Teaching Civil War History 2.0 (New York Times)

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A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Clay Risen of the New York Times to talk about what it might take to make their Civil War blog, Disunion, more appealing to teachers.  I’ve been reading it for some time and I am thoroughly enjoying both the range of writers and subject matter discussed. Disunion recently won the 2010 Cliopatria Award for best series of posts.  We had a nice talk and by the end of our conversation I suggested that an editorial on the recent black Confederate/4th grade history textbook controversy here in Virginia might be worth writing.  I wasn’t so much interested in rehashing the historical debate about black Confederates since that has been done to death.  Unfortunately, what has been left out entirely from the debate is the fact that the error came about as a result of the author’s failure to understand how to search and assess Online information.  It goes without saying that I am honored to published in the New York TimesClick through to the NYTs and the comments which follow.

32 responses... add one

Mr. Levin:

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) provided detailed guidance to division superintendents and history specialists about the errors in “Our Virginia: Past and Present” on October 20 – the day the original Washington Post story was published. This guidance advised that the statement concerning the alleged service of black Southerners in the Confederate miliary is not in keeping with the Standards of Learning and is outside the bounds of accepted Civil War scholarship. The department consulted with several historians – including Dr. James Robertson of Virginia Tech – in preparing guidance for the field. This same week, two VDOE history specialists met personally with division history supervisors and classroom teachers during their back-to-back conferences in Williamsburg to raise awareness of the errors in the textbook and provide guidance about accurate instruction on the roles of blacks in both the Union and Confederate armies. Since late October, Superintendnet of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright has communicated repeatedly with school districts providing additional guidance and information about actions of the department and the state Board of Education regarding Our Virginia: Past and Present. It also should be noted that Virginia fourth-graders don’t reach the Civil War era until the spring, so it is unlikely that any students were taught that thousands of blacks fought as soldiers for the South. As a history teacher, you know that a textbook today is just one of many resources teachers will use to teach the required content. While the department has taken responsibility for the need to improve its textbook review process, VDOE did not leave students and teachers to “fend for themselves with little guidance.”

Sincerely,

Charles B. Pyle
Director of Communications
Virginia Department of Education

Mr. Pyle,

Thank you very much for your comment. If possible, I would very much appreciate copies of materials used in these sessions to bring teachers up to date with the latest scholarship on this particular issue. At the same time it is important to point out that this was not the only mistake that reviewers of this particular textbook caught. It’s unfortunate that qualified scholars were not already situated to point out these problems at some point in the acquisition process. Why someone as unqualified as Joy Masoff was approved for Virginia history classrooms as opposed to Joy Hakim is baffling. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/history/why-fairfaxs-textbook-recall-i.html

Finally, while I am pleased to read that the VDOE has taken steps to respond to the misleading claims about black Confederates I learned this past week that I am not allowed to offer a workshop to Virginia teachers on using this subject as a case study for how to properly search and assess digital sources as part of an upcoming conference for Va. teachers.

Mr. Levin:

References to VDOE’s outreach to school divisions were included in the Washington Post’s original reporting on October 20, 2010, and in multiple follow-up reports in the Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Virginian-Pilot and other newspapers.

The department’s activities related to the textbook issue also were the subject of a report earlier this month to the state Board of Education: http://www.doe.virginia.gov/boe/meetings/2011/01_jan/agenda_items/item_t.pdf
A news release available on the VDOE website provides the board’s response to the report:
http://www.doe.virginia.gov/news/news_releases/2011/jan13.shtml

C. Pyle

Thanks once again for responding and for including the links.

I appreciate you calling me out on that one brief reference in my editorial. What I meant to say is that I didn’t hear much of anything about addressing the root problem behind the misinformation, which is the overall focus of my editorial. Thanks again for the information. I am going to leave a comment on the NYTs that reference your comments.

The comment I left at NYT:

This is exactly right, but the textbook problem is not just an outgrowth of the internet-filter problem. The attempt by state after state to create detailed requirements for history curricula, but then leave fulfilling those requirements to the open market, takes historical judgement out of the hands of competent historians and puts it in the hands of the lowest bidder.

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for copying your comment here. It’s also nice to know that there will be comments to read at the NYTs. I guess they haven’t gotten around to approving what has already been entered.

