 1999.)

Stereotypes about India and Hinduism when taught as fact in American classrooms may negatively impact students of South Asian origin who are struggling to work out their identity in a multicultural, predominately “Anglo”-Christian environment. The first section of this paper explores the reactions of Hindu students who have studied about India in Social Studies classes in American secondary schools. The data were drawn from surveys distributed at The University of Texas at Austin to students of South Asian descent who attended high school in the USA, as well as from personal interviews with several American-educated students of Indian origin.

The second section of this paper is a discussion of the coverage of India in four World History textbooks, with a closer look at the textbook that was used in the Austin Independent School District for six years during the nineties. The final section is a statistical analysis of the preparedness of secondary Social Studies educators, graduating from The University of Texas at Austin, to teach about India and other non-Western regions.

This paper is addressed not only to educators, but to parents and citizens from all ethnic groups concerned about fostering a non-prejudicial society and international understanding and cooperation. This paper offers no solutions. But, it is hoped that by pointing out the problems, remedies may be found to improve the discourse about South Asia and other non-Western regions of the world that predominates in World History classrooms and textbooks, and to encourage greater preparedness of secondary Social Studies teachers in the area of Global/International Education. Unfortunately, the dilemma of negative stereotypes about Hinduism remains endemic in American academia.

Negative images about other cultures that main-stream North Americans are inevitably taught in school or at church or through the media, attitudes and misconceptions color everyone’s personal socialization experience. Sensationalist news stories about India often provide American school teachers with preconceived ideas that they bring with them into the classroom. Social Studies teachers can play a critical role in eliminating cultural prejudices. But, if they reinforce stereotypes about cultures different than their own, and present biased information about non-Western traditions in their classes, the value of Global Education–preparing citizens for the 21st Century–is lost. A myopic, short-sighted focus on the world, solely through the eyes of the dominant culture, undermines the oft stated goal of U.S. Social Studies education–to create citizens who are proud of their role in a pluralistic society and able to relate to other societies from an informed perspective.

Several issues and questions were raised by this study. When the life styles and world views of other peoples are not approached appropriately and respectfully, prejudicial misconceptions are perpetuated. If children of South Asian descent are taught mostly negative stereotypes about India in American classrooms, it can impact their identity formation. This is especially important during the formative and sensitive years of secondary education for students who may feel culturally somewhat set apart from their peers.

Several question emerge: Does studying India or Hinduism in a World History or other Social Studies class have a negative impact on the self-image of American students of South Asian descent? In U.S. classrooms, do representations and stereotypes about India and other non-Western regions of the world perpetuate racism within our country and taint our perceptions of other nations and nationalities, ultimately resulting in a less sympathetic and less responsible citizenry?

Our school districts are increasingly diverse ethnically and culturally. It has even been posited that, due to the changing demographics of the U.S. classroom, Asian Studies could be reconsidered in the field of Ethnic Studies instead of Area Studies. Additional research is needed on how to best teach students from different cultures and backgrounds. The presence of Asian-American students in today’s classrooms has made Social Studies teachers more guarded in their presentation and has stimulated a closer scrutiny of India, as well as countries such as Korea or Vietnam.

However, in general, India remains, a misconstrued curiosity. In Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy (Routledge, 1998), Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal succinctly state that

in the Western popular consciousness the Indian subcontinent tends to evoke two contrary images. On the one hand it is lauded as an ancient land of mystery and romance, extraordinary wealth and profound spirituality. On the other hand it is denounced for its irrationality and inhumanity and derided for its destitution and squalor.

In American textbooks, Hinduism is referred to as one of the world’s five great religions and yet paradoxically, Hindu beliefs and traditions are often represented as superstitious, on the level of Greek mythology, but even more unbelievable and bizarre than Zeus and the pantheon of Mount Olympus because they are alien to “Western traditions.” During the impressionable teenage years, these negative portrayals can cause shame and embarrassment among Indian-American students regarding their ancestry and can engender a dislike for India. Students may also respond to these negative stereotypes by adopting a defensive posture vis-à-vis the teacher’s presentation, as they feel compelled to correct misperceptions.

Many Hindu-American students, after “coming of age,” study their ancestral languages and other cultural courses about their heritage at the university level. Dr. Rodney Moag, professor in the Department of Asian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, has investigated identity formation among students of South Asian descent who take Malayalam and Hindi to fulfill their language requirements as well as other courses on Indian history and culture. Dr. Moag notes that this may represent a stage in which students are trying to work out their identity, “a sequential process, and a response to being subjected to negative stereotypes about South Asia arising from their main-stream American educational experience.”1 Negativities may persist in classes at the university level, in which Hinduism is represented as myth, rather than a living tradition embodying universal truths–as Hindus would naturally perceive it.

Obviously the presence of South Asian students in American university classrooms impacts the manner in which the material about India is presented. University professors, when planning a class on a topic such as the Ramayana, must be aware that there may be at least one student in the class who is a Ram bhakt. Kind hearted and intelligent philosophy professors may earnestly tell their students that “the West contributed activity and ambition, individuality, to world culture and the East gave us renunciation, impersonality and a sort of mushiness.”2 However well intended, such statements are misleading and counterproductive. Other, more articulate, post-modern professors, from both India and the West, may reduce Hinduism down to disconnected fragments that had no unity or identity until constructed from the outside by foreigners such as Afghan invaders or English imperialists. Regardless of who is teaching what from which perspective, the view of Hinduism is distorted. In response to these approaches, Hindu students often do some serious and productive soul searching which gives rise to a unique cultural hybridity.

The survey from which the comments included in this paper were taken was distributed during a meeting of the India Students Association at The University of Texas at Austin in the fall semester of 1995. Of the forty-three students who filled out the survey, thirty-two of them were born in the USA; eleven came from India with their parents when they were children. The survey asked them to evaluate the treatment of Asian topics in their secondary Social Studies experience:

  • Describe any stereotypes and misrepresentations about India that were taught as fact.
  • Do you feel, as a student of South Asian descent, that your presence in the classroom had an influence on the manner in which the course materials on India (or Asia in general) were presented?
  • If Indian and South Asian topics were presented in your classes, what ideas were emphasized?
  • Compare the coverage of South Asia with that of other areas of Asia.

