October 21, 2010

Virginia history books display tenuous link to history


Virginia tries for a do over in new history text

Virginia tries for a do-over in new history textbook

Surprise! Major history textbook fail in Virginia!

Yesterday the Washington Post reported the latest round of silliness to emanate from Dixie regarding history textbooks (remember Texas’s starring role a few weeks ago?). In a textbook titled Our Virginia: Past and Present, fourth graders are being treated to an extremely controversial–and wrong–account of African American participation in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. One that suggests a more rosy history of race relations in Virginia.

Kevin Sieff wrote in the Post’s story that Joy Masoff, author of Oh, Yuck!: Selections from the Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty and other history textbooks such as Colonial Times: 1600-1700 and American Revolution, 1700-1800, included the following sentence in Our Virginia: Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”

The problem with this sentence is that scholars don’t support this version of events. It’s an assertion generally made by Confederate apologists or historical revisionists, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Here are the main problems as a couple historians told Sieff:

“It’s more than just an arcane, off-the-wall problem,” said David Blight, a professor at Yale University. “This isn’t just about the legitimacy of the Confederacy, it’s about the legitimacy of the emancipation itself.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson of Princeton University said, “These Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery.”

So where did Ms. Masoff–who is not a historian but a writer who just happens to specialize in children’s textbooks–find the information to support this assertion? Well, the internet of course.

Five Ponds, the publisher of the textbook, sent Sieff the links to the websites Masoff relied on as sources when writing this portion of the book. (Unfortunately Sieff did not include said links in his story or we’d post them.) It appears that Masoff decided to go with the most passionate voices on the subject instead of the most knowledgable (i.e. scholars), because all of the links went to work published by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  (The SOCV, in case you don’t know, are famous for denying that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery–if you want to be both scared shitless and laugh your ass off, I recommend a quick trip to their website for the most fun you’ll have with internet video all day.)

Granted, it is just one sentence that’s caused the controversy, but it’s one weighted with claims that have raised a lot of hackles over the years, including earlier this year when the Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, decided it would be fun to have a “Confederate History Month” but conveniently forgot to mention the state’s appalling history with respect to slavery. (Woops!)

The question remains: how did this particularly egregious error make it through the vetting process? Perhaps Ms. Masoff’s editors at Five Ponds and the committee that reviews textbooks for the Virginia Department of Education were just working on autopilot. According to the Post story, this was the 14th (?!?) textbook Masoff has written on Virginia history.

[Correction: due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misspelled Masoff’s last name as “Press” after the first mention. We apologize for the mistake.]