Those VA History textbooks

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.



  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  • I like your argument about the lack of narrative in the textbooks and I can agree that the SOLs shoulder much of the blame. However I think the real problem is the idea that there should be a textbook.

    The bottom line is that there is already a enormous compendium of who did what on what day style history. It’s Wikipedia. I would hazard to guess that Wikipedia has none of the technical errors that are found in the text book. Further, if you find them you can fix them. Lastly, there is an explicit record of arguments about which of the facts should be included in each Wikipedia page. I mean imagine if there were talk pages behind each of the sections of a textbook…

    Now Wikipedia is not a good 4th grade textbook. That said, it’s content is totally free to be reused and there are already projects like wikibooks where people are collaboratively building textbooks to use in schools.

    Taking for granted the fact that SOLs are not going anywhere (I don’t think sound-bit driven politics can grasp any more sophisticated kinds of ideas about education) I do think there is an opportunity for historians, k-12 educators, and a range of other stakeholders to make an end run around textbook companies and satisfy the SOL style standerds by simply wikifying the curriculum.

  • Trevor, I agree completely. But I don’t think you’d ever get the conservative faction to support wikipedia, even if you explained to them how open it is. I mean, there’s even “conservapedia,” the conservative alternative.

    And teachers are just driven by the SOLs–the principle needs good results on the sols, the school needs them–the SOLs are the problem.

    A lot of work we did on the TEachign American Hisotry grant” in Mont. Co. MD was about bypassing ghe MD equivalent of the SOLs, which is as bad and which the teachers hate as much..

  • mike – nice job as always. two things i think underlie some of this in addition to the SOLs, which i agree, are awful.

    one is this state’s unstinting allegiance to dumb market reductionism. The state works with 5 Points because they deliver the books cheaper than text book companies that hire knowledgeable people in the field to do the writing. Historians might work for cheap, but apparently 5 Points cuts even more corners, including, as so many have noted, accuracy and historical integrity. Because the folks who did the selecting or approved the selection, seem determined to equate market advantage with all social good, hence Virginia got what it paid for.

    As to the lack of argument, it’s not just that such books are concrete representations of political constituencies, a form of Federalist 51 in the index. If a book such as this were to present any argument other than “everything is cool, whatever was bad is now better, so be quiet” it would inevitably lead to re examining fundamental tensions, conflicts and horrors that people don’t want their kids to know, and polite society wishes to suppress. You cant pretend the Civil War did not happen, but you sure as hell can lie about it.

    Do students need texts? No more than they need pencils (as opposed to pens). They are handy and can offer just the right set of materials, to teach history or math or cooking. But as long as those who run education really dont want teachers to help students learn to think critically, to think independently, and to cultivate the ability to find the appropriate information (rather than cramming a fixed amount into their heads) we will continue to have Michelle Rhees and 5 Points. Sorry for some of the over simplification, but I think the major points hold.

  • Meredith wrote:

    Great piece, Mike. I like your suggestion that primary sources would be preferable to the textbook. It presumes that fourth-graders can handle a nuanced interpretation, and I think they can. The problem is the teachers. I realize that it is anathema to criticize teachers, but here I go: the knowledge required to contextualize myriad primary sources is far beyond what’s required to stay one step ahead of students in a textbook–and far beyond what’s required to become an elementary school teacher. At Mason, our History majors are required to take a minimum of 12 History courses. I would say most probably get more than that, especially with AP and transfer credit, but they don’t often take more than 15. Those 12 courses are spread out between historical methods, European History, Global History, and US History. Some of the courses are good, some of them are terrible. Now, if a History major seeks licensure in Virginia to become a social studies teacher, s/he will take many more credits in geography, government, and economics–but not much more History. And if a student seeks licensure by getting a degree in education, rather than History, the number of HIstory classes s/he would have to take drops dramatically, I think to about 6. Where, in that training, would a teacher get command of narrative and argument sufficiently to teach without a textbook? Granted, the TAH teachers are excellent, but they are a self-selected group. I think part of the reason we have the textbooks we have is because of the teachers we have. And that indicates a larger social problem, that teaching as a profession isn’t especially valued and doesn’t tend to draw intellectuals and top students.