When asked to list the topics that were emphasized in the study of India, most of the students listed these, enumerated by this American born student of South Asian heritage who had recently graduated from a high school in Houston, “Wars, disease, population, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, female infanticide, flooding, and starvation.” “India,” stated another student was “only thought of as a third world country–considered inferior and totally ignorant of world events.” Several students mentioned that the “economic backwardness of India” was “blamed on the superstitious and polytheistic nature of Hinduism.”

This essentialist presentation of Indic Civilization can be summarized as the standard pedagogic approach which runs quickly from the “Cradle of Civilization”–contrasting the Indus Valley with Egypt and Mesopotamia–on past the Aryans 3, who were somehow our linguistic (and/or racial!) ancestors–to the poverty stricken, superstitious, polytheistic, “caste ridden” Hindu “way of life”. . . and then somehow magically culminates with a eulogy of Mahatma Gandhi. A typical textbook trope presents the standard Ancient India Meets the Age of Expansion Approach with a color photo of the Taj Mahal. There may be a side bar on ahimsaor a chart graphically explaining samsara and reincarnation, or the four stages of life, or the Four Noble Truths, and amid the dearth of real information there may be found an entire page dedicated to a deity such as Indra or Varuna, who admittedly are rather obscure vis-à-vis the beliefs of most modern Hindus.

In World History textbooks published in the USA, very few paragraphs are devoted to economic development and democratic institutions in independent India. India is not depicted as a viable political nation-state. When dealing with Indic Civilization, the textbooks prefer to make sweeping metaphysical assumptions about religion and culture but are far more circumspect when evaluating civil society and political culture in modern India. In fact, textbooks can, ironically, be strangely critical of the resilience and capacity for synthesis of “traditional cultures” such as India as they interface with modernity. It is as if the value of that geographical area resides only in its ancient contributions to human knowledge whereas its pathetic attempts to modernize or “develop” are to be winked at and patronized.

My own experience as an M.A. student in the Department of Asian Studies at The University of Texas in the mid-nineties alerted me to some of the biased assumptions that appeared to direct the study of India among western academicians. I also began to question the interpretations of some of the more well-known, leftist-oriented scholars from India who dissect the nascent nation-state and, for whatever reasons, along with their Western counterparts, regularly demonize India’s national urges, deconstructing and disempowering the world’s most enduring, and resilient civilization.

Based on narrowly defined approaches to Indian history and culture, ideological portals have been fabricated within various academic or theoretical disciplines such as history, anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, philology, critical theory, subaltern studies, dialectical materialism, each convinced they are the “true” path to India. No doubt, each is a path to understanding a part. However in the process, Indian culture and society has been analyzed, reanalyzed and over-analyzed, from every multi-perspectival position possible. Scholars are often firmly entrenched in their philological or historiographical or Marxist interpretation of all things Indian. From these ideological towers they deny the whole; they see a fractal image. . . much like the child on the back cover of the Amar Chitra Kathacomic book who is looking at a picture of himself on the back cover of the comic book looking at himself looking at a comic book, and so on, infinitely. Quite often when “Westernized” scholars look at India, and in particular Hinduism, they are seeing themselves looking at India, looking at India, looking at India. But India is not being seen. Their analyses are a reflection of their negation of what India is/was not. In order to avoid anything that remotely resembles essentialism, relationships are fragmented, decentered, and dislodged. India, intellectually, ceases to exist. Indic Civilization seems to have ended with the fall of Vijaynagar.

Many of the things I was taught about India and Hinduism in Asian Studies courses at the University of Texas, seemed somewhat out of sync with current research going on in India. At times I witnessed a dismissive, patronizing attitude towards indigenous Indian intellectuals who write from an “Indian” perspective. Some of the assumptions and methodologies used in courses I took were at variance with my knowledge of Indian Civilization and were not verified by my experiences and understanding of the Hindu Dharma. There was an almost complete lack of spirituality or even an appreciation of spirituality. At this level, Hindu philosophy becomes a deeply insightful, amazingly complex curiosity.

In secondary schools, however, even this level of intellectualism is, needless to say, missing. The basic structure for the presentation of India for school students was described by the Indian-American students surveyed at UT Austin. One enumerated the topics covered, “Taj Mahal, famine, hunger, Gandhi” Another stated that “Indian and South Asian topics were seldom presented in classes. They only presented the Indian leader, Gandhi. That was all.” Another concurred that the topics emphasized were “population, poverty, and Gandhi.”

The majority of the informants’ comments agreed with this list of essentialisms. Though most stated that “Hinduism, the caste system, poverty, third world country inferiority” were the aspects of India that were stressed, one student did state that her teacher “dealt only with the independence movement.” One articulate informant complained that, in her classes, India was not depicted accurately and “only negativities were enforced, [India was not presented through] a wide picture.” She continued by summarizing the gist of the treatment of India, “We all starve. We eat monkey brains. We worship rats. We worship cows.” Ultimately she observed that “Only Gandhi and ancient India were covered with any respect.” Another informant agreed with this assessment in his list of topics, “Indus Valley, British occupation, Gandhi. That’s it.”

The comments of these students, who were understandably sensitive to the representation of the area of the world from which they and/or their parents came, reveal the overall negative portrayal of India in Social Studies classes. Because these students are better informed about India and Hindu practices, they are aware of the stereotypes in a way that perhaps their Euro-American, African-American, or Hispanic classmates are not. They are also more able to sift through the misinformation whereas their classmates are subjected to this one-sided view of India, without any reference points, or any real desire to dispel the errors. Because of this, the negative stereotypes may be ultimately more detrimental for non-Indian students.

