There has been a lot of reporting about the many many errors in the history texts used in the Virginia public schools, including the really nasty one about the black confederates but many many more. But what’s really terrible about it isn’t the wrong dates. It’s the complete lack of historical argument.
I spent some time with Our Virginia, the fourth grade textbook. It combines “gee isn’t Virginia great” geography with a historical narrative. Like others, I found a lot of mistakes., right away. The mistakes are only part of the problem. The textbook has no argument.
Fifty years ago, the 4th grade history text would have had an argument–it would have been about progress and a kind of American triumphalism. Indians would have appeared as either quaint or a danger and then quickly disappeared, replaced by “progress.” Not a good argument, I’d say, but it would have taken the jabbering facts of history and made them line up in a sensible but ugly way.
That narrative ignored the Indians, mostly: it ignored slaves, mostly, ignored women, ignored the negative for the most part. But it had an argument. The current textbook, lacking an argument, has married an empty headed and peppy multiculturalism to a rigid obsession with memorization. It’s a parade of facts without argument.
We learn a lot about Indians, and that’s good, or it could be. But we learn, for example, that the Indians “managed the land responsibly.” Really? Or did they just engage in practices that met their cultural and physical needs? The Eastern Woodland tribes had dramatically different land management practices–that’s true. Their land management practices offered a lot of advantages, and the contrast between Indian practices and European monoculture is really crucial and extremely revealing about both societies. “Managed the land responsibly” doesn’t get at that at all. Responsible to who? And it doesn’t tell you about the constellation of beliefs and practices that grew from and revolved around those land use methods. It reduces the Indians to quaint, and it retreats from ideas.1
The section on Indians talks about Powhatan as a “ruler of great spiritual, mental and physical strength,” but it says absolutely nothing about the event which brought Powhatan’s confederation about: the unbelievable epidemics that Indian populations suffered when they came into contact with Europeans. The bubonic plague shattered European culture–intellectually, morally, philosophically, politically. The diseases that struck native American populations were by even the most conservative estimates far, far worse. Seventy five to ninety percent of the population of the Americas is estimated to have died in the hundred years that followed Columbus.
Most historians would agree that Powhatan emerged as a leader in the context of that fact–a world devastated by an almost unimaginable catastrophe. He was not the static representative of timeless customs, but the innovative response to disaster. None of that is here because the textbook can’t find a way to .make a cheery factoid out of it. The worst demographic catastrophe in the history of the human race is reduced to “memorize the name of this Indian.”
My favorite example is Christopher Newport, captain of the Susan Constant. There’s a picture of him, smiling heroically. Now why does he matter? He sails the settlers to Jamestown: later he gets a gig sailing supplies back and forth. Eventually he becomes a privateer.
Why should your child have to memorize his name? It’s like memorizing the name of the cab driver. He’s interesting to historians, because his career reveals a lot about life in the British Atlantic: the privateer piece is interesting. But that’s not in Our Virginia: the book has no argument about why you should remember his name: it’s not about heroism, or the “wanderlust of the Anglo Saxon race,” the kind of thing Theodore Roosevelt would have stressed: it’s not about the multinational Atlantic world. He was the captain: remember his name, here’s a picture of what he might have looked like but we have zero idea.
My guess is he’s featured because of Christopher Newport University In Hampton Roads Va.2 I say this not to knock CNU, but to point out that that facts included in Our Virginia don’t have any reason for being there other than appeasement of some faction or other of the people who drew up Virginia’s “standards of learning,” the dreaded standardized test which has done so much to render history meaningless. Christopher Newport is a fact. Memorize it. Someone’s constituency has been appeased.
The book does cover the hardships of Jamestown’s early years, and the discovery of tobacco: it mentions the first slaves and says they came from Angola, a fact recently uncovered. But it says nothing about indentured servitude.
Most students don’t know that in Virginia, and everywhere else in the colonies, thousands of white persons were held in bondage for periods of typically 3–7 years. Treatment of indentured servants was brutal, including flogging and sale in gangs. They didn’t just adopt slavery in Virginia, they adopted it to replace other forms of unfreedom, and the adoption marked a shift from class to race as the tool of oppression. The transition from indentured servitude to hereditary racial slavery is fascinating and crucial and extremely well studied. The textbook completely ignores indentured servitude because there’s no constituency for it.
