India is one of the oldest, most chaotic, and most complicated civilizations in the world, with over four thousand years of history and culture, and dozens of competing narratives of how to tell its stories and for what purpose. In an absence of easily usable primary sources, participants in our workshop often report experiencing some of the following difficulties.
How do you make estimates about statistics in the absence of accurate census data? Is there a more efficient way to talk about Indian demographic data when so many sources dispute its accuracy? How widespread exactly are certain practices, and how do you tell what “most” people in a given categorization are doing? The difficulty of answering these questions hinders many students’ current events education, and many teachers look to go beyond the use of textbooks which may be controversial, mislabeled, or simply inaccurate.
“Ancient vs. modern,” “traditional vs. innovative,” “practical vs. spiritual,” and other simplistic dichotomies abound in teaching about India and the Indian people and diaspora today, but nearly all of these easy narratives do a disservice to the complexity that exists. In a time when stereotypes threaten to fester more intolerance than ever, or are exacerbated to create stronger delineations between people who have a great deal in common, it’s more important than ever for teachers to understand how to identify and interrogate stereotypical thinking and homogeneity wherever they find it.
What is the actual situation in Kashmir like today? What can we do to help Indian women combat situations like the Delhi rape case? How do Indian-Americans in the diaspora experience casteism? If Buddhists don’t believe in god, what do modern Indian Buddhist practitioners do at temples? Teachers often report feeling unequipped to answer these and other common questions about India today based on the detached, historically limited information they see in their textbooks, which often focuses on an over-generalized presentation of a tradition or a single historical event in a century-long time period.
How can India be considered one of the most dangerous places for women in the world, but respect multiple goddess figures and boast one of the highest rates of women’s participation in STEM around the world? How does a country with an established tradition of religious debate and cooperation give rise to so many faith-based human rights abuses? How does the third largest higher education sector in the world produce so few doctoral degrees? Facts about India can never be viewed in isolation, and teachers have often expressed a desire to further explore the inter-relatedness of some very complex ideas and phenomena on the subcontinent.
Indians, the Indian diaspora, and practitioners of faiths that have an inception on the Indian subcontinent have only recently achieved the ability to discuss their own country and traditions in the American educational landscape. In the K-12 space, many textbooks and English-language resources are still inflected with colonial pedagogy that perpetuates racist ideas, such as Orientalism, exoticization, and the white savior mentality.
With students today’s habits of Internet research and increased exposure to unvetted news sources, it has never been more difficult than now to navigate the complicated debates and arguments that comprise the educational landscape of teaching India for K-12 students. Our workshop does not subscribe to the idea of one completely neutral source, but strives to help teachers understand controversies such as the California textbook case, religious propagandism, pro-colonial history, and others as voices in an ongoing conversation, and understand how to navigate these voices and pass on that cognizance to their students.