There was a consensus, among the students surveyed, that India, and Asia in general, were presented as technologically and socially backwards. Several students complained about the portrayal of women in South Asia. One student observed that his teacher told them that “Women are treated poorly, as if there are no rights for females.” Another student stated that in his high school classes teachers stressed the “suppression of women” in South Asia. He complained that his teachers and other American “people have no idea about the culture, the background, the history. . . they assume it’s all oppression.” Ironically, employing the patriarchal idiom that is criticized by both South Asian and American feminists, he added, “[The condition of women] has a lot has to do with respect and protection.” This student, who was from El Paso, was critical of the curriculum, he remembered that Asia was presented as consisting of “very primitive and incomplete ideas.” He felt that “the same goes for South Asia as East Asia.” Another student complained that “India wasn’t really covered and when it was, it was shown as a poor, backward country that treats their women poorly and kills their baby girls.”

In an interview with an American-born student of Panjabi descent, women’s issues were discussed at length. After attending high school near Houston, this student enrolled at The University of Texas and took a class called, “Introduction to Hinduism.” The respectful and objective way that Hinduism was presented in this lower division university class transformed the negative perspectives with which she had come to regard India based on her high school experience and she acquired a new appreciation and interest in Indian history and culture. She changed her academic goals and majored in Asian Studies. Discussing women’s issues in South Asia, she felt that “to a large extent the feminist movement has had an impact on India, it’s brought a lot of Indian women up. But,” she added, “Western feminism’s perspective of Eastern women, or how women are [treated] in Eastern society, has hurt India’s image.” Regarding female infanticide, she stated, “I think [it exists] in the rural settings. [It’s] not necessarily killing, not just sticking [the girl babies] outside [on] a pile of dead bodies. But the incidence of females dying at an earlier age is high. [If] there’s a male child around, especially, girls often take a back seat.”

When the issue of female infanticide was mentioned in her high school history class, she remembered that the teacher “didn’t discuss, [any of the sociological factors and it] came across as if all these Indians were taking their female babies out and dumping them.” She added that in precollegiate classes it was made to seem as if all baby girls were mistreated in India. The fact that in most Indian families daughters are loved and nurtured and educated along side their brothers was not mentioned. The role that women played in the independence movement was also not discussed nor was the fact that Indian women continue to be deeply involved in politics. In fact, at the local panchayat level, a rapidly increasing percentage of democratically elected gram pradhans, or village headmasters are now women. There is currently a bill in parliament to amend the constitution guaranteeing that thirty percent of the seats in the Lok Saba be reserved for women.

According to most Americans, Indian women are to be pitied and the positive social progress made by many women in India is completely ignored. The very gradual development and eventual success of the often maligned Suffragette movement in the U.S. is never contextualized or compared to the social and political upliftment of modern Indian women. The prevailing image is that if the unfortunate females survive a deprived childhood they are likely to be burned in a dowry death after their forced marriage to a complete stranger. Indian women are shown as downtrodden and powerless victims, unlike American women who have more freedom. Indira Gandhi is seen as an anomaly.

A young woman, born in the U.S. who went to high school in Dallas, observed that, “India was considered as really dirty and the people not too intelligent.” Others, recollecting their experiences in U.S. high schools complained that the teachers and the textbooks generally approached Asia from a negative perspective and, “showed the desolate parts of India, not the beauty.” Another student concurred with this observation, that “only lives of the poor” were represented and the treatment of Asia “showed only the problems.” Students never learned that, in India, there is a middle class made up of approximately 300 million consumers. Another student complained that India is depicted as “just a poor country” and that the lives of the people are dealt with in a simplistic manner, “We just worship thousands of Gods. Nothing else!” Another student said that stress had been placed on “overpopulation and wars due to religion.” According to these students, there was nothing taught about the effort that India has made as a democratic country, which the size of Europe, has a diversity of culture and territory of continental proportions. It was never mentioned that India is the seventh most industrialized country in the world.

This perception, that Asia was depicted primarily as an underdeveloped, economically backward, poverty stricken region, was shared by most of the informants. One commented, “We’re all poor with big families and not enough food.” This student went on to say that the main aspects emphasized in the study of South Asia were “poverty, disease, and filth.” Yet another student was taught that “There are only poor people in India,” that, “only poverty exists there.” This observation agrees with another student who remembers, from the content of his World History class, that in India “Almost everyone is poor. It was shown as mainly a slum area.” He added, “But, some cities like Bombay are much like cities here!” From these comments it can be seen that the treatment of South Asia in many classrooms focuses overwhelmingly on the negative aspects of India and leaves no lasting impression of the greatness of the culture or its historical importance, much less of its role in world affairs. As one student described, “Asian countries are shown as being very primitive–as if people don’t know what TV is, microwaves and other modern technology.” Another student complained that “Topics related mainly to the ancient caste system. Nothing dealing with the current economic or political standings was presented.”

One informant said that “Hinduism” was described as “some sort of bizarre mystic religion in which people do dances and worship strange things. India is full of poor uneducated starving people, a country on the verge of collapse.” Critical of the stereotype-as-fact orientation, another young man stated “The poverty of India was blown out of proportion and no Asian countries were credited with the artistic and literary contributions they made to the world. Islamic nations were presented as fanatical, China was the ‘communist enemy’, Japan was an economic and educational threat and India was overpopulated.” The majority of the informants agreed that when India was studied, “Religion and the caste system were emphasized.” Several noted that when studying Gandhi, in the context of Partition, “animosity between Hindus and Muslims” was discussed. There was no mention of post-independence secular India’s efforts toward national integration of its minorities and low caste citizens.

One informant contrasted the emphasis on South Asia– “poverty, religion, reincarnation, British rule, Gandhi, caste” with the emphasis placed on China and Japan which focused on “forms of government, religions, main exports, imports.” This essentialist stereotypical representation of India can be summed up by one student’s list of topics, “polytheism and a poor and very big population, [which is] highly underdeveloped. . .” and, she adds as did many of the informants, “we worship rats and eat monkey brains.”

The warped and cruel depiction of India in the Spielberg film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, seems to have been taken as a valid portrayal of India by many teachers, since a large number of students surveyed complained that teachers referred to the eating of monkey brains. We all remember that the worshipping of rats was widely discussed during the “epidemic” in Surat in the early nineties. In my own experience, while training teachers to teach about India, I have been amazed at how many people really think that Hindus worship rats. When I point out this is an absurd way to think about Hinduism, and ludicrous to teach their students, they argue that they read it in an AP news wire. The way that I deal with this issue is to compare the worship of rats among Hindus, at an obscure temple in Rajasthan, to the worship, among Christians, of David Koresh at the Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. It is a good analogy since the teachers respond that though some Christians did worship David Koresh, it is certainly not a defining characteristic and actually abhorrent to most Christians. Thus it is for rat worship among Hindus.

