a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

How many more “Our Virginia” textbooks are there?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 27th, 2010

Last week, the Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff reported that William and Mary professor Carol Sheriff had discovered a blatant, “Lost Cause” Civil War lie in her daughter’s 4th grade history textbook written by one Joy Masoff:*

In its short lesson on the roles that whites, African Americans and Indians played in the Civil War, “Our Virginia” says, “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” […]

No they didn’t
The assertion is patently false, Sheriff told the Virginia Gazette:

There is no credible evidence that two battalions of African American soldiers fought under the command of Stonewall Jackson. After consulting with three of my William and Mary colleagues who also teach and research Civil War history, who also had never encountered any such evidence, I wrote to James I. Robertson, a Virginia Tech professor who is the foremost scholar of Stonewall Jackson, and asked him if he had ever seen any evidence to corroborate this point. He stated categorically that no such evidence existed. Prof. Robertson explained to me, “Had there been Confederate black units surely some officer in an official report would have mentioned it. Yet the 128 volumes of the mammoth Official Records [of the War of the Rebellion] are completely silent on the subject.” I also contacted Prof. Joseph Glatthaar, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, who has written a highly claimed book called General Lee’s Army. He declared the claim “simply wrong.”

The “blacks fought for the South” claim has obvious attractions for Confederate apologists, eager to advance the claim that antebellum and wartime relations between slaves and masters were amicable and mutually loyal.  “Lost Cause” loyalists seem to have inflated the mere consideration of the idea of arming Southern slaves — and isolated incidents of slaves protecting themselves or their masters — as proof that a policy was actually implemented.

Not surprisingly, these will o’ the wisp notions were never implemented in any scope even resembling Masoff’s claim — drawn, it turned out, from a “Sons of Confederate Veterans” website — and never could have been. According to Bruce Levine‘s “Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War,” it ran afoul of reality — both among blacks, who preferred to flee to Union lines whenever possible, and among whites who were loathe to release slaves to service and contended (rightly) that the war was about keeping slaves, not freeing them or detailing them off to battle.  In his review of the book, Yale professor David Blight explains:

The most revealing feature of Levine’s argument is his analysis of motivation among the advocates of a black soldier policy. Davis and Lee, he contends, were never the enlightened advocates of emancipation their Lost Cause defenders, as well as some distinguished biographers, have fashioned. They were staunch Confederate nationalists, determined to do whatever it took to win a war of southern independence, and in so doing, preserve ultimate control over blacks in the post-war South. […] …as Levine makes clear, those Confederates who supported black enlistment coupled with emancipation did so in the hope of controlling the lives, prospects, and especially the labor of the people they would free. Their best intentions were thwarted by both their own caution and by African Americans themselves, who chose by the hundreds of thousands to flee to and join the armies in blue rather than gray.

What “contributions” black Americans did make to the Confederate cause were, as one might expect, by dint of involuntary slave labor: digging trenchworks, laying rails, and continuing to tend the cotton fields of the South.

So how did this textbook make it into Virginia schools?
Masoff —  who also owns the Five Ponds Press publishing company that published the book — says “It’s just one sentence. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers. If the historians had contacted me and asked me to take it out, I would have.” For her part, Sheriff was at pains to note that “To my knowledge, there is no evidence that would suggest a coordinated effort by state educational officials to rewrite history for the purpose of instilling in children pro-Confederate sympathies, or to confuse them deliberately.”

Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, and for me, at least, it’s still a little hard to believe Masoff could read this kind of astonishing claim at a “Sons of the Confederate Veterans” web site and more or less blithely parrot** it straight into an elementary school textbook.  But both the details of this story and some research into the strange world of school textbook publishing do suggest a different story — though one where older, deliberate attempts to rewrite history continue to play an indirect role.

First, there was no expert review for Masoff to respond to.  In a followup story , Sieff reports that “…[Virginia Department of Education]  spokesman Charles Pyle said Thursday that the review committee for “Our Virginia” consisted entirely of three elementary school classroom teachers.  […]  Content specialist sometimes serve on textbook review committees, but none did when “Our Virginia” was being reviewed in 2009.”

