From the From the Executive Director column of the December 2010 issue of Perspectives on History
Historical Malpractice and the Writing of Textbooks
James Grossman, December 2010
Another historical malpractice foisted upon American school children came to light recently in Virginia.1 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 being 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 (who is not a historian) get her information? From the internet. More specifically, from the web site of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.2 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 the AHA’s concern 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, indeed, about slavery, and that it could not be otherwise.
As I worked through the 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. A school textbook that takes such a lax view of historical evidence is not providing our children with a model of historical research, instruction in the proper use of the internet, training for critical thinking, or fulfilling any other educational goal.
Whether it is 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.
Jim Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association. The above essay has been adapted from the blog post of October 25, 2010, on the AHA’s blog, AHA Today.
1. See the article in the Washington Post, online at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/19/AR2010101907974.html.
2. The web site of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is at www.scv.org.