Throughout their surveys the majority of the students noted these negative and stereotyped approaches to India, “They thought that Hindus worship cows and rats and eat monkey brains. They talked about the Hare Krishnas, as if that’s India!” Several students commented that “Only Indian independence was covered thoughtfully.” But, as others pointed out, what they did with their independence during the next fifty years is ignored. Besides the respect shown to Mahatma Gandhi, most students noted that the focus was on “religion . . . but only the alien and strange aspects.” Hinduism is seen more as a curiosity than a “World Religion.” In this context, Hinduism is referred to as “a way of life” rather than a “religion” as we understand the term in the West. Many Hindus and informed scholars would agree that the Western concept of religion is too narrow to adequately contain the scope of Sanatana Dharma. However, when Hindusim is called a “way of life” as opposed to a what we would call a “religion” it is made to seem like a disorganized collection of conflicting beliefs, not really a “world religion” at all.

In a study of the representation of India in World History textbooks, I noted that in one state adopted textbook, a whole page was devoted to a discussion of the Vedic God Varuna, but Ram, Krishna, and Shiva are mentioned together in only one sentence. The popular deities, Hanuman, Lakshmi, and Ganesh were omitted completely. The obscure is exalted and the actual practices of modern Hindus ignored.

Through the years, I have presented numerous workshops for secondary Social Studies teachers and spoken to many groups of American students about India. Without exception, the two most often asked questions about India are, “Why do women wear a ‘dot’?” and, “Why, when there is so much poverty in India, don’t they eat all those cows?” These questions bring up the issue of relevance and relating these non-Western practices to experiences familiar to the students in order to help them understand different cultures within a context they can comprehend. As the young woman, who had changed her major to Asian Studies stated, teachers should make associations “with something Western that kids can understand — associate rebirth or moksha with a Christian principle. [They should talk about] the American flag and its symbolism, suddenly it would become clear what a symbol is. [Instead of just saying they are idolaters,] say that an idol is a symbol to them. [But unless the teacher explains it in their own terms] they think that ‘these people are weird,’ but if you explain about the symbolism of the flag, it becomes rational.”

If information about India is contextualized and made relevant to the students’ experience instead of exotic and inexplicable, students will have a better understanding of the culture. In answering the question about the eating of beef, I explain it in several ways. I mention the negative impact that raising beef for meat can have on the environment and, citing F. M. Lappe’s statistics, explain that it is ecologically highly inefficient to raise cattle for meat. (It takes approximately sixteen pounds of edible vegetable protein and 44,000 gallons of water to make one pound of beef!) India can not afford to waste that much protein. I then explain that cows are used primarily for milk, which is a staple and one of the main calorie sources in India. In addition, oxen are essential for pulling plows and carts and for crop irrigation. Just as importantly, the cow is the national symbol of the nation, much like the eagle is the symbol for the USA, where even to own an eagle feather, unless you are a member of a registered tribe, is a criminal offense punishable by a $5,000 fine. I explain that to many Hindus, cows are considered to be a part of the family, much like the family dog is treated in the USA. You would not eat Rover. Indians often feel the same about their cows. All Americans can understand this canine analogy. The thought of eating a cow is as repulsive to many Hindus as the thought of eating a dog or a horse is to most Americans. It should be mentioned that this practice does not preclude the eating of dogs or horses in other countries. It becomes clear that culinary habits are quite culturally specific.

Relating perceived oddities about India to aspects of American life can shine a light of commonality and clear up that which appears laughable or strange. The issue of the “dot” on the foreheads of Hindu women is also easily explained. Though originating from a mark of religious symbolism, still used by holy men and other religious persons, its contemporary forms, often made from velvet and glitter, play the same role in fashion as do lipstick or mascara for western women. Some fashion statements are shared across cultures such as the painting of women’s lips and nails, and others are particular to a certain people, such as the “bindi,” or dot. As can be seen by the growing popularity of nose piercing among western youths, and blue jeans among Indian teens, fashions borrowed from other countries can easily become the norm.

The question of relevance and cultural associations bring up issues of Occi-centric (Euro/American) pedagogical approaches in the presentation of Indian and/or Asian topics. In many instances, countries of Asia are introduced only through their relationships to Europe and the West. One student noted that when she learned “There is over population and pollution in the countries of South Asia, not much was presented about how these countries got this way.” Another added that “Asian countries were dealt with strictly as the European colonies that they once were.” And another stated “The history of Asian countries before contact with Europeans was completely ignored.” Most of the students surveyed thought that Asian topics were summarily treated, if at all. One student noted that “The teacher whipped through all of Asia in three weeks–all from a very Euro-centric point of view.” Another student articulated, from a globally aware perspective, that

Asian topics were only discussed when they were in contact with western nations. My whole elementary, junior high and high school education was very Euro-centric. East Asia was mentioned in connection with World War II, South East Asia was mentioned in the context of communism. India was hardly mentioned in my World History class.

These Euro-centric essentialized approaches to the study of Asia personally affect students in American high schools, not only those of Asian origins, but negatively impact non-Asian students by teaching and reinforcing stereotypes. One informant was acutely aware of the detrimental aspects of this perspective, “All Indians that live in India are poor, have lots of cows, they worship everything and everyone. The Indians who live here all have M.D.’s, are rich and their children are all genius kids.”

