Yesterday I was interviewed by Patricia Gay, who is a reporter with the Weston Forum in Weston, Connecticut. You might wonder why a Connecticut paper is so interested in this story. Well, it turns out that Five Ponds Press is located in that town. In fact, it turns out that author Joy Massoff is married to the publisher, Louis Scolnik. Now that’s an interesting and disturbing turn. We talked mainly about the issue related to the references of black Confederates, which was the catalyst for this story. I am pleased to see that a large chunk of our discussion was included in the article.
Although Ms. Masoff and Mr. Scolnik have come under considerable media and political scrutiny, Kevin Levin, a Civil War scholar and history teacher at a private high school in Charlottesville, Va., said there may be a silver lining to be gleaned from the debacle.
In a telephone interview with The Forum, he called mistakes in the textbook “mindboggling” and “disappointing.” But he also said the incident brought to light an important issue — the importance of teaching children how to judge information they get from the Internet. “Ms. Masoff admitted she got her information about black Confederate soldiers from the Internet. If you search the terms ‘black’ and ‘Confederate’ online you will get Web sites put up by private individuals with no credentials,” he said.
Mr. Levin explained that most of those Web sites are written by “lost cause” Southerners who are still bitter about the South’s defeat in the Civil War. They hold on to a number of historically skewed tenets, including the belief that slavery was a benign institution and slaves were happy to serve their masters and volunteered to fight in the war, he said.
“Robert E. Lee had thousands of blacks with his army during Gettysburg. But they were performing services as impressed slaves and personal body servants. They were not soldiers. That distinction is a fundamental mistake,” he said. In this electronic age, Mr. Levin said it is all too easy for kids to make the same mistake Ms. Masoff did, and assume all data found in a Google search is true. “As teachers, we have a real opportunity here to teach students how to judge the information they get online,” he said.
Another positive thing, Mr. Levin said, is now when an Internet search is done for “black Confederate soldiers,” articles from the textbook ordeal will show up alongside ones written by the “lost cause” individuals. “Before this incident, the issue of black Confederate soldiers was a preoccupation by a relatively small group. Now it has been introduced to a broader range of people,” he said.