  • As a high school teacher, I of course bristle when you hit at teachers, though in the main I think you are right. But it isn’t the teacher’s fault, for the most part. It is that our schools ask our teachers to do the impossible. Elementary school teachers are supposed to teach everything — literacy, math, history, science. And they are supposed to build character, watch out for signs of child abuse, keep kids off drugs and out of gangs, and, most of all, keep them quietly closed up in the classroom. They are supposed to do all of this with 25 or 30 or more students in each class, some of whom may have serious learning or behavioral disabilities.

    And then they are responsible for making sure the kids do well on the No Child Left Behind tests. Really the only route open in most cases is rote memorization.

    I would love for high school teachers to have PhDs. I do, and it makes my job both easy and fun. But school systems are neither inclined to spend the money on people that well trained nor to deal with the fallout of teaching students to think for themselves.

  • I’m entirely sympathetic–too much is asked of elementary school teachers. All the more reason to have a textbook written by actual experts. If I were asked to teach, say, biology, I’d want a textbook written by biologists

  • Meredith wrote:

    Eliza, I think you said it best. I am extremely sympathetic to the plight of teachers; I watched my mother be ground down to a stump by teaching middle school social studies for 25 years. Nobody (except maybe Mike O’Malley) can be an expert in everything, so the tools teachers use are extremely important. The problem is systemic and not the fault of individual teachers. Our society does not, despite the lip-service paid to them, accord teachers much respect, and the net result is that a lot of marginal college students fall into teaching not because they are great in their fields or because they love kids, but because it’s a decent living and they don’t know what else to do with their lives. And the teaching-to-the-test phenomenon has distracted teachers from teaching SKILLS. And that’s where Mike’s suggestion about using primary sources is really relevant. You can use them to teach skills, which are more difficult to assess, but you can’t use them to teach a litany of facts, as required by standardized tests. A textbook written by experts would seem to be the least the state could provide its teachers.

  • […] Mike O’Malley at The Aporetic eviscerates the much in the news Our Virginia fourth grade histo…, and for all the right reasons. The book’s inclusion of “black confederates,” which first brought it to national attention, is only the tip of the iceberg. Its utter lack of historical argument or interpretation leaves it with inclusive factoids, “empty headed and peppy multiculturalism,” and little else. “But crit­i­ciz­ing this book for errors,” Mike notes, “is like crit­i­ciz­ing a mur­der scene for tacky furniture.” Read the whole post, it’s well worth it. […]

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dan Cohen, John Dupuis, Megan Brett, Sharon Leon, Lori Crouch and others. Lori Crouch said: Va hy textbook: criticizing this book 4 errors is like criticizing a murder scene 4 tacky furniture RT @theaporetic:: […]

  • […] Those VA History textbooks – The Aporetic […]

  • Randolph wrote:

    Mike, I agree strongly with your overall point — this is a problem with textbooks generally. So much information, but with so little sense of significance that it’s almost impossible for students to absorb the information at all, much less in any historically conscious way.

    That said, I think you’re incorrect about Powhatan: I don’t recall having read anything that suggests that his construction of a paramount chiefdomship was influenced by epidemic European disease. Most interpretations suggest that the most immediate cause was warfare and competition for resources (both trade and subsistence) with neighboring piedmont and more distant northern groups, and most also hypothesize that a defensive response to the encounters with the Spanish Jesuit mission and the Roanoke colonists might have been involved. But there’s not evidence of any massive depopulation of eastern Virginia in the years before English colonization.

  • […] spending some time with “Our Virginia,” a historian Michael O’Malley concludes that a categorical problem isn’t significant errors, of that he speckled many. It’s that a book […]

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