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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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