I interviewed a student, who was in her last year of high school. Her mother is from India and father is Euro-American. She was very sensitive about the way that India was disregarded in her World History class at her high school here in Austin. The feelings that she expressed are worthy of quoting in detail. India “was not important. There was never time for it.” She complained that the teacher would just touch on India and other countries, and then “jump back to Europe or the United States. It wasn’t going back to South America or Mexico. It was the United States or Europe.” She felt that this dismissive approach to the study of non-U.S. cultures had a detrimental impact on her classmates. She pointed out that

At the middle school age, you’re still learning things, and a lot of middle schoolers have very open minds. Some of my friends from middle school are now very racist, and it’s because they are so ignorant about the rest of the world. They don’t know anything about India, they don’t know anything about Japan and China and Taiwan and Vietnam. What they know about Vietnam is the war, an illegal war, that’s what they know about Vietnam. All they know about Africa is that’s where we got black people. (laughs) You know, there’s more to Africa than that’s where we got black people!

This young woman, of mixed heritage, saw the results of negative stereotypes in the attitudes of her classmates.

It was really sad to see some of my friends grow so racist. It’s because they just didn’t have the exposure. I have a friend who admitted that if he hadn’t been taught [negative things] about other nations, he wouldn’t be the way he is now. He has a closed mind because he’s ignorant. But that’s [the result of the way that] World History was taught to us. It was European history. I argued with the teacher several times, ‘This is not suppose to be European history, it’s World History’, but between WW I and WW II there was never time.

This student complained that what material was available about India in the textbooks was not discussed,

The teacher would say, ‘read this paragraph or that paragraph out of the book’ [which focused on] poverty, or Mahatma Gandhi. We skipped over a lot. I read all of it, because I wanted to know. I was interested in it. I wanted to educate myself. I learned more about the world than just what the teacher wanted. But I think it’s very sad that I had to do it on my own. The teacher was not willing to slow down and talk about India. He was always too worried about getting back to European history. The only way I can justify his actions is that he knew absolutely nothing about India or China or Japan. But even then, he should have read the book. It seemed more like he was avoiding it.

Teachers attending workshops on incorporating Asia into their curriculum have told me that India is more difficult to teach than other countries in Asia. They complain that it’s too diverse, too ancient, too exotic, too many gods, with too many arms. Teachers are often overwhelmed. Never having taken a course on India, they are at a loss to understand the complexities. As a result, they often select one or two points, such as the Indus Valley Civilization and Mahatma Gandhi, and skip the rest. Often they will give their students a word list with includes Karma, Dharma, Moksha, Nirvana, the Rig Veda, the Mahabharata, etc., with short definitions. Students are made to memorize these terms for a test. But, they are not adequately explained. Many teachers will dwell on the evils of the caste system and there are even little games that are played, dividing the students up in to priests, warriors, merchants, servants and untouchables. The luck of the draw, not karma or samskaras, determines their caste. The context within which the caste system evolved is not discussed.

Misrepresentations are particularly severe regarding the presentation of Hinduism. Some of the comments from the informants are quite telling. The following is a illustrative string of quotes from several students about the portrayal of Hinduism in their classes: “Hindus worship stones;” “Hindus worship cows, rats, insects. . . There were total distortions and misconceptions about reincarnation;” “We worship cows and we worship statues (we really worship what that statue stands for);” “All Indians worship cows and run around naked and are starving;” “We worship rats, we’re cheap. There was a big stress on religion, which was portrayed negatively and very little was understood about the people.”

Quite a few of the informants felt that their presence in the classroom influenced the way that the material was presented and several stated that they were compelled to correct some of the misrepresentations they perceived. One student remembered that “Whenever India or South Asian counties were mentioned, the teacher or my classmates would look to me for answers.” He evaluated this experience by saying, “In my opinion, India and South Asia were not covered adequately enough for students to actually understand or realize our culture.” Many students felt the need to help the teacher present a more positive picture of India in their classes, “I told them about my visits to India and how the places where my parents were born differed from the ones studied.”

One student astutely observed that “No matter how nonprejudice a class is, the race of a student in that class usually influences the manner in which the material is presented.” Concerning his presence in the classroom one student said, “The teacher would ask what I thought about a certain topic or how we celebrate a certain holiday.” Several shared the perception of the student who said, “I think because I was present that these topics were discussed at all. If I had not been present, I think Asian topics would have been even more briefly discussed and possibly more misrepresented.” This experience was shared by several students, “I believe being of Asian-Indian descent, I was able to contribute to the discussion. I’m sure if other Indians and I hadn’t been in that class, certain stereotypes would not have been cleared up.” One student remembered, “We spent maybe two and a half days in all on Asia and it was not talked about with importance or emphasis.” Several students were glad to have contributed, “My input made everything seem ‘real’ and not some ‘fact’ in a book.” All but a few of the students after enduring “Misrepresentations of the Hindu religion and way of life” felt it necessary to “correct the teacher.”

That teachers need to be more informed about the topics they must teach can be seen in the comments of this young man,

The teacher told us ‘Sikhs who practice Sikhism, which is a religion in India, carry weapons (small swords) with them.’ The fact that some do and some don’t and the reason for it was not explained. I am a Sikh and she asked me if that was correct. What I didn’t understand was why she was telling that to the class when she didn’t know if it was correct.
In his experience, “Only the stereotypical image is presented–Indians are poor, they worship cows, etc.–instead of correcting the stereotypes.”

One student, born in the USA, whose parents were from Rajasthan, said “I tried to fix any misnomers and being Jain, I told them that Hinduism isn’t the only religion. I also corrected the pronunciation and brought in more of the culture. I did an hour presentation on it.” Several students felt that they were “expected to know about the topic when it was presented” and they thought “the teachers were much more hesitant of what they were saying when I was in the classroom. . . many times their information was quite incorrect.” One of the informants felt as though “the teacher had to watch what was said. Sometimes they would state a fact and ask me if it was correct. If I ever did see it necessary to correct them, they would use my test paper to grade everyone else’s.”

Two of the students had taken electives where the material was presented in a different light. One said, “I took a Humanities class that was much better than the history, the teacher tried to discuss different cultural aspects that were relevant to the cultures represented in that class. It was a class that looked at India as beautiful in land and deeply traditional in culture.” Another “took a World Affairs class in which religion was taught very well. I was really impressed.” Unfortunately, according to the results of this survey and based on other research, these types of informed, thoughtful presentations of India are the exception. The sarcastic tone expressed in the following statement captures some of the more negative reactions that South Asian students have to their World History classes,

The emphasis was that India is just poor, dirty, cows everywhere. . . We never discussed Gandhi. To this day, some poor fool probably thinks that this is the best ‘insult’ to an Indian. Gandhi is all they know about India, anyway.