In a foreword to a 2004 study published by the Thomas B. Fordham
Institute, The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption, Chester Finn
argues — after examining the textbook adoption process, the
textbooks that are produced, and statewide test scores in math,
science, and English — that “statewide adoption is plainly unnecessary
for the functioning of K-12 education and appears to do it no good.
Most states get by fine with no such process and most of those that
shun it do better on national tests than those that rely on it.”
Test scores aside, the report also convincingly attributes a number of
textbook problems to statewide textbook adoption systems, such as:

  • focusing on “mentioning,” rather than explaining: by
    “mentioning” the authors mean “textbook prose that flits
    from fact to fact without providing any context for
    the information,”
    in order to satisfy prescribed concept
    and fact checklists.
  • inadequate reviews, often confined to whether the book is
    attractively laid out, or is “readable” enough — i.e., has
    mostly words with low syllable counts.
  • hijacked by interest groups: In California, 60s era
    activists helped enforce absurdly quantitative standards
    on the number of mentions of male and female characters
    — including those of anthropomorphized animals. In
    Tennessee, fundamentalist Christian activists objected to
    language that “could conceivably start a discussion
    about world unity, nontraditional gender roles, family
    democracy, moral relativity, the brotherhood of man, […]
    negative views of war or hunting, fear of nuclear war,
    disarmament, or gun control.”
    The publisher, Henry Holt,
    “made numerous revisions to the Basic Reading Series that
    spawned the Mozert case to reduce the taint of “secular
    humanism,” and then quietly let the readers go out of print.”

The”Our Virginia” case may be an example of some or all of
these problems.

Second, the textbook standards themselves encouraged an approach to history writing that seems to favor checklist thinking over truth telling.  From Sieff’s first report: “The state’s curriculum requires textbook publishers and educators to explore the role African Americans played in the Confederacy, including their work on plantations and on the sidelines of battle. Those standards have evolved in recent years to make lessons on the Civil War more inclusive in a state that is growing increasingly diverse.” This may have tempted a +/- Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! writer like Masoff to one-up the standards with the claim that the African American role on the Confederate side wasn’t just passive, but downright supportive.

Finally, to learn that a superior writer like Joy Hakim was passed over in favor of such nonsense (and for failing to mention the “Canadian Shield”!?)  is doubly disheartening  — and points to a deeper problem with state textbook adoption processes generally.

Statewide textbook adoption – a relic of Civil War revisionism
Today, twenty states have statewide textbook adoption processes: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.  As the list suggests, these states are concentrated in two regions of the U.S.: the Pacific Coast and desert states of the Southwest — and in the former Confederacy and border states (see Figure 1 below).

The fact that states of the former Confederacy have taken a direct role in textbook adoption is no accident.  As ex-Confederates regrouped, rebuilt, and all too quickly regained white supremacy over black Americans in the South, one of the first orders of business was to refight the Civil War in the minds of a new generation — this time as heroic defenders of a romanticized way of life, rather than as slave-driving traitors.

In “Race and Reunion,” the definitive history of this fight over how the Civil War would be remembered, David Blight writes that the UCV (United Confederate Veterans) and UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy) made textbook political correctness — Southern style — one of their primary objectives:

“During this second era [the 1890s] of Lost Cause discourse, its advocates accelerated the fight to control historical interpretation of the Civil War.  UCV and UDC history committees, in conjunction with a proliferation of state history associations, engaged in what historian has called “a grand crusade to secure in the hearts and minds of the region’s young” what it had lost on battlefields, and to “immunize southern children against democratic reforms then threatening the South’s ruling class.”  […]

The [UCV] Historical Committee ranked school histories of the United States in three categories: first, Northern books that were “pronouncedly unfair to the South”; second, Northern-authored works that were “apparently fair” but still judged “objectionable”, and third, “Southern histories,” those that passed all of some nine tests, including whether a book had properly represented the “unparalleled patriotism manifested by the Southern People in accepting” the war’s “results.”  […]

With time, women’s organizations and state departments of education took over much of the responsibility for historical work, publishing elaborate guides containing defenses of secession and condemnations of the antislavery movement.***

How many more “Our Virginias” are there?
I’m a co-administrator of a Facebook group called “Yankee Heritage: Honor the Soldiers Who Put an End to Slavery”.  The group (founded by John Emerson) and its somewhat defiant name were responses to Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s proclamation of “Confederate History Month” in April of this year.  Group membership rose quickly to over 700 members before plateauing.

The “Yankee Heritage” group may provide a way to “crowdsource” — that is, divide a large task among an online community — a school history textbook survey.   I’ll invite group members to…