You are absolutely spot on. This incident exposes fundamental problems with history education in our public schools.

Will your forthcoming study of Black Confederates include analysis of claims that John Nolan and Henry Wilson were *proud* members of Quantrill’s partisans.

Philip,

Thanks for the comment. Much of my work thus far has been centered on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but I expect that at some point I will have to take a look at Quantrill.

Kevin,
Excellent article in the NYT. Nice to see one of the sane voices being given the spotlight. Hopefully, when someone searches for information on this, your article will come up as high as the SCV misinformation.

Best
Rob

Thanks Rob. Hopefully the traffic and links will push it up the Google ladder. Actually, a number of links have made it to the top since this story broke back in October.

Good stuff – and it does not apply just to history. Obviously that’s your focus and expertise, but the same way of evaluating online sources can benefit teachers of pretty much every subject.

You are absolutely right. My wife is a scientist so you can imagine the garbage she has to deal with.

Regarding the Bearss comment on a ‘conspiracy’ among historians to avoid discussing the role of African-Americans above and below the Mason Dixon line, why don’t you just ask him?

Since you are writing a book about Black Confederates you would be setting a good example of research principles to determine the validity of the comment directly as opposed to posting an inconclusive Internet video. The Wikipedia reports that Bearss only lives about 100 miles from you.

Thanks for the advice, Philip. Fellow blogger, Harry Smeltzer (Bull Runnings) has already asked Bearss about the statement. It should come as no surprise that he denied ever making such a claim. Thanks for the comment.

Kevin -

My heartiest congratulations. With regards to serious study of the Civil War, I believe your blog has become the best and most important one out there. Certainly my personal favorite. Well done.

Paul

Thanks Paul. That means a lot to me. As always, thanks for reading and congratulations on your recent book deal.

Jonathon Dresner’s comment “The attempt by state after state to create detailed requirements for history curricula, but then leave fulfilling those requirements to the open market, takes historical judgement out of the hands of competent historians and puts it in the hands of the lowest bidder” struck me as relevant to England, where that is exactly what the Minister of Education plans to do. Do you know where a clear and simple exposure of this problem, not specific to one issue, can be found? I’d be grateful for that.

The NYT article mentioned Confederate ideological problems wrt Black soldiers, but didn’t fully discuss what seems to me the strangest aspect: The main objection raised was that Black sol;diers would have to be freed, which was contrary to the claim that slavery was beneficial to Africans. No-one seems to have suggested that Black units might shoot their officers and go over to the Union, which I would have thought was an obvious objection.

Thanks for the comment. You make an excellent point re: the problem of black Confederate soldiers. Even a cursory look at the evidence shows that the biggest problem for the Confederate government in their attempt to utilize slave labor for military purposes was that they ran away. Slaveowners resisted the attempts of the Confederate government to loan or lease their slaves from the beginning to the end of the war because they understood that their slaves were not loyal and desired their freedom. The enlistment debate itself is the result of coming to terms that they no longer could view their slaves as chattel.

Perhaps another reader will direct you to a source on government oversight of curricular standards.

I don’t know offhand of works which treat the national-vs-local curriculum question globally, but there are a number of works on the way in which history is depicted in national curricula, and the fights over them, for various nations. I really haven’t read much of the book-length work in this area, though: mostly I pick up bits and pieces at conferences and through reviews. But if you pick a country and go looking for “debates over history curriculums” you can find it pretty quickly most of the time.

I used to have a tag line on my e-mails that I may need to revive: “Facts on the internet are like notes on a trombone. Infinite in number, but most of them are wrong!”

Some of your readers have already responded to the issue of verifying sources when reading the internet. I just wanted to make the small point that while misinformation, hearsay and the like have always been with us, the internet’s fantastic ability to deliver several TONS of (all kinds of ) information is perhaps the real problem with which we grapple, rather than the internet itself. Meaning, the rules of verification are the same but the process must be multiplied so many times that it almost seems as if the internet has slowed us down rather than sped us up.
Much thanks for a wonderful, thoughtful and thought-provoking article, Kevin.

Hi Nancy,

Nice to hear from you and thanks for the kind words over at the NYTs site. The problem, as you note, is widespread. I am simply trying to address one very small corner.

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