Virginia's History Textbooks Still Aren't Accurate—The Publishers Need to Get Historians Involved

Historians/History




Zachary M. Schrag is associate professor of history at George Mason University.

On September 22, the Virginia Board of Education added two history textbooks to its list of texts approved for use in the state’s public schools.  That doesn’t sound very exciting, but the two books were revised editions of titles that last year gained national notoriety for their factual errors.  The new action raises the question of whether the state’s system for textbook adoption has been sufficiently reformed.

At this time last year, many Virginia fourth-graders could read that “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”  This baseless claim appeared in a new textbook, Our Virginia: Past and Present, written by author Joy Masoff, and published by Five Ponds Press.  Masoff is not a trained historian, and she had been too trusting in her use of material she found on non-scholarly websites.  Nor did Virginia's process guarantee that any historian would review the text before it was distributed to thousands of schoolchildren.

One of those children brought the book home, where her mother, Carol Sheriff, picked it up.  Perhaps the first professional historian to give the book a close read, Sheriff—who teaches at the College of William and Mary—noticed the outrageous claim and alerted the press.  Several Virginia counties stopped using the book, and in March 2011 the Virginia Board of Education revoked its approval of both that book and Masoff’s Our America: To 1865, written for fifth-graders.

At the same time, the board adopted a new textbook review process that “requires each publisher to certify that textbooks have been thoroughly examined and reviewed by qualified content experts for factual accuracy.”

Five Ponds dutifully revised its books, recruiting more experts—including two academic historians—to look over Masoff’s shoulder, and promising that “Each textbook has been thoroughly examined and reviewed by at least three qualified content experts for factual accuracy in the subject matter and the textbooks are free from any factual or editing error.”

But the new editions submitted in June were not free of error. Over the summer, the Board of Education placed copies of the drafts at eight colleges and universities around the state, including George Mason University, where I teach.  And while most of the drafts seemed all right, I found some significant problems.  Some examples:

  • An epigraph, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “When governments fear the people, there is liberty.  When the people fear the government, there is tyranny."  The good people at Monticello have posted a list of such spurious quotations and have tracked this one to a socialist in 1914.

  • A reproduction of Arnold Friberg’s1975 painting, The Prayer at Valley Forge, which depicts George Washington kneeling piously in the snow.  Edward G. Lengel, in George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory, shows that this story was likely invented by the same fabulist who made the young Washington kill a cherry tree.

  • Triumphalist claims about the War of 1812:  “Americans fought bravely—from the Great Lakes to New Orleans—struggling against the more powerful British forces.”  Alan Taylor’s new book, The Civil War of 1812, often has Americans fleeing outnumbered British.

  • Determinist claims about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, largely discredited by Angela Lakwete, Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America.

  • Maps of Europe and North America mixing events from earlier centuries with twenty-first-century borders, with no explanation.

  • Illustrations that are decades removed from the text they accompany, such as a 1912 photograph used to illustrate the antebellum suffrage movement, and a mid-nineteenth century view of New Orleans accompanying a description of the Louisiana Purchase.

Only a handful of others commented on the drafts, and Five Ponds has promised to fix some of the problems they and I identified.  (For example, it will change the captions on those last two images.)  Relying in part on such assurances, the Board of Education approved the revised texts for use in the classroom.

I don’t know if that was the right decision.  Again, the books are mostly accurate, and they seem at least as readable as some of their competitors, which are so fussily laid out that it’s hard to find the main story.

But I am still left with the sense that the Five Ponds textbooks too casually mix history and myth.  As I understand the publisher’s response to my comments, George Washington will continue to kneel in prayer, Eli Whitney alone will revolutionize cotton production, and brave Americans will emerge victorious in the War of 1812.

Now, I imagine few works of history are wholly free from errors; in my own first book I misplaced a department store by two city blocks.  But the problems in these books were serious enough to make me wonder if Virginia needs a better way to get historians involved in the writing of history texts for schoolchildren.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Publishers should recruit historians as writers, not just reviewers.  As part of the new textbook policy, each publisher must explain the workflow that produced the book.  Five Ponds’ workflow, outlined in its June 2011 submission, shows that academic historians were only brought in on step 4 of 7.  Had they been involved earlier in the process, perhaps there would have been fewer errors to catch—and to slip by.

  • Reviewers should pay careful attention not only to the main text, but also to the epigraphs, maps, and illustrations that are likely to catch the attention of schoolchildren and be remembered long after the denser prose has been forgotten.  They should insist that textbooks distinguish between reasonably accurate visual depictions of events and those that perpetuate myths, and between contemporary illustrations and scenes imagined by later artists.

  • Publishers or the state should recruit reviewers for specific chapters.  Professor Sheriff, whose comments on the first edition of Our Virginia were so valuable, did review the second edition when it was made public, but she only read the Civil War chapter of that book.  That was a lot more sensible than my approach of trying to read both the Virginia and United States texts cover-to-cover, but it would have worked a lot better had the books been divvied up so that each chapter was read by a period expert with the same care that Professor Sheriff gave to the Civil War.  Since accuracy is the publishers’ responsibility, they should pay these reviewers, just as scholars are paid for reviewing scholarly book manuscripts.

  • The state should find a better means of distributing review texts.  Depositing paper copies in university libraries has a certain quaint charm to it, but most faculty aren’t on campus in August, which was the period for review and comment.  Scholarly journals and presses use e-mail to distribute drafts and solicit comments, and the state should do the same.

  • Historians—particularly faculty at public universities—should welcome this kind of review part of their work as scholars.  An approved textbook will reach a lot more readers than our journal articles and monographs, so we should be happy to have any chance to shape one.

Like Professor Sheriff, I was motivated to read the drafts in part by concern for my own children; my son just started Kindergarten in a Virginia public school, and my daughter will follow him next year.  Some day we’ll have long talks about the critical reading of secondary scholarship and changing interpretations of American history.  But for now, I just want them to have books they can trust.


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