Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Don't Know Much About History

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry [above, as depicted in an 1890 lithograph by Louis Kurz and Alexander Allison showing the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner in 1863], one of the first formal units of the United States Army to be made up entirely of African American men, fought on for the North and the Union - no matter what you read in a Virginia history text book.

File this one under 'Things I Couldn't Make Up'. Those of you who hear a Southern accent and automatically think "red-neck, racist moron", well shame on you. Shame on you, but I can also understand why the Southern drawl does conjure up 'slow' in your mind. There's the cliche about the 'South' and American History: namely that nothing has happened in this country - nothing worth remembering, anyway - since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

There's a lot of truth in that, although it is still a cliche. Yet that cliche isn't helped by recent news out of Virginia that there's some history text books being used there with the following factual inaccuracies:

1) New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor
2) The Confederacy included 12 states
3) The United States entered World War in 1916
4) Men in Colonial Virginia commonly wore full suits of armor
5) No Americans survived the Battle of the Alamo

For those of you who don't recognize those as inaccuracies, the correct answers are:

1) It began as a Spanish colonial harbor
2) It had 11 states
3) The U.S. entered the war in 1917
4) No they didn't
5) A few did survive

And these are just some of the errors - there are literally dozens of them - that historians have found in Virginia's textbooks since state officials ordered a review of textbooks by Five Ponds Press in response to an article in the Washington Post back in October.

The Post article in particular highlighted a very interesting claim in one textbook that said African American soldiers fought for the South in large numbers during the Civil War. Even your average moron - just on intuition - knows that's probably not true. That's the kind of 'history' one could find in Southern textbooks in the early 1900s; I'd thought we'd taken care of that. Apparently not.

Our Virginia: Past and Present, the textbook including the African Americans fighting for the South claim, has many other inaccuracies. And similar problems were found in another book by Five Ponds Press, Our America: To 1865. Yes: I'm guessing to many Southern racists they do consider it 'our America' until 1865.

"I absolutely could not believe the number of mistakes - wrong dates and wrong facts everywhere. How in the world did these books get approved?" Ronald Heinemann, a former history professor at Hampden-Sydney College, asked the Post rhetorically. He reviewed Our Virginia: Past and Present. In his recommendation to the state, Heinemann wrote, "This book should be withdrawn from the classroom immediately, or at least by the end of the year."

As I say, it all started after the Post reported that Our Virginia included a sentence saying that thousands of black soldiers fought for the South. That claim is one often made by the lunatic fringe and other Confederate heritage groups but rejected by most people here on Earth. The funniest part was the response of the book's author, Joy Masoff. With a straight face she said at the time that she found references to this 'fact' while doing research on the Internet. And you're wondering why 67% of Americans think George Washington fought in the Civil War?!

To deal with the embarrassment, Virginia officials commissioned a 'blue ribbon' panel of experts to review all history textbooks. The results are disturbing, to say the least. Some reviewers submitted lists of errors that ran several pages long. State officials plan to meet January 10, 2011 to review the historians' concerns. "The findings of these historians have certainly underscored and added urgency to the need to address the weaknesses in our system so we don't have glaring historical errors in our books," said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for Virginia's Department of Education. His brother, Gomer, was unavailable for comment.

As for the publisher, Five Ponds Press [based in Weston, Connecticut of all places] doesn't even try to deny that its books have errors. "Most of the items you reference have been identified, and we sent a notice a week ago to the Virginia Department of Education with our intent to make these edits in the book's next printing," Lou Scolnik, owner of Five Ponds Press, wrote in an email response to questions from the Post.

At least Scolnik is an honest crook. The Virginia Department of Education has been telling people for years that they have the strongest 'standards' required of textbooks in the entire country. Those 'standards' - brilliantly called the Standards of Learning - includes lists of themes that each textbook must cover. It turns out, those standards aren't so stringent after all.

For one thing, the reviewers that the department uses are not scholars. No. They are often elementary school teachers. Now, no offense, but my experience has been that most elementary school teachers chose that speciality because their base of knowledge doesn't exceed the sixth grade. I'm not sure they should be the ones reviewing the textbooks. Gomer's brother pretty much proved that with his ridiculous statement that, "Teachers [reviewing the books for facts] are not reading textbooks front to back, and they're not in a position to identify the kinds of errors that historians could identify." Really. That's what he said.

Five Ponds Press has cornered a growing portion of Virginia's $70 million-a-year textbook market. Many larger publishers employ professional historians, but all of the books by Five Ponds Press have been written by Masoff, who is not a trained historian. I'm doubtful she's a trained anything. If you'd like to read some other titles by Masoff, Google Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty and Oh, Yikes! History's Grossest, Wackiest Moments. No, really: those are the titles. Unfortunately, Masoff may be looking for work now: Scolnik said Five Ponds is in the process of hiring a professional historian from a Virginia university. Wow - there's a novel idea.

Four of the five experts reviewed books published only by Five Ponds Press. The fifth reviewer, DePaul University sociology professor Christopher Einolf, has written a book on a Civil War general. He reviewed Civil War content in nine Virginia textbooks published by companies other than Five Ponds Press.

Einolf's review found that one book - from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - has particular problems. Einolf took issue with some characterizations, saying, for example, that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman did not "destroy" Atlanta but instead burned portions of the city. While I realize that's little consolation to the people who went up in flames, but nonetheless there is a difference between destroying a city and beating the hell out of it.

Einolf also found problems with the textbook's treatment of Pickett's Charge. While the suicidal thrusts involved 5,000 men, it actually involved more than 10,000. 5,000, 10,000 - what's the difference, right? In a shocker, Einolf said many of the other books neglect key elements, such as the role of African Americans in 19th-century Virginia. "Making a mistake is one thing. Ignoring the role that African Americans played in the state is almost as bad," Einolf told the Post. Actually, Professor, I think the latter is worse than the former, but this post isn't dedicated to the wonders of those in higher education.

Perhaps the most succinct word on all of this came from historian Mary Miley Theobald, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor. She reviewed Our America and concluded to the Post that it was, "just too shocking for words. Any literate person could have opened that book and immediately found a mistake," she said.

The key words there, folks, are 'any literate person'. That disqualifies most elementary school teachers right there.

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