About Vidya Books

My question to these folks was, “Would you teach US history only from British perspectives in US classrooms?” This question was met often with dead silence. Some teachers could not quite get over what a simple question it was, and some attended the same, repeat presentation, at the same conference! Some told me I would not really prosper, since what I was questioning the status quo of power in society. A few people told me that I was being a revolutionary! What I was asking was this: My children had an equal right to non-biased materials about their heritage as any other American; why should my taxes pay for mis-educating the next generation about the heritage of South Asian Americans, born and raised in the US?

I attended the California and the National Council of Social Studies (CCSS & NCSS) conferences, and in 1988/89 and found out about the changes made to the California State History/Social Sciences Frameworks. Yes, there was work to be done, but California seemed ahead of the curve, nationally.

I could go speak in my children’s individual classrooms and schools (and did); I could correct the mis-education in their individual schools (and did), but the problem was bigger than that. Surely, all children, regardless of their heritage, deserved similar help? For me, as much as I could (as any one person can), a society free from colonialism and slavery was the true legacy I wanted to leave for my children.

At the CCSS I had met the late A. Elgin Heinz, who told me to talk to the SPICE folks at Stanford. I did. It seemed that Asia had been informally divided up (my words) between the local universities, so that Stanford University would cover Japan and China, and UC Berkeley was left to cover India. When I complained to Elgin about what I had found in the materials at UC Berkeley, he asked me why did I not put my outrage to good use? If what I had found was not satisfactory, why didn’t I write, he challenged me. I hesitated. Elgin volunteered to edit, which truly humbled me. In the end, my desire to educate won. So I started to explore writing.

I talked to some publishers. One major educational publisher was willing to explore what I wanted to say, but said they would retain editorial control over my writing. This colonial habit of control over content did not sit well with one educated about colonialism from an early age. I could hear echoes of my civics teacher in high school: ‘don’t ever forget that you are born in a free India; remember that you don’t have to kow-tow to anyone…’ So I started to explore publishing.

In 1991, I started Vidya Books, a niche publishing company, meant to educate students about South Asia from South Asian perspectives. My intent was to self publish materials that I felt were needed for the public schools, tailored to the California State Department of Education’s History/Social Sciences Frameworks. I learned about bar codes and got ISBN’s; I learned about the details of book production and color separations. I published ten history social Studies booklets, some lesson plans for teachers, some posters (all of which won state approval for supplementary materials in California), and an art activities kit.

When in 1992 the California State Department of Education sent me an official invitation to submit in the Textbook Adoption process, I thought I must be on the right track. Long-story-short, this self-publishing venture then got me to establish a precedent in the California State Department of Education Textbook market, but commercially, it did not get me too far. One state official (like a Euro-American who worked at my children's school, and wanted to teach me - an Indian born and raised in India - how to pronounce my son’s name, from Sanskrit!) commented that they were right (it was only an ‘either or’, never an ‘and’ proposition to her), and anyway, she said, what I was saying was ‘just one person’s views.’ One friend had commented then that what I was doing was a pretty sophisticated marketing idea, creating demand for a product, and another said it would be a long road. Little did I know!

I knew there were many other people who felt like I did. So in 1995, with help from like-minded people, I formed a nonprofit group, Education About South Asia - Vidya, a 501,c,3 group, EduSA-Vidya.org. Our idea was to teach teachers, as the more cost effective way of putting scarce money to good use, while our work could have a domino effect, by teachers teaching students year after year. We were gratified to receive a grant from The Asia Society in New York to develop a program on India for Middle School teachers.

In 1999, friends who did not know each other (almost simultaneously) suggested I meet with Larry Shinagawa, then head of the American Multicultural Studies Dept. at Sonoma State University. At the end of that meeting, he offered me a job at SSU. I started teaching there that fall.

Fast forward to 2010. All the negatives that I faced earlier may have now become positives. In the 1980’s, my manuscripts had been rejected, since, as one publisher said, “you are ahead of your time.” Another had said, ‘there was not enough of a market for Indians’ in the US at that time.

E-books and online publishing, which had also started around 1992, have now become a reality. Kindle and I-Pad change publishing, perhaps as much as did the printing press. Niche publishing is in. The world has shrunk, in terms of the world wide web bringing people together. India is no longer shrugged off as immaterial. The online nature of publishing, without the brick and mortar costs of doing a business, and the marketing costs to traditional independent stores (sadly, very few of which remain), now actually make me more poised for success, with relatively limited resources. The timing seems finally right to revive Vidya Books online, and doing the business of publishing in an electronic format

The state of textbooks in the US, alas, remains dismal. On the one hand, are the big four commercial, global, textbook publishers, who are big multinational businesses, and hold educational materials captive to their profit. On the other hand, there the folks who espouse the ‘wiki’ textbooks /free content idea. While free and easy access of the second idea definitely has an appeal over the stranglehold and outrageous pricing practices of the first, neither works on its own. Textbooks publishers, mired in capitalist thinking, are more interested in their own market share than quality or content, and the other side has joined in the fray, by thinking that anyone with access to a computer, including students of any age, can publish their own ‘textbooks’. Neither appreciates the ‘unity in diversity’ idea behind the US, nor do they cater to education as an essential discipline that supports (or not) a democracy. Still others, speaking on behalf of ‘their’ own individual segments of the ‘minorities’ (in the multicultural context) have taken to calling themselves authorities, and yet others are trying to debunk others’ views with lawsuits. Perhaps what may be happening is a healthy debate in a democracy.

However, what has become lost in this political drama is the interest of the next generation, and their educational welfare, and the welfare of society. In attack and counterattack, made worse by 'grab a quick buck', or grab a 'headline' to gain an advantage over the other, we seem to have lost sight of what is important. Forgotten is the fact that education is a calling and a mission, not a global business. It is true that education need not preclude profit, but if profit is the main, driving force in education, we will raise no more than a society of consumers. We may as well all wear barcodes on our forehead, and deliver schooling online, with virtual content managed from corporate servers and robots! Put simply, if everyone lived as most Americans do, this planet cannot support its global consumers. Most of us who are in education are not in this profession for money. I applaud dedicated educators for staying true to their educational mission, while trying to meet assessments and other requirements from officials.

Vidya Books remains a niche publisher. Vidya is a word from ancient Sanskrit, Vidya he param jyoti (education, whether formal or informal, is the true light/illumination, at any age). In 2010 it is expanding its list to include all people, not just the single constituency of South Asian Americans. Thank you for making the journey with me.

Reviews:

Humanities 200 Peace Studies Reviews - Anonymous Students
War and Peace Lecture Series Student Reviews - by Students
Albany Middle School Reviews - by Students
Convent of the Sacred Heart of San Francisco - by Students


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