I came across this question not too long ago on my Facebook News Feed. It was posted by a well-known Civil War historian, who was helping his 4th grader study for the Virginia Standards of Learning Test:
Name the roles of the following
1) White Virginians
2) Freed African Americans
3) American Indians
A) Supported the Confederacy
B) Fought for the Confederacy to protect their rights
C) Did not take sides during the Civil War.
Let me know how you did because I still can’t figure out the right answer. This past week I had the opportunity to work with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers in Virginia Beach. It presents a unique challenge since I do not have children of my own and my work as a history teacher is on the high school level. Even more challenging is the fact that many of these teachers are not trained in history. That’s not necessarily a problem given the level at which they are working at with the kids and the skills they are working hard to impart. However, we should expect that every attempt is being made to provide these teachers with curricular materials that reflect the latest scholarship and that allows students to see as much of the richness of their state’s history as possible.
If this question reflects what our kids are being taught at this level than we’ve got a lot to worry about. In fact, if I have the right answers the question clearly reflects the content of Joy Masoff’s Our Virginia: Past and Present in which she suggests that slaves supported the Confederacy in large numbers. As bad as that is it could be argued that the assumption that all Virginians supported the Confederacy is also a gross distortion of the past. At one point during my teaching session we were discussing Robert E. Lee’s difficult decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army. I brought up General Winfield Scott’s name as another example of a Virginian, who struggled with the same decision and my audience largely stared back in silence. Scott was one of the most important Americans by 1860 and he was a Virginian. Please don’t tell me that 4th graders can’t understand the concept of a Unionist. I don’t see how you can understand the war in Virginia without it.
On a related note I also learned that public schools in Virginia Beach are not allowed to visit the Museum of the Confederacy. No one could give me an answer beyond the vague rumblings over their name, which have plagued it over the past few years. I made it crystal clear that the MOC is truly one of our most important historical institutions and that they should be taking full advantage of what it has to offer. Here we are at the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in Virginia and we are still teaching our kids not only an outdated version of the Civil War, but one that somehow manages to fall short of the cognitive capacity of 4th graders. Of course, I have no doubt that there are teachers, who are doing a first-rate job in their classrooms, but these little signs are not encouraging.
If the above question is what passes for historical knowledge in our public schools than I suggest we just bag the entire project and devote the time to math and science.