  1. Identify textbooks that may have problems. Look for problems in your child’s or teenager’s history textbook (or one used in your community school system).  There are a number of common “Lost Cause,” Confederate apologist myths and signals.  Some are listed below in the form of questions; for some questions, brief myth discussions and rebuttals are available via trailing “*” links.
    1. Does the textbook claim or imply black Americans were usually contented, faithful slaves before the Civil War? *
    2. Does it deny that slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War? **
    3. Does it criticize abolitionism?
    4. Does it claim or imply that Confederate soldiers fought for a noble cause in the Civil War? *
    5. Does it claim or imply black Americans took up weapons for**** the Confederacy in the Civil War? **
    6. Does it claim or imply the North subjected the South to military rule after the Civil War? *
    7. Does it claim or imply Reconstruction was a conspiracy between Yankees and blacks to oppress Southern whites? *
    8. Does it claim or imply that the Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan (and similar groups: White Line, Order of the White Camelia) was merely a fringe group in the South? *
    9. Does it claim or imply that Reconstruction-era black legislators in the South were usually corrupt, incompetent, or both? *
    10. Does it cite Confederate heritage groups per se as reliable sources in the book?  Does the book consistently use Confederate apologist code language like “War of Northern Aggression,” or “War between the States”?
  2. Identify excellent textbooks. We also want to know about American history textbooks that seem particularly excellent to you in their treatment of the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras: they have none of the problems listed above, and are well written, well sourced and researched, and well designed for their grade level.
  3. Record what you find. For problem books or excellent books, please record…
    1. the title, authors, publisher, publication date of the book…
    2. the specific school and school system involved, and…
    3. when applicable, any problems you find.  Ideally, provide page numbers and some verbatim excerpts or scanned images illustrating each problem.
  4. Share what you’ve learned. Let us know! If you’re on Facebook, go to join the “Yankee Heritage” Facebook group, join it if you haven’t already, and leave a comment with your findings at the appropriate discussion:”Problem textbooks?” or “Great textbooks!”  Or you can just leave a comment here.

To be clear: this is just a preliminary, inexact, convenience survey — I do not propose to either draw sweeping conclusions about the treatment of the Civil War in American school history textbooks, or to take action about a questionable textbook based solely on what members of a Facebook group think is wrong with it.

But we can look around, and we can bring any questionable stuff we find to the attention of Civil War or Reconstruction era scholars. I hope that lots of “Yankee Heritage” members participate — and that we find nothing to complain about.  But I don’t know what to expect on either score.  We’ll see.

Figure 1. State textbook adoption systems, 2005

(1) “ECS”: State Textbook Adoption, Kyle Zinth, January 25, “Education Commission of the States,” .PDF.
Legend: (1) Orange: “State textbook adoption”; (2) White: “No state textbook adoption”
(2) “Fordham”: p. 3 of “The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption,” .PDF.
Legend: (1) Darkest blue: “State selects textbooks”; (2) Lightest blue: “State recommends textbooks”; (3) Intermediate blue: “Other,” generally hybrid select/recommend by subject; (4) White: “No state textbook adoption.”

NOTE: I’m grateful to Noma Petroff for a number of suggestions I’ve incorporated into this post, and to Bev Tomek for the pointer to the “American Experience” Q&A page featuring many of the rebuttals the question list links to. All errors are my own.
EDITS, 10/29-11/2: Question list changes: expanded to Reconstruction era; “*” links added, “excellent” book search added, black Confederate question clarified and Levine Washington Post rebuttal link added, Civil War cause question simplified.
* (1) Masoff is also the author of “Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments” and “Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty.” (2) Asterisks trailing the “problem textbook” questions link to rebuttals by Civil War or Reconstruction historians.
** She seems to have failed even in that, according to “Cynic,” filling in for Ta-Nehisi Coates at his Atlantic Monthly blog: “Masoff, tellingly, couldn’t even manage to crib quack revisionism from the Web without garbling it. The sources she cites in her defense claim that there were two companies of colored soldiers in the Jackson Battalion, raised almost two years after Jackson’s death from the workers and convalescents at a Richmond Hospital bearing his name. Those companies morph, mysteriously, into “two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”
*** “During this second era…,” p. 277; “The Historical Committee ranked…,” p. 282; “With time…,” p. 283 of Race and Reunion, David Blight (2000).
**** Like other questions, the “black Americans took up weapons for” question is framed for brevity. It is meant to exclude menial military support tasks like ditchdigging, track laying, or KP; it is also meant to exclude the performance of any task while a slave. Finally, it is meant to imply “in noteworthy numbers” (i.e., “thousands”), not isolated cases or incidents.

2 Responses to “How many more “Our Virginia” textbooks are there?”

  1. Laura Fellows Says:

    Just wanted to say, “Wow, I’m glad somebody’s doing this work.” I’m quite impressed. Incidentally, I found this through you’re Facebook page and your connection to one Cara Young, a friend of mine.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Well, thank you very much! I’m still preparing the Facebook group message, and seeking some feedback from actual, you know, historians. But I think it will be ready soon. Like I say, I have no idea whether we’ll find anything at all.

    This is part of an obsession of mine following the “Confederate History Month” fiasco this spring and reading “Race and Reunion”, by David Blight on the heels of that. Since then I’ve become very fascinated with (a) Reconstruction, the betrayal of its promise, and the long erasure of all of that from American memory, and (b) how that echoes to this day: this textbook business, arguably the war on drugs (see “The New Jim Crow”, by Michelle Alexander), Tea Party/Glenn Beck folk. If you click on the “history” tag to this post you’ll find some of the other things I’ve written, including a review of “Race and Reunion” I think is rather good.

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