The majority of the students did not think that enough time was devoted to the study of Asia. As quoted above, in one class, only “two and a half days were spent on all of Asia.” Other students shared similar memories, “We only spent four days on Asia.” Another said, “Not enough time was spent on Asia. South Asia is an area rich in culture and deserves more time than is given.” One student complained, “Inadequate time was spent [on India] and they gave the students inaccurate information.” Another student remembered that “We spent a week on all Asian nations.” He went on to state ironically that “Europe has ‘more history’–that’s why we spent a whole freakin’ month on WW II.” Several students explained this phenomenon by correctly assuming that most teachers have studied European history but have very little background in non-Western cultures. One student observed that “Not many on the faculty were knowledgeable about Asian lifestyles and there were many misconceptions.” She added that , “Only the discussions of Gandhi and Mother Theresa were thoughtful.”

When comparing the treatment of South Asia to that of other countries in Asia, there was a fair amount of agreement, “There was much more of a focus on China and Japan. There was no depth in the material when studying about India.” A student noted that “There was hardly any time spent on India in comparison with the time spent on Far Eastern countries. I think this is because China and Japan effect the U.S. more economically.” Two students echoed each others’ observations when one stated “Not as much time was spent on India as it was on China,” and the other , “China is always given a lot more time. In studying China the Mao era was examined extensively.” One of the students complained that “No time was spent on Asia, except Japan.” Another insightfully observed that he was glad not as much time was spent on India, as was on the countries of East Asia, because it gave the teacher less time to distort the culture. When his class studied Japan they stressed “traditions such as tying Japanese girls up real tight so they couldn’t walk.” He continued, “luckily only about 2% of the time was spent on India and that was all about the evils of the caste system.”

Several students commented that East and South East Asia “were generally covered in relation to wars in which the U.S. was involved–WW II, Korea, Vietnam.” Another commented that “East Asia was not represented with the exception of Tiannamen Square.” The majority of the students shared the perception that “The quantity and quality [of time spent on India] was relatively less when compared to Japan and China. There has been and still is an obvious bias toward the Pacific rim in U.S. policy at all levels.” One student summed up the observations of many when he said that the emphasis in South Asia was on “religion and culture” and the emphasis in East & South East Asia was on “new political formations and economic changes.”

Concluding this narrative of the results of this survey of Indian American students is a statement made by one young man that can serve as an important lesson for teachers. When presenting other cultures and religions, teachers and professors should take care not to focus exclusively on strange or exotic images from the area under consideration. The experience of this student, who went to high school in Houston, is to the point, because it shows how the materials we choose to help teach about other cultures and religions may do more harm than good, “In World History, we were once shown a film which documented some isolated tribesmen who pierced their bodies in the name of religion–it perpetuated Hindu stereotypes.”

American Secondary Education and Indology’s Bloopers

As part of a thesis submitted for my Masters of Arts Degree in Asian Studies, I analyzed four high school World History textbooks, paying particular attention to the content on India and Hinduism. The text, as well as the overall presentation, or tone, of each textbook was considered, including the photographs, captions, subheadings, and review questions. In this paper, due to space considerations, I will summarize the analysis of only one of the textbooks included in that larger study. In the process, I will show not only are teachers negatively impacted by stereotypes about India in the popular media, but the textbooks themselves often perpetuate essentialisms. The book to be discussed, World History, People and Nations, by Anatole G. Mazour and John M. Peoples, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1990, is of particular importance because it was used at most of the high schools in the Austin area for six years and therefore reflects the primary source from which local teachers present topics about India.

Another book in my thesis study, Links Across Time and Place-A World History, was co-authored by the eminent Western historian, William McNeill. This book, published in 1989, a year prior to the book to be discussed, was even less informative about Indian history and culture and though it had some positive features, was heavily biased towards European history. Also included in the longer study was a textbook published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1959 and 1961, The History of Our World, which was the most dated book. In the original study, the most recent book , World History: Continuity and Change, was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1997, and co-authored by a team of area specialists. Among the three textbooks published in the 1990’s, this last book was the only one that was both in-depth and sensitive, fact-filled, yet informing the student about conflicting theories. Interestingly, the textbook published in 1961, was by far more informative and contained more relevant material than the Mazour-Peoples book published thirty years later. Unfortunately, regardless of its depth of coverage, the late fifties era text was distastefully discolored by tirades against Communism and paternalistic discourses of development versus tradition. In 1960, the vogue rationale for studying world history was to introduce Americans to foreign lands as possible tourist destinations. This outdated rhetoric was thankfully not central to the narrative in the textbook to be considered here, which however, offered less interesting misinformation in a more politically correct format.

The Masour-Peoples textbook, World History: People and Nations, not counting the glossary and index, has 903 pages, a heavyweight in any student’s backpack. At the beginning are eight pages of photographs, “Linking Past to Present,” organized under themes. There was a distinct lack of information about the photos included as representative of Asia, whereas, the Western images, which predominated, were adequately labeled.

Describing these “photo gallery” pages offers an excellent method of exposing the built-in bias of this textbook apparent right from the beginning. On the first two pages, “People and Society,” there are thirteen photographs– five from North America, two from Italy, two from Japan, two from South America, and two from Africa. The two images from Japan are labeled–first a painting: “Traditional stylized No drama in Japan,” and second a photograph: “Kabuki performance in modern-day Japan.”

The next set of photos, “Science and Technology,” has ten photograph including race cars, the Apollo moon landing, an underwater research vehicle, a micro-chip, a laser beam, three western scientists who are mentioned by name, an Arab dhow, and a wood block print of a medieval European astronomer. As I began my analysis, this omission–not including even one image to acknowledge India or any of Asia’s contribution or participation in the scientific and technological world–sets the tone for the remainder of the book.

