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Why State Textbook Reviews Matter for Minority Faith Groups

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Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

Last week, I attended the Texas State Board of Education's meeting on adopting textbooks for the 2015-2016 school year.

This is hardly a mundane process: Texas's curriculum and textbook adoption have been politicized and polarizing in recent years, alarming education advocates and big textbook publishers and making the state a laughingstock to the rest of the country.

While there are several board members on both sides of the political aisle determined to restore sanity to the textbook review and adoption process, that might be easier said than done given that board members are elected - not appointed like in other states - and there is a well-funded effort by right-wing groups to re-write narratives. Their targets have most often been depictions of U.S. history and Islam.

To counter this offensive, groups such as the Texas Freedom Network have mobilized Texans and raised awareness to underrepresented communities, including followers of Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism, as well as minority populations such as African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. The stakes are high in how diverse groups are portrayed, especially since the state's changing demographics make it impossible to ignore their contributions. It's also critical because the market size of Texas makes it easier for content publishers to sell Texas edition textbooks - or some variation - to other states.

This is why traditionally marginalized voices are paramount to a successful Proclamation 2015, and their individual challenges in representations are made easier through broader coalitions. For Hindu Americans, the struggle is multifold, including efforts to articulate key philosophical principles of a 5,000+ year old religion, de-linking social ills such as caste discrimination from Hinduism (since the Vedas, the religion's oldest texts, never sanctioned a rigid and hierarchical social system), and highlighting the evolution of the faith tradition over the centuries. It's one struggle to try to rectify outdated and inaccurate portrayals, but an even greater challenge to deal with ideological warriors determined to depict the United States as a "Christian nation."

Moreover, different minority faith groups often see their interests as competing when the reality is that there is actually plenty of room (in a textbook) for their voices to be heard. Sikhs deserve to have their religion's core values highlighted and how those values have shaped a growing community in the United States, while Jainism deserves to get space as a distinct faith whose roots trace back to ancient India. Understandings about Islam also need to be improved, as the diverse traditions of sects such as the Sufis and Ahmadiyyas rarely make it into classroom instruction.

On issues of curriculum reform, minority faiths have a lot more overlapping and common interests than they have competition. It's up to members of our respective community, whether in Texas or other parts of the country, to work together to assert our voices in curriculum reform. That is the essence of pluralism and part of a winning strategy to ensure that minority faith traditions don't get overrun by ideologues with an ever-growing fear of the Other.