And it messes up the neat and easy narrative in which black people were victims, but now all is good. “Unfreedom” of various sorts was a common state in the early colony. In addition to servants, slaves, and apprentices, Women were legally unfree, “chattels” of their husband. The process by which “unfree” came to mean “black slave” is really crucial to understanding the evolution of American politics itself.
“You can’t include everything,“I imagine as the response: of course you can’t. That’s what argument is all about, choosing facts that matter and which support a plausible conclusion. But Our Virginia isn’t about argument: it’s about passing the SOLs.
Our Virginia wasn’t written by historians, aiming to make an argument about the meaning of the past: it was produced by Five Ponds Press, a firm which, as its website says, is “dedicated to providing colorful, exciting, affordable books to support Virginia’s History and Social Science SOLs.”
It’s extremely hard to get an historian to write a book in preparation for the SOL’s, because the SOLs are a random collection of facts chosen by multiple constituencies. You can’t turn random stuff into an argument: you have to be selective. It’s like being presented with the parts for ten cars, and being asked to build a single car using ALL the parts. The result would be ghastly and incoherent, with forty tires and ten steering wheels. And hey presto, Our Virginia is ghastly and incoherent. But also chipper, and perky, and colorful.
There are errors all over the place: errors of fact, but also errors of omission. The section on black confederates, pp. 122–123, is egregiously bad: not only does it suggest that Stonewall Jackson had two battalions of black soldiers; it treats the entire war with a kind of moral equivalency, in which some black people chose freedom and some chose to support the confederacy, a kind of flabby relativism that ignores the moral problem at the core of the conflict and ignores the overwhelming weight of actual evidence. It quotes Charles Tinsley, a free black man who publicly pledged his support for the Confederacy, but it gives no context for his pledge. 3 On page 133 the book has Jim Crow beginning in the mid 1870s: the Jim Crow era began, in Virginia, in the mid 1890s, very specifically. There are errors all over the place. But criticizing this book for errors is like criticizing a murder scene for tacky furniture.
The SOLs are the problem. They combine the huffing and blowing of conservatives, who want measurable fact-based standards, with the wheedling of liberals, who want “inclusion.” The result trains kids away from argument and reason and towards empty memorization.
So what would I do? Well, I’d say first let a group of professional historians write the book. We work for cheap. We’re obsessed with accuracy. We strive for coherent argument.
But barring that, I’d say “let them see the material of history.” Our Virginia has a picture of the first settlers landing at Jamestown. it’s colorful and bold and entirely imaginary. There’s a man of the cloth of some kind prominently featured holding up a Bible: another constituency appeased. Instead of showing them this piece of comic book twaddle, based entirely on fantasy, why not let them see this: John Smith’s listing of the passengers by occupation. It’s fascinating–why are there so many “gentlemen?” What did Smith mean by that? Why are some called “master” and some not? Why was there someone along whose occupation was listed only as “drum?” What did he mean by “divers others,” and why didn’t he list them? Let them read what those people wrote.
How much are fourth graders capable of? I’ll admit I’ve never taught fourth grade. But fourth graders aren’t dumb: they can look at evidence and draw conclusions. They’re skeptical of authority and keenly aware of their weakness in its face. They like irreverence. If you’re going to ask them to memorize Newport’s name, then at least let them see the stuff of his life. It will be puzzling and not coherent and they will have to work to make sense of it. Ask them: “do you think this is true?” That’s the work that Our Virginia didn’t do.
- I sometimes wonder which was worse, the “Indians as scalping savages” model or the “Indians as treehugging greens” model. It’s hard to visit one of those buffalo jump sites on the plains and come away with a sense that the Indians exercised “responsibility” when they stampeded them off cliffs by the thousands. They did what they had to do with the tools they had. Neither model lets Indians have a full range of human complexity ↩
- CNU was founded about the same time as GMU, where I teach. Let’s look at the record, shall we? George Mason co-authored the bill of rights. Christopher Newport had a steady gig sailing supplies to Jamestown. ↩
- An excellent account of black men who supported the confederacy can be found in Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War. Quarles, an African American, freely acknowledges the instances of African Americans supporting the Confederacy and places them in their context. ↩