Under the heading “Visual Art,” are sixteen photographs with images such as a “prehistoric cave painting,” a “Russian icon,” the “Transamerica Building” juxtaposed with the “Chartres Cathedral,” “the Sphinx,” as well as three painting and two sculptures by Europeans captioned with the names of both the work and the artist–Van Gogh, Picasso (twice), Raphael, Michelangelo. Also included were photos labeled, a “Chinese carving,” a “Chinese print,” a “Japanese painting,” a “Buddhist temple” in an unidentified country, an “African Mask” also from an unidentified country, and a painting identified as “Islamic art,” which is actually a Persian miniature. It is noteworthy that the European art is identified by title and artist, but the Buddhist temple and the Persian miniature are not even identified by country. Perhaps the authors think that since Asia is so far away there is no need to be precise.

The next section, “Customs and Beliefs,” has nine photographs: “Buddhist Temple in Gansu, China,” “Hindu festival in India,” “Shinto priests in Japan,” “Muslims praying at mosque in Afghanistan.” One picture depicts a “bar misvah at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.” and another an aerial view of Jerusalem, “a holy city to Muslims, Jews and Christians.” There are also two photos of indigenous American peoples, both inadequately labeled as well as a wide-angle shot inside a church with the caption, “Protestant service at Christmas.” That there is a preponderance of non-Western images in this photo spread devoted to belief systems is not surprising since World History textbooks often dwell on topics associated with religion, especially exotic aspects, when discussing India and other areas of the non-Western world, ignoring technological or political accomplishments. Witness the absence of photos from Asia in the science category, whereas in this photo gallery of beliefs, four out of the nine images were from Asia and two from the Middle East. Since two of the remaining photos were of indigenous American peoples, only one represented religious practices in the West. Certainly a television evangelist or the Pope-mobile are also evocative images which might bring relevance to the other photos of non-Western religious activities.

In Unit 1, “The Beginnings of Civilization,” the first two chapters discuss prehistoric times and the flowering of civilization in the “Four Great River Valleys,” including the ancient history of Egypt, Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria and Persia, as well as the ancient Hebrews. This chapter devotes 32 pages to the discussion of the ancient Middle East.

Chapter 3, “People Created Thriving Civilizations in India,” commences with a full page photo of two men on a ghat illuminated by the rising sun, “Hindus praying on banks of the Ganges River.” This twenty page chapter takes the student from prehistoric times through the Gupta Dynasty in 600 A.D. The previous chapter on the ancient Middle East, though it included several different civilizations in its scope, stopped at 600-400 B.C. Even though the number of pages devoted to ancient India is comparable, the treatment of the topics was less detailed and included a thousand additional years in its scope. The fact that India and China are given their own separate chapters is noteworthy, since in many World History textbooks, ancient India and China are included in the same chapter, though their civilizations are quite distinct and essentially developed independently of each other, except for Buddhist influences. Often, in dealing with Asia, all the civilizations of that continent are lumped into one chapter.

As this chapter about India begins, sensationalist stereotypes were employed in an obvious attempt to catch the students’ attention. Since most teachers present the ancient world from a “Cradle of Civilization” approach–the six thousand year old sewer system at Mohenjo-Daro is particularly interesting to teach–most students will be exposed to at least these initial readings about South Asia. Later in the school year, teachers may cite time constraints to justify skipping the chapter on Indian independence, but this first chapter on the Indus Valley Civilization is inevitably included in their lesson plans during the first weeks of school and lays the foundation for images of the subcontinent. Therefore, a statement on the first page of this chapter in large bolded italics, meant to stimulate interest, is even more objectionable since most teachers will undoubtedly require that their students read it,

Although many Hindu rituals no longer exist in India, some, such as walking across a bed of hot coals or lying on a bed of nails, are still practiced to gain forgiveness for sins or to build spiritual control. They continue to intrigue outsiders who have never experienced the rich cultural diversity of India.

This implies that such “rituals” are commonplace and “still practiced” in modern India. After a hard day at the office, the banker or farmer comes home and walks across a bed of hot coals before dinner. In reality, most Indians have never seen, let alone tried, this type of tapasya, mortification of the flesh, unless they have gone to a Kumbha Mela or other spiritual fair, where Sadhus and holy men, may indeed perform these tricks. This casual statement leads the reader to believe that these rituals are widely practiced in modern India. Making this sensationalist comment in bold italics at the very beginning of the chapter on India, immediately creates an exotic and strange picture in the mind of the student whose Indian teenage counterpart, after doing his or her homework, lies around on a bed of nails watching ZTV. If this book is the only source of information about India available to the students, they will certainly assume that there are few televisions in India. The Indian teens have nothing else to do but walk on coals and sit on nails. Perhaps such tapasya will become a fad in the US much like nose piercing and painting the hands and feet with henna have become popular.

Among the six pages in this Indus Valley section, there is a half-page sidebar about the Indus Valley seals, with two photos and the statement

Because Harappan seals have been found in the Tigris Euphrates region near the site of Sumerian civilization, scholars think that the people of the Indus Valley traded with the people of the Middle East (emphasis added).

Archeologists, historians, and other scholars, more than “think” that the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) traded with Sumeria, they are certain. It is essential to present the IVC as dynamic and involved in international trade. In many textbooks this is often one of the only sections on India, until the appearance of Mahatma Gandhi, were Indian civilization is shown as vibrant and thriving. The treatment of the early civilization in the Indus Valley in this textbook, dating from 2500 to 1500 B.C., focuses on the sophistication of urban planning but short changes its amazing history of commerce.

The story of the Indus Valley Civilization proceeds, “miracles of city planning and design. . . sewers, public baths, garbage chutes. . . kiln baked bricks, the citadels, granaries, and population estimates of 35,000.” Throughout, the Indus Valley Culture is shown as a separate civilization and not a precursor to Hindu culture. In this and in most other World History textbooks there is a discontinuity between the ancient Indus Valley Civilization and later developments in Hinduism. In similar treatments of China, the continuity of the cultural traditions are usually stressed, but not in India, even though it is well known that many aspects of life in the IVC were carried over into later Hinduism–ritual bathing, fire ceremonies, reverence for the cow, games of dice and chess, the worship of the mother goddess, and the Shiva-like deity depicted on Indus Valley seals, to mention a few. There is no discussion of the discovery of the Saraswati River basin and subsequent excavations of dozens of IVC related sites in India during the last few decades which has greatly expanded our knowledge of this ancient civilization.

