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The Daily Need

Hitting the books in Virginia

In this week’s “Karr on Culture” podcast, NTK contributor Rick Karr talks to NPR librarian Kee Malesky about the hazards of research in the age of Google. Case in point: A history textbook used by Virginia fourth-graders is at the center of a growing controversy after its author, Joy Masloff, admitted to finding some of the disputed information in her book on the Internet.

Our Virginia: Past and Present” claims that “thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks” – an assertion that many historians reject flat out as a strand of revisionist Confederate history. When The Washington Post investigated the author’s supporting materials, all three of the Web pages were found to have been authored by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans – a group that is dedicated to recasting the Civil War as the “second American Revolution.”

For local historians like James Robertson, a professor at Virginia Tech, Masloff’s claim regarding the numbers of black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy is “blatantly false.” He told Virginia TV station WSLS that, “It implies men who were in slavery would want to fight for the country that enslaved them, which really is illogical.”

Robertson’s concerns about this textbook’s inclusion of this highly disputed information were echoed by historian James McPherson of Princeton University, who recently told The Washington Post that, “These Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery.”

While ideologically driven battles over social studies curricula and textbooks have taken center stage in places like Texas this year, this latest textbook controversy appears to be less a result of any overt political agenda than a consequence of sloppy research.

Masloff, whose previous titles include “Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty” and “Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments,” told The Washington Post that, “I don’t want to ruffle any feathers. If the historians had contacted me and asked me to take it out, I would have.”

In her recent Times magazine essay, “What ‘Fact-Checking’ Means Online,” Virginia Heffernan waxes nostalgic about the rigorous procedures that she was expected to follow as a young fact-checker at The New Yorker in the pre-digital age and glumly concludes that “facts on the Web are now more rhetorical devices than identifiable objects.”

Sadly, for the fourth graders of Virginia, these rhetorical devices are now part of the official history of their country for the foreseeable future.

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  • Clinton Freeman

    There were black people who fought for the British during the Revolutionary war. There were black people who opposed fighting against Jim Crow in America and Apartheid in South Africa.
    Some 200 thousand blacks fought for the Union. It is completely possible that some blacks fought on the other side too. Even if 1 or 2% of that number fought for the Confederates, so what? Does a certain number of black people on the other side of an issue negate the claims of the rest of black people?
    There is no number of blacks fighting for the Confederacy that would make slavery right. It was wrong before the first shot was fired and the remnants of slavery remained wrong long after the war ended and remain wrong today.

  • Paul in Alexandria

    Of course, some small number of blacks fighting for the Confederacy would not negate the tragic evil of slavery.

    What is at stake here is accuracy and meaning.

    First, thousands of blacks could not have fought under the leadership of Stonewall Jackson. The timing of events, including when he died, makes that impossible according to experts.

    Second, there is no factual basis for the stand alone claim. The basis is an internet document produced by a group with an ex to grind and no credibility as a reliable historical source.

    Third, almost all blacks who might have fought for the Confederacy would almost certainly have been doing so under duress. Context is critical to understanding. The statement in the schoolbook offers not context for the concept of even the handful that may have fought for the Confederacy.

    Fourth, facts matter. When we stop caring about facts, we lose our ability to face the truth. One cannot stand in the way of a speeding bullet and not be injured. One cannot continue to pollute the globe with carbon dioxide and not affect the temperature of the planet, thus changing the planet itself and making it less hospitable to us humans.

    Americans seem to feel that if it doesn’t feel right, something can’t be true. We sometimes decide that our religious beliefs are truer than facts. We forget that religion is supposed to be about faith in something unproveable. When we do get proveable facts, we need to accept those and incorprate them into our understanding of the world. We shouldn’t actually supplant an unprovable belief for a provable or highly likely fact.

    Gravity is a scientific theory. Evolution is a scientific theory. Climate Change is a scientific theory. Each has varying degrees of facts to support it but all have more than sufficient factual evidence, as assessed by the world’s best minds, to act as if those theories are proven.

    We have far more certainty of those theories, in fact, than we do that a deity exists that can suspend the laws of nature and turn water into wine, part raging waters, or bring people back from the dead. Yet, many people choose to act as if it is the opposite.

    Science is not the enemy and while opinions often divide us, standing by facts will help us survive as a civilized, intelligent people.

  • Tiddas

    Thanks for highlighting the ever ridiculous but very real perversions stemming from a dishonoring of scholarship and truth in Virginia. Last time you devoted efforts to AG Cuccinelli’s willful ignorance of climate science. Now, this. Could someone please address the editing process of textbooks. Is there some accountability beyond the author — selected for appeal to kids’ tastes, despite little history scholarship? The end product seems to be wholly on her and her buffoonish research skills, but should it be? What about the publishing company and their review process? What about the upper echelon of the school system and their selection of the text? Did no one suspect that the product might need some assurance of historical accuracy?

  • Clinton Freeman

    I ask again, so what?

    You seem to think that there is some process by which books can be written that “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” There has never been one yet and I don’t expect there will be one.
    I have never seen the book in question, but I’m positive that I will find “facts” as, if not more questionable, than the one in question. That’s always the case in EVERY book.
    Students shouldn’t be taught to take whatever is written by who knows who as the complete, whole, and absolute truth. It’s up to the teachers, parents, and the students themselves to learn how to put things into context.
    Knee-jerk reactions to any “fact” based solely on whether you agree with them and/or would like them to be true is as subjective and anti- scientific as you can get.