The rich irony in Virginia’s history textbook error

By Valerie Strauss  | October 20, 2010

There is rich historic irony in the news that a textbook given to Virginia’s fourth-graders wrongly claims that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War: The process by which textbooks are adopted by some states was initiated after Southern states decided they did not want children reading the North’s version of the conflict.

As reported in today’s Washington Post by my colleague Kevin Sieff, the book “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” used by Virginia students for the first time last month, was written by an author who is not a trained historian and who said she found the information about black Confederate solders on the Internet.

The author, Joy Masoff, has penned other works including "Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty" and "Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments."

(You can’t make up this stuff.)

She also is the author of 13 other books published by Five Ponds Press and approved for use in the Virginia public school system.

According to Sieff’s article, Masoff said she relied primarily on the Internet for research about black Confederate soldiers. What she found was the work of members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. That’s a group of male descendants of Confederate soldiers, based in Tennessee, that has long claimed that big numbers of black soldiers fought for the South. Professional historians of the era say this is nonsense.

That a textbook with such a profound mistake about the most profound conflict in U.S. history could survive the most recent Virginia adoption process tells you that something is wrong with the way textbooks are selected. Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle told Sieff that approved books don’t have to be fully endorsed by the department. Still, you’d think the question of accuracy would matter.

Some 20 states undergo textbook adoption processes, and this takes time. Committees are formed to review the proposals, and publishing company lobbyists woo. States check to see if their long list of content standards are addressed in the books and then base decisions, not on book quality but on adherence to standards and, often, to political sensitivities. That’s why Chester E. Finn Jr. once wrote about textbooks: "Many of them are mediocre and some are dreadful."

Historically the big adoption states — Texas, California and Florida — have had outsized influence in the books that smaller states eventually use because publishers are trying to please the big-buck purchasers. That’s why there was hullabaloo this year when the conservative majority on the Texas Board of Education made changes to the state’s social studies standards; there was fear that textbooks would be affected outside Texas.

The Masoff textbook was ruled "accurate and unbiased" by a Virginia committee of content specialists and teachers, leaving one to wonder how carefully the committee members looked at the book. Any “content specialist” paying attention to this material should have picked up the error.

Somehow, though, in the most recent book adoption by Virginia that concluded this year, questions were raised about a prize-winning 10-volume series on U.S. history by Joy Hakim, called a History of US.

The series is not written like conventionally dry textbooks but rather with rich stories and colorful language that have proved successful in elementary, middle school, high school and even college classes. It has won many awards, including the 1997 James A. Michener Award for Writing, and it formed the basis of a Public Broadcasting Service miniseries. Historians, including Civil War expert James McPherson, have praised the series over the years.

But getting the books into classrooms hasn’t been easy. When looking for a publisher, Hakim was asked repeatedly to change material; for example, using “enslaved person” instead of slave. She refused — though other authors haven’t — and finally found Oxford University Press to agree to take on the books. But Oxford is a small shop and doesn’t have the money to hire lobbyists and salespeople to hawk the product like the big publishers for the state textbook adoptions.

According to Hakim, the history series was questioned in the latest Virginia adoption because it did not cover required material in two instances: There is no mention of the Canadian shield in the series (it’s a geological formation under North America in the books), and it does not mention a recently discovered archaeological site in Virginia.

Yup, those were caught, but not the black Confederate soldier myth.

Hakim’s book series was finally put on the list of books that Virginia schools are allowed to purchase (), as were the Masoff books and others.

A 2004 primer on textbook adoption called “The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption,” written by David Whitman and available on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Web site, reveals the roots of today’s textbook problems:

The textbook adoption process was, in effect, born to twist American history and frustrate the development of a common civic purpose. Its origins trace to the aftermath of the Civil War, when most publishers had their headquarters in the North. Embittered ex-Confederates distrusted Yankee publishers and wanted Dixie schoolchildren to have their own textbooks—so southern states established textbook adoption processes to make sure anti-Confederate books stayed out of their schools. Northern publishers obligingly complied, publishing separate textbooks for schools in the South and North. For decades, Southern textbooks referred to the Civil War as “the War for Southern Independence” or “the War between the States.” Today, nearly 150 years later, most adoption states are still located in the South and West.

The early development of the textbook adoption process also set two other precedents that figure importantly in today’s system. The first trend emerged after World War I, when immigrants and interest groups attacked that era’s schoolbooks for failing to include their stories in the American odyssey. German Americans and Irish Americans complained, as did Jewish Americans. The American Federation of Labor fought to have organized labor portrayed more favorably. The American Legion contended that textbooks lacked patriotic fervor. In the 1950s, during the height of the Cold War, the Daughters of the American Revolution put out a list of 170 “subversive” textbooks.

These were the first stirrings of “identity politics” in textbook adoption—which have now reached full fruition with bias guidelines in California that require precise proportionality in the portrayal of ethnic groups, genders, different types of families, the elderly, the disabled, religions, organized labor, and the like.

The second precedent was created by Christian fundamentalists who objected to science instructors teaching the theory of evolution. In the 1920s, more than twenty states passed anti-evolution resolutions. Perhaps the most famous textbook challenge in U.S. history took place in the mid-1920s during the “Scopes trial,” when a substitute biology teacher named John Thomas Scopes challenged Tennessee’s so-called “monkey law” barring the teaching of evolution. The trial featured sparring between Scopes’s legendary lawyer, Clarence Darrow, and Tennessee’s attorney, famed orator William Jennings Bryan. Scopes was convicted (though his conviction was later overturned on a technicality) but Darrow’s biting cross-examination of Bryan did much to discredit the creationists. Six decades later, Christian fundamentalists renewed their attacks on the teaching of evolution and other “secular humanist” subjects and topics—and ultimately succeeded in having an important influence on textbook adoption in Texas.

In 2003, education historian Diane Ravitch published her best-selling book, “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict Which Students Learn,” which chronicled the continued system of censorship that perverts the content of schoolbooks.

Two years later, my colleague Jay Mathews wrote a great column) pointing out the flaws in the adoption process and calling for an end to it. Let teachers pick their own books, he said.

That’s a fine idea, and it even seemed like it was in the realm of the possible back in 2005.

But since then we have witnessed an assault on traditionally trained public school teachers who have been given scripts by which to teach and evaluation systems that pay them according to how well their students do on a standardized test.

The fact that Jay’s suggestion now seems more like part of a fairytale tells you how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction with our “school reform.”

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