Peoples and Nations explains that the IVC was based on agriculture, but it is “difficult to know about irrigation since 12 feet of silt has now covered the area.” In addition

Scholars know very little about the Indus Valley religion, but studies indicate that it was a form of animism, a belief that spirits inhabit everything–trees and other natural objects, animals, and even people. The Harappans believed these spirits influenced a person’s life; therefore, they tried to control them and please them.

What stands out is the phrase “even people.” How do they know this fact and why is it written in such a provocative tone stating that the inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro “tried to control and please” the spirits because they inhabited “even people”? Actually, there is not much information on this aspect of Indus Valley culture, less in fact than about their irrigation practices. Regarding religion the authors are willing to make assumptions which are not necessarily substantiated but they are less ready to describe the economy or technology on that basis.

This rendition of the “spirits” in which the inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro are said to have believed is similar to a critical analysis found in James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, a fascinating and informative study of twelve American History textbooks. Loewen states that “textbooks treat Native religions as a unitary whole.” He quotes a description of Native American religions found in The American Way,

These Native Americans [in the Southeast] believed that nature was filled with spirits. Each form of life, such as plants and animals, had a spirit. Earth and air held spirits, too. People were never alone. They shared their lives with the spirits of nature.

As Loewen points out, this type of narrative makes American Indian “beliefs seem like make-believe, not the sophisticated theology of a higher civilization.”

Even though the IVC existed over four thousand years ago, their wells, drains and sewage systems, their vast trading area, their handicrafts, and the detailed toys that they made for their children indicate that they had developed a high degree of sophistication. Unequivocally stating that their religion was animism and they believed “spirits inhabit everything” makes them seem a very primitive culture.

In his critique of the above quotation describing American Indian religions, Loewen, tongue in cheek, writes in an analogous narrative style a “similarly succinct summary” about

Americans [who] believed that one great male god ruled the world. Sometimes they divided him into three parts, which they called father, son and holy ghost. They ate crackers and wine or grape juice, believing that they were eating the son’s body and drinking his blood. If they believed strongly enough, they would live on forever after they died.

The rest of the description of the Indus Valley Civilization in the Mazour-Peoples textbook strives to paint a picture of a thriving environment, where “city dwellers worked primarily in industry or trade.”

As early as 2300 B.C., they traded with people of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Indus Valley artisans produced fine articles, including cotton cloth, pottery, bronze items, and gold and silver jewelry.

Luckily, the authors again refer to the IVC trade with the Middle East. Unfortunately, they do not offer any substantial evidence such as terra-cotta seals unearthed in numerous sites, or cuneiform records of shipments arriving from the Indus Valley which included sandalwood, peacocks, and monkeys, or that DNA testing has revealed that cotton used for wrapping mummies in 2400 BC Egypt was of Indus Valley origin. Such fascinating details can be included in only one sentence with a minimal impact on the almost thousand page book. These connections make history more exciting and show relationships between cultures. The text goes on to state,

Although archaeologists have found no temples, shrines, or other religious writings, they believe that the people of the Indus Valley worshipped animals associated with physical power and fertility, such as bulls, crocodiles, and snakes. One of the most important symbols was the unicorn, a fabled animal with a single horn jutting from its forehead. Other evidence indicates that a sacred tree and a mother goddess symbolized fertility.

Though much more is known about commercial aspects of the IVC than about their religious beliefs, the authors devote more space to the latter. As mentioned, many archeologists consider the baths, the citadel, and the fire altars, which have been unearthed at Mohenjo-Daro, to be of religious significance, as they are in later Hinduism. The authors choose to ignore this theory of cultural continuity. Their map of the “Harappan Civilization” does not show the many IVC sites in India, except at the mouth of the Narmada, indicating the authors have depended on dated materials for their information.

In concluding the section on the IVC, the book states,

Scholars do not know why the Indus Valley Civilization declined. They speculate that tribes from outside lands conquered the valley. More recent evidence indicates that the salt content of underground water increased. Such an increase probably made agriculture impossible and may have disintegrated the baked bricks of the buildings.

Obviously, the second sentence above, which refers to the old discredited Aryan invasion theory, negates the subsequent sentence, based on the generally accepted theory of a geological upheaval and climatic changes. The text continues, in support of the newer theories,

Some evidence suggests that major earthquakes and floods struck the region about 1700 B.C. The discovery of several unburied skeletons, together with homes and personal belongings hastily abandoned, seems to indicate some disastrous event at Mohenjo-Daro. The evidence needed to verify the theory, however, remains incomplete.

It is significant that no mention is made, as most archeologists now believe, that these skeletons were probably squatters and by the time they were trapped by some calamity, the original population had long before abandoned their cities. The idea that the IVC ended due to natural disasters is called an unverified theory, but, as will be seen, the Aryan “invasion” is not called a theory and is assumed to be fact. The review section at the end of this chapter lists the words “monsoon,” “citadel,” and “animism,” thereby reinforcing that the animism angle is not conjecture but essential enough to memorize for a test.
The next section, “Aryan Invaders Ruled India’s Northern Plain During the Vedic Age,” begins on page 54. The first paragraph states,

About 1500 B.C., a new group of people flooded through the Khyber Pass into India. They came from the region north of the Black and Caspian seas and spoke an Indo-European language.

There is no mention that, though formulated well over a hundred years ago by Orientalist scholars, the emergence of the Aryan tribes from the steppes of Russia is still considered a “theory.” The process of piecing together the past, and changes in perspectives as new pieces are added, is certainly of interest to the student and brings the discussion about the ancient past to life. All too often the processes of historiography are not described in textbooks, depriving students the power of understanding that even interpretations of the distant past can change significantly due to on-going research. History is not moribund facts but an alive vibrant field. It is no wonder that so many students find history to be boring when their textbooks deprive them access to the dynamic nature of historical research.

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