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One more reason to check internet sources – inaccurate history books

Digital literacy.

Twenty-first century skills.

Media smarts.

My teenage son says

ya gotta be good on the tubes.

Different vocabulary but they have the same meaning – all of us need the ability to navigate the online world of multimedia. A recent textbook brouhaha in Virginia highlights how important these skills can be.

Joy Masoff, author of books such as Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty and Oh, Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments, wrote a fourth-grade history textbook for the state of Virginia. The book titled, Our Virgina: Past and Present,  included a paragraph claiming that thousands of African American slaves fought on the side of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. A review committee made up of three elementary teachers and no content specialist approved the book for state-wide adoption.

Apparently no one involved noticed the passage until the parent of a fourth-grader, moonlighting as an historian at the College of William and Mary, came across the reference while browsing through the text.

A Virgina Department of Education spokesperson called the passage

outside mainstream Civil War scholarship.

When questioned by reporters, Masoff and her publisher provided three web links which Massof used as her source for the passage.

The problem?

All three links cite work done by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The SCV is based in Columbia, Tennessee and disputes the widely accepted view that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. The group’s web site claims that Confederate soldiers took up arms to protect their homes “from an illegal invasion” and argues that the war was fought

to preserve their homes and livelihood.

According to the Washington Post, John Sawyer, chief of staff of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Army of Northern Virginia, is happy that a state textbook accepted some of its views. Respected historians disagree with these revisionist views:

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.”

The whole thing seems a bit like some sort of Comedy Central episode. We’ve got a history textbook written by someone who’s not an historian, an author who didn’t evaluate her online sources, a publisher who didn’t provide adequate oversight and a department of education that created a flawed textbook review system.

But in the end, it comes down to an author who failed to practice what we should be teaching – quality research and evaluation skills. Masoff told the Post that she was “unaware that a number of her sources were members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.” Whether unintentionally or otherwise, Masoff didn’t do her job. She included information in a history textbook from a source that she failed to evaluate. And the parent who first caught the error knows how big a deal this is:

It’s disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship. It concerns me not just as a professional historian but as a parent.

So . . . lessons learned?

Think twice about selecting a history textbook whose author also writes encyclopedias about everything nasty. And we need to continue to teach ourselves and our students about how “to be good on the tubes.”

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Greg #

    Inaccurate history books will always be a problem due to the English language and due to historian agendas. It may be true that slaves assisted Confederate soldiers in war making but only in the same manner Jewish concentration camp prisoners assisted in the war effort of WW2 by making weapons. they were not free to do so. The statement that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War is to neglect the multitude of reasons why the War started. State Rights, economic concerns, social differences, and other causes were very important. A number of Civil War Confederate leaders were very much against slavery but nonetheless defended their state against what they considered northern agression and interference. Hopefully, history books do not trivialize the reasons and impacts of major historical events. The truth in all its ugly details is what is important.

    November 2, 2010
    • glennw #

      I like your comparison to WWII concentration camp prisoners.

      I also agree that there were many factors that contributed to the sectional differences between North and South. But if there are different lens (economic and societal differences) that can be used to view the Civil War, I will always teach that slavery is the camera. You cannot separate the concept of states rights as outlined by the Confederacy or Southern economic concerns from institutionalized slavery.

      Thanks for the post!


      November 2, 2010
  2. James Loewen would be rolling over in his grave if not for the fact that he is still alive. It’s funny that the revisionist historian label usually is thrown at academic leftists or liberals by conservatives. This is as revisionist as it gets.

    “We’ve got a history textbook written by someone who’s not an historian, an author who didn’t evaluate her online sources, a publisher who didn’t provide adequate oversight and a department of education that created a flawed textbook review system.”

    Sad, but true. And I would venture a guess that this is the norm and not the exception. Even when historians are the ones “writing” the textbook, their contribution often doesn’t go beyond the use of their name on the cover. A veneer of academic integrity over an under-developed and researched text.

    It’s an unfortunate truth that the text gets used more often that we would like, but dismissing all textbooks as being unfit for education is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes we have to make due with what we have. I was wondering if anyone could think of some of the best ways for quick fact checking regarding textbooks. Verifying info against reputable secondary sources is a nice thought, but not a realistic one (in the sake of time and effort).

    November 3, 2010

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