For a couple reasons that I will not go into I’ve been exploring Virginia’s SOL’s for the survey course in American history. My specific focus has been the period between 1850 and 1880, though I did spend a little time exploring the late colonial period through the Revolution. I tend to think that the SOL’s are more a reflection of a lack of talented history teachers in the public schools rather than an external set of standards imposed. This is unfortunate for those history teachers trained in the field and quite capable of developing their own curriculum that have the potential of going beyond the basic requirements of the SOL’s. That said, after perusing the outline for the American history course I have to admit that it’s not all a disaster. For those of you unfamiliar with Virginia’s SOL’s you should first know that the outline of the course is divided into four columns which are headed from right to left: "Essential Understandings" (EU), "Essential Questions" (EQ), Essential Knowledge" (EK), and "Essential Skills" (ES). I like the progression from the abstract in the far left column to concrete skill-based requirements which ideally will demonstrate some mastery of an abstract idea and essential facts. Essential skills tend to revolve around geography, sequencing events, and analysis of primary and secondary sources, and the appreciation of multiple perspectives in history. This is essentially my course in a nutshell.
Where my course differs, however, is in the content. I can’t help but think that some of the SOL content is politically motivated or simply the result of compromises made between various interest groups. The result is a confused overview of the Civil War era that, if followed carefully, must leave some teachers (and students) confused. Here are a few examples that I find particularly troubling. One of the things that struck me is the extent to which the SOL’s bounce back and forth between citing regional differences over the proper interpretation of the Constitution or states rights v. federal government, and slavery. Both positions are expressed but there is never a point in the outline where a coherent statement is expressed. As EK students are to acknowledge that "Northerners believed that slavery should be abolished for moral reasons." More interesting is the choice to use Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee as examples of differing views on the respective powers of the states and federal government. Why Lee is chosen is beyond me given that he was not a political thinker or responsible for a cogent statement about this nature of the federal government. One of the EQ’s asks students to explain, "How Lincoln’s view of the nature of the Union differ[ed] from Lee’s." Why not use Jefferson Davis or some other southern politician? When did Lee become a significant commentator on the nature of the constitution?
Moving to the war years students must be able to identify the following leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglas. While I have little quarrel with the list I do wonder why Jackson is elevated to the level of Douglas, Davis, and Lincoln. I am not denying that it is not worth studying the life of Jackson, but is he that important to understanding the evolution of the war in Virginia and elsewhere? Yes, the teacher can mention that he performed extremely well in battle and that he was a religious zealot, but how exactly does that get him to the top of the heap? I don’t get it. During the two weeks my AP classes have spent on the Civil War I may have mentioned Jackson twice and both time briefly. There are way more important people that need to be understood. Under EK Jackson is described as a "talented" Confederate general.
Given my recent emphasis on black Confederates you will be happy to know that "African Americans fought in both the Union and Confederate armies." This has to be one of the most confused set of bullet points that I’ve even seen. There is no explanation beyond this which is incredibly disturbing. I have to wonder what your average teacher does with this information without any familiarity with the literature on the subject. One has to imagine that in classes throughout Virginia students are finishing the year with the belief that the experiences of blacks in both armies was comparable. It then goes on to say that "The Confederacy often used slaves as naval crew members and soldiers." One of the bullet points notes that "African American soldiers were discriminated against and served in segregated units under the command of white officers." Unfortunately, given the earlier bullet point that blacks served as soldiers in both armies it is impossible to know which army is being cited. Perhaps they were fully integrated in Confederate armies and years ahead of the U.S. Army. (LOL) [While we’re at it let’s go ahead and teach Intelligent Design in their biology classes and get it over with.]
Finally, Virginia’s students learn that "Reconstruction policies were harsh and created problems in the South." By what standards are federal policies to be considered harsh? And for whom were they harsh? Did 4 million black southerners respond to federal policies as their white neighbors? Well, I think that’s about enough for now.