A Virginia Fourth Grader’s Civil War

General Winfield Scott

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.

Our children deserve better.

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25 comments… add one
  • Ed Jan 31, 2011 @ 10:55

    None of you would have won a $1,000,000 on Foxworthy’s show; obliviously it’s BAC.

  • Paul Thornton Jan 31, 2011 @ 8:52

    Hello Kevin,

    Forgive me if the answer is within the original text – also I’m unfamiliar with the Standards of Learning Test being a Brit and all – but was the question posed by the Civil War Historian to his son an actual question used in the classroom, and possibly the test, or was it something the father penned as part of a revision package for his son..? Is it for example one of a large set of questions which may be posed to the child during the text?

    Many thanks.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 10:20

      Hi Paul. I was under the impression that the question was pulled from a test bank in preparation for the SOL.

  • London John Jan 31, 2011 @ 7:31

    Does the history of Virginia in this context mean Virginia now or in 1860? Presumably even this Masoff person knows that West Virginia was part of Virginia before the Civil War, and how it became a separate state? Aren’t Virginia schoolchildren told that?
    I must say I think the role of Native Americans in the CW is a bit advanced to cover before high school. I gather there was pretty much a civil war within the tribes beginning with “Ch”, but I wouldn’t care to try to explain it.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 7:47

      The only reason why Masoff wrote this book is because she happens to be married to the publisher. I doubt that her knowledge of Virginia history extends to western/West Virginia.

    • Arleigh Birchler Jan 31, 2011 @ 7:47

      The tribes in the Indian Nations were heavily involved in the Ozark Civil War. Part of it dated back to events in Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama before the Trail of Tears.

  • Woodrowfan Jan 31, 2011 @ 5:37

    as a college history instructor I find it depressing how few of my students could identify Scott, or tell me in which war(s) he was involved. Most can’t tell me the length of a US Senator’s term, or that of a representative. Granted I don’t teach at an IVY or UVA, but still, I have to cover a LOT if very basic things in my survey classes.

    On the plus side, one of the best students I ever had is about to graduate and is going to be a middle school history teacher.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 5:46

      I just want to clarify that I wasn’t necessarily making an argument for the importance of Scott, but for the broader concept of Southern Unionism. The SOL question makes absolutely no sense without such a concept.

      • Woodrowfan Jan 31, 2011 @ 6:12

        I understand. But beyond Grant, Lee, Jeff Davis and Lincoln, I’m not sure how much my average student knows about the Civil War. It can be very discouraging.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 6:15

          I understand completely, but I tend to think that the questions of how our curriculum ought to be organized is a separate issue from the amount of knowledge and depth of understanding that certain students leave with.

          • Arleigh Birchler Jan 31, 2011 @ 6:22

            One would hope that how the curricula are organized would have some impact on the amount of knowledge and depth of understanding the students leave with. (smile)

  • Ted Alexander Jan 31, 2011 @ 4:59

    I might add that my opinion on this has been reinforced in recent years by lecturing, leading tours and holding seminars for teacher groups taking the Federally funded teaching American history seminars. Some seem interested while others skip sessions or go off in the corner to smoke and chat.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 5:35

      My experience working with teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, there are always the exceptions. You still haven’t responded to my question. If the concept of a Unionist is difficult for 4th graders to grasp than how can we teach anything having to do with R.E. Lee’s difficult decision in April 1861? Please advise.

      • Ted Alexander Jan 31, 2011 @ 17:51

        I am not that familier with Virginias education system. Frankly Iam surprised that these topics are even being considered for 4th graders. Back in the day we got a smattering of the Civil War in the 5th grade, then the heavier dose in 8th grade. When I taught high school history they got the Civil War in 8th and reconstruction and beyond in 9th. This was in Pa. Again, without knowing too much about Virginia’s ed. system, 4th grade seems to be a bit early for all of this.

  • Ted Alexander Jan 31, 2011 @ 4:33

    That does not surprise me either. When i taught U.S. History in public school, most of the good discussions i had were with my students. i found that most history teachers in public schools were not that interested in history!

  • Ted Alexander Jan 30, 2011 @ 23:51

    4th graders “can’t understand the concept of a Unionist”?? I’ve dealt with 4th graders and other levels of students for more than 30 years. At that age most of them can’t even grasp the concept of a war!!! Blank stares when you mention Winfield Scott? Why are you surprised? As great as we know he was, you are going to get blank stares nearly everywhere with that. He is really not a household word in the U.S.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 1:56


      Let me just clarify that it was the teachers who stared back blankly and not the students. So, if 4th graders can’t understand the concept of a Unionist I must assume that they also can’t understand Robert E. Lee.

  • Dick Stanley Jan 30, 2011 @ 10:22

    In Texas, my fifth grader is still on the American Revolution, and it’s at a pretty simplistic level. The Indians hardly come into it at all.

    • Arleigh Birchler Jan 30, 2011 @ 11:08

      The Indians may not come into the fifth graders study, but they had a tremendous amount to do with the Revolution. That carried over into the War of 1812 and the Blackhawk War.

  • Edwin Thompson Jan 30, 2011 @ 7:31

    Great post – Is this a recent question on the Virginia Standards tests? If so, very sad. Apparently there are a lot of adults teaching our children that want to rewrite history or don’t read history from credible sources or were brainwashed at an early age (some of this is correctable). We’re back to your NYTimes article on Teaching Civil War History 2.0. All and all, the information age is a benefit to us all by correcting this type of misinformation – blogs like this help.

  • Marc Ferguson Jan 30, 2011 @ 6:08

    They left off the correct answer: D) None of the above.

  • Woodrowfan Jan 30, 2011 @ 5:59

    the gold medal winner in the Bad Multiple Choice Question Olympics… Holy Cow.

  • Arleigh Birchler Jan 30, 2011 @ 5:56

    Good post. Reality is always much more complex then simple yes or no answers. William Moss just posted on Facebook asking folks to watch the trailer for the movie: “The Conspirator”. Mr Moss was an extra, portraying the commander of the troops at the execution. Hard to tell from just a trailer, but the bits I saw gave me the impression that they had a good staff of people doing historical research for the movie.

    You are right about Winfield Scott. I doubt that many even know about his role in the War Between the States. (Or what anacondas have to do with the whole thing … )

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