History lessons

We Americans love to argue about what students should be taught. Witness last year’s fisticuffs in Texas over revisions to the state social studies curriculum — a debate that became a national story for months.  But while we’ll go to the mat over what to include and what to leave out, once the dust settles we all agree that the facts should be, well, factual.  Unfortunately for Virginia students, that’s apparently too much to expect. 

History textbooks approved by the Virginia Board of Education were recently outed as, shall we say, accuracy challenged.  The first tip off was an eye-popping statement in the state-approved 4th grade textbook that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

 That so? According to the Washington Post:

 The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Let’s see. Information found on the Internet from a potentially biased source … aren’t these red flags we should be teaching 4th graders to watch out for? We certainly shouldn’t have to teach these lessons to authors and publishers of history textbooks, too.  

The state immediately asked for a review of the textbooks in question. The state reviewers, who unlike the author were trained historians, documented numerous mistakes. Many of these were relatively innocuous like misspelled names. Still others gave a skewed picture of events, for example, grossly understating casualties in the Battle of Bull Run, or claiming that Sir Walter Raleigh was in Roanoke Island (he wasn’t).  Regardless of their relative significance, teachers, students, parents and the public expect facts presented in textbooks to be accurate.

How did so many mistakes make it through the review process? Part of the problem is the process itself. In Virginia, potential textbooks are reviewed by teams of classroom teachers who recommend for or against adoption.  A teacher-based review makes sense: teachers are well-positioned to evaluate whether textbooks are readable for the intended grade level and offer good, rich teachable material. But there also needs to be assurance that the content itself is based on solid scholarship, and Virginia does not require a review by subject specialists.

We can’t absolve the publisher from their responsibility, either. Choosing a non-academic as the principal author isn’t itself a bad decision.  Textbooks, especially those intended for elementary students, can really benefit from good storytelling.  But if the author is not a scholar, the publisher needs to at least have a thorough scholarly review process in place.

The Virginia assembly will soon be considering a new process for textbook adoption in order to prevent further embarrassments.  An early proposal calls for shifting the fact-checking burden to publishers. It’s a good first move, but I would hope that the state will also provide scholarly back up in its own review process as an additional check on the system. After all, this is one history lesson we don’t want to repeat. — Patte Barth

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