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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