Historical Malpractice and the Writing of Textbooks

Another historical malpractice foisted upon American school children came to light in Virginia last week . Once again it comes down to whether the standards of history as a discipline mean anything in the context of elementary and secondary history education.  Few of us would trust our children’s dental care to a historian.  Nor do we assume that anyone who has written a book can write a math textbook, regardless of their educational credentials.  But too often history seems different, subject to lower standards and inadequate review.  When a history textbook for fourth graders in Virginia is found to contain falsehoods that expose incompetent research practices and insufficient understanding of professional standards, the author apparently considers “I am a fairly respected writer” to be an adequate defense.  A textbook whose author cannot discern the difference between “controversial” interpretations and outright historical fallacy has no place in our classrooms.  Our children deserve better.

The case at hand is straightforward.  Our Virginia: Past and Present  (Five Ponds Press, 2010) was approved by the Virginia Board of Education without a single historian involved in the review process. Fortunately an alert historian reviewing her daughter’s assignments noticed the glaring error: a statement that “thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”  It’s not true.  The reference to Jackson’s army is a total fabrication, and the broader reference to the Confederate army ignores the fact that slaves were forced into service and that there are no data available in any archive to document the statistic. 

So where did author Joy Masoff (not a historian) get her information?  From the Internet.  More specifically, from the web site of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.  And even more specifically from a page that claims Frederick Douglass as the source for the statistic, but can’t even get his name spelled right.  The relevant quotation from Douglass is taken out of context, and there are no corroborating sources. 

Why does this matter?  Is this simply an issue of a professional association protecting its turf? 

Hardly.  It matters because when we educate our children we model best practices.  They learn not only from what we say, but also from what we do.  So if we want to teach them how to use the Internet, how to be “information literate” in a digital world, we need to provide them with textbooks written by people who use digital sources responsibly.  And any student in a relevant undergraduate history course could ascertain in less than five minutes the deficiencies of a web site that refers to Confederate soldiers protecting their region from “an illegal invasion.”  

And it matters because this is not just a random misstatement, as Masoff suggested in her response to the Post reporter.  This claim, and most of the putative historical information on the Sons of Confederate Veterans web site, is made in the service of demonstrating that the Civil War was not about slavery.  The irony, of course, is the use of Douglass, who from the beginning knew that it was, and that it could not be otherwise.

As I worked through chains of text, trying to find documentation for Masoff’s assertion beyond the Sons of Confederate Veterans site, I kept running into the same assertion:  “It has been estimated that over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks.” 

Estimated by whom?  I tried to find out.  A Google search for the string turns up not a single primary source or reputable secondary source.  Facebook pages, hobbyists, Confederate apologists quoting one another. Nothing that a teacher would accept from a student research paper as a valid source.  This is not providing our children with a model of historical research, use of the Internet, critical thinking, or any other educational goal.

Whether history, biology, geography, mathematics, or any other discipline: there is no excuse for dumping on our children curriculum materials that do not meet appropriate standards.

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  1. Andy Chiger

    This is an unfortunate, but not surprising development. Writers who are not professional historians pen books all the time, many of time critically praised. It’s only a small step from there to having accepted—albeit deeply flawed—textbooks written by tyros. And there are a heck of a lot more active “amateur historians” whose work is not subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny as academicians than there are amateur dentists.

  2. Scott Culclasure

    By the lights of the AHA, I suppose that as a high school history teacher who has written and published, I would be considered more an amateur than a professional historian. While I too deplore the rise of pseudo-history, I would note that the profession has generally not been very involved with what happens in high schools. The gap in the number of textbooks available at an Advanced Placement level (roughly equivalent to a college freshman level) and those that can be used more generally in high school is striking, creating a vacuum that makes possible travesties like “Our Virginia.”

  3. Albert I. Berger

    The two comments posted as I write are, I think, off the point. The issue is not “professional historian.” The PhD has never been the license that the MD is; and many non-academic historians have published excellent, exceptional work—to say the least. Think of Barbara Tuchman in an earlier generation and Ron Chernow in ours. The real issue is the deliberate distortion of history to suit ideological agendas.

  4. Megan Washington

    I fully agree that children, or for that fact any student, should be taught and told the truth. Meaning that the sources that a writer or author uses are replicable and scholarly, but at the same time why isn’t anyone asking the question of why that particular quote was so unsettling to the mother of that child? Did anyone stop and think that maybe that quote bothered her because she disagreed with it, rather than the fact that the source was not creditable? Just think about it…..

  5. Scott Nelson

    hats off to AHA member Carol Sheriff who pointed out the error to the Washington Post in the first place. Looking at kids’ textbooks is something we all should be doing.