By the Book: when the facts obscure the truth
"Is everyone in India poor?"
My eleven-year-old classmate was genuinely curious. We'd just finished a textbook chapter about my country of origin — specifically, about its poverty, caste system, and apparent obsession with cows. I remember my face grew hot and my stomach churned as I stammered no and then sat there, confused.
Intuitively, I knew that what I'd just read in my textbook couldn't be the whole story. After all, I'd grown up with parents who'd always shared with me India's rich history and culture.
But I felt a powerful disconnect that day. As a child, I never thought to question my textbook — I simply trusted the information it transmitted. Yet these particular "facts" were so incomplete and so contradictory to what I'd been taught at home.
Through the Pinhole
At the time, I didn't understand that the writer of that particular textbook had viewed my country through a pinhole illuminating information at an undesirable angle, without context, and without placement on a historical timeline.
If, instead, that pinhole of light had landed upon India thousands of years ago, it would have seen the origination of yoga and yogic philosophy. If it had landed there between the 1st and 18th centuries, it would have found a bustling trade powerhouse — and one of the wealthiest countries in the world at that time.
And if the pinhole had fallen a bit later and opened a bit wider, it would have seen the equivalent of $45 trillion (yes, trillion) drained out of India due to a series of tax and trade maneuvers by the British empire. In recent research published by Columbia University Press, economist Utsa Patnaik analyzed two hundred years of data to calculate this staggering sum.
For perspective, the current U.S. gross domestic product, in its entirety, is approximately $20 trillion.
Facts and Truths
It was many years before I understood the breadth and depth of Indian and yogic philosophy, some of which dated (conservatively estimated) from 3,000 BCE, and many years before I studied the intricacies of temple architecture, which harnessed and directed the light of the summer and winter solstices.
Reading independently, I learned that light speed had been calculated thousands of years earlier, recorded in the ancient Vedic texts, then further elaborated in 14th century India. I learned that surgical practices (including cataract surgery) were developed by Sushruta around 600 BCE and performed regularly — and with the benefit of infection prevention and wound healing techniques.
Armed only with such information about ancient mathematics, astronomy, and medicine originating from the other side of the world, what if I'd looked at Europe through the pinhole of the Middle Ages, when sewage was thrown into the streets? What if I'd done so after learning that India followed quarantine customs correlating exactly with incubation period of smallpox, in order to prevent community outbreaks?
Those facts about Europe would have been accurate, yet I would have missed the truth.
What if I'd viewed America solely through a pinhole of human enslavement or Native American genocide or racial violence? And what if my textbook never mentioned the brilliant minds that launched the American democratic experiment, showing humanity at its most idealistic and optimistic?
I propose that all children and most adults can handle — and indeed, would prefer — not facts in isolation, but rather, a more complete truth. Our understanding of America should be based in reality, one that acknowledges both its uplifting ideals and painful realities. Indeed, for me, that discrepancy inspires me to fight against those realities and work toward those ideals.
A Collective Lens
During my years as an education grant program director, I met inspired and inspiring teachers, dedicated to teaching experientially, drawing facts from varied sources, and cultivating empathy for those of different backgrounds. Certainly, history is taught differently than at the time I was in school.
While textbooks have come a long way, it is important to note that the textbook industry is not a well regulated one — and most of its regulations are not vis-á-vis content accuracy. The writers do not necessarily have expertise in the topics they cover, and often, the same information from old textbooks is recycled into new textbooks.
More disturbingly, state boards have been known to insist upon certain types of textbook content, presented at a certain angle — and textbook companies do bow to those demands rather than risk losing large purchasing markets.
Even if textbook information were accurate, balanced, and contextual, I recognize that it would be unrealistic to expect a sixth grade textbook to provide a complete history of a country like India, studied mostly in passing. Teachers are already overwhelmed by the amount of information they must convey to students, often in time for state standardized testing.
The reality is that, particularly in the short term, we can't screen every textbook or reform the textbook industry. We may never be able to stop those who wish to skew textbook content. Additionally, teachers face tremendous pressure and time constraints.
Nevertheless, I believe there is a way to avoid the misrepresentation that bothered me deeply as a child: change the pinhole approach to history and instead zoom our collective lens far outward when studying any country, topic, or event. Every student should be reminded continually of two principles:
History is written by the victors. A single historical account is never enough and never complete. Who else lived at that time, and what accounts did they leave behind? How did they experience the same events?
Context, especially with respect to time, is critical to understanding. What else happened during a particular period of history? What were the economics of the entire world at that time? How does one thoughtfully compare thousand-year-old civilizations with countries that have existed only for a few centuries?
With the lens zoomed outward in this manner, students see a more complete reality, embrace historical complexity, and find genuine empathy. They stand a far better chance to learn the necessary lessons from the past.