Virginia History Textbooks Continued

Our county, Arlington, has announced they will pull Our Virginia from the classroom “until a corrected digital edition becomes available, probably at the end of this month.”

It’s better than doing nothing, but it’s really not a good result. The County will go back to the same company, Five Ponds Press. Five Ponds will remove some of the glaring errors, but the same basic problem will remain–no coherence, no argument. They will probably remove the two black battalions from Stonewall Jackson’s command, but will they change the basic frame of the section, which describes black Americans in the Civil War as freely choosing either the Union or the Confederacy, as if they were picking paint colors for a house? Will they alter the overall tone of “talk TV multiculturalism meets authoritarian facticity?”

Fixing the obvious errors in this thing is like painting a rusty old car: it will look a little better, but it won’t run any better and the paint won’t last

The basic problem remains: the Virginia “standards of learning.” You can see a description here. I downloaded the “Virginia Studies” pdf and its preamble is quoted below.

The standards for Virginia Studies allow students to develop a greater understanding of Virginia’s rich history, from the cultures of its native peoples and the founding of Jamestown to the present.

Seems harmless enough, I suppose, but what does it mean to have a “rich” history? Do some places have “poor” histories?

We all know what they mean here: students are supposed to develop an appreciation of multiplicity. This is the consumer culture version of multiculturalism, and to the degree that Our Virginia has an argument, it’s this: Virginia has a rich history, and it’s rich in the sense of “lots of choices” and lots of stuff; it’s all good, “rich” in the sense that Target is “rich” with consumer possibilities.1

It continues:

Geographic, economic, and civic concepts are presented within this historical context. Students will develop the skills needed to analyze, interpret, and demonstrate knowledge of important events and ideas in our history, and will understand the contributions made by people of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

So all facts are presented within this frame of “richness” meaning apolitical abundance meaning multiple possibilities, and thanks, diverse people, for “contributing” to the un-diverse.

Ideas that form the foundation for political institutions in Virginia and the United States also will be included as part of the story of Virginia

The study of history must emphasize the intellectual skills required for responsible citizenship. Students practice these skills as they extend their understanding of the essential knowledge defined by all of the standards for history and social science.

And what might those ideas be? Is it too much to ask that the Virginia standards of learning actually know what they are, or pick some? An alternative model for organizing the text would be around those ideas, not around the idea of “richness:” take the idea of liberty, or freedom, or individualism, or representative democracy: these are ideas. As far as I can tell from Our Virginia, the intellectual skills required for citizenship are a blithe and uncritical multiculturalism and a capacity to memorize.

I’m all for multiculturalism: human variety is one of the things that make life interesting and worth living. But difference is hard: it’s a political, social and intellectual challenge. You need some ideas if you are going to navigate the problems/possibilities of human difference in an effective way; ideas about what liberty means or what freedom means.

It’s really easy to criticize. Formulating standards that all can agree on is a tough job. What’s your solution, O’Malley?

The first thing I would do is organize a textbook around some specific political ideas, like, say, “liberty.” Liberty doesn’t have a static meaning. It means one thing to libertarians and another to Catholics. It depends on the way one understands the relation of the individual to the social. But a notion of liberty is crucial to our politics and to civic debate. I’d organize a textbook around the various and changing definitions of liberty. Or similarly, “freedom,” a word that has obviously changed its meaning dramatically over time. If a textbook is going to give students the intellectual tools to be citizens, it has to found that citizenship in ideas.

And I’d make the memorization of facts secondary to the capacity to work with ideas. Historians love facts: I love facts. But accumulating facts without ideas is like compulsive hoarding, pointless and degrading. What it degrades is the capacity to discern what matters from what’s meaningless.

  1. they have to do it this way because the beginning of Virginia, as in “Virginia studies,” is pretty much the beginning of the end for native cultures. Calling it “rich” is a way of gilding the fact that Powhatan’s people are going to be driven west or killed. Or that at times about half the population of VA was locked in hereditary slavery.

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