Virginia - But Why?

So the latest state to distort history (after the fine job Texas is doing) is Virginia. They had a person (I hesitate to say writer) who is not a historian write their Virginia history book. She said she found information about black Confederate soldiers on the Internet. Seriously.

From the Washington Post Answer Sheet blog:

What she found was the work of members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. That’s a group of male descendants of Confederate soldiers, based in Tennessee, that has long claimed that big numbers of black soldiers fought for the South. Professional historians of the era say this is nonsense.

The author, Joy Masoff, has penned other works including "Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty" and "Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments."

She also disputes that slavery was the underlying issue that caused the Civil War.

The Masoff textbook was ruled "accurate and unbiased" by a Virginia committee of content specialists and teachers, leaving one to wonder how carefully the committee members looked at the book.

"It's more than just an arcane, off-the-wall problem," said David Blight, a professor at Yale University. "This isn't just about the legitimacy of the Confederacy, it's about the legitimacy of the emancipation itself."

Other errors:

In the version of history being taught in some Virginia classrooms, New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (instead of as a Spanish colonial one). The Confederacy included 12 states (instead of 11). And the United States entered World War I in 1916 (instead of in 1917).

"I absolutely could not believe the number of mistakes - wrong dates and wrong facts everywhere. How in the world did these books get approved?" said Ronald Heinemann, a former history professor at Hampden-Sydney College. He reviewed "Our Virginia: Past and Present."

In his recommendation to the state, Heinemann wrote, "This book should be withdrawn from the classroom immediately, or at least by the end of the year."

So they reported on this over at the Stranger Slog and here's one commenter's reaction:

So what's the underlying concern here? We know facts get distorted over time. So a few kids grow up knowing less about the role of slavery in relation to the Civil War. What is the worry here? That history will repeat itself in the south? That kids in the south are somehow "getting away" with not being made to feel sufficiently guilty by the actions of their ancestors? Does the level of knowledge of U.S. slavery history somehow correlate to how racist you will become?

When he/she gets called on what the first post said, here's number two:

Well, I'm against public education altogether but that wasn't the issue. I'm just wondering what problem you think will arise by not focusing on slavery when teaching the Civil War.

Oh, that explains it.

It's one thing to dispute the cause/reason for the Civil War. If someone wants to dress it up in the cloak of "states rights" go ahead. We know that code. It's another thing to get wrong how a city got started and when the U.S. entered a World War.

Want to start a civil war again? Allow Southern children to grow up believing one thing about American history and then move to a non-Southern state and learn that millions of other school children got taught something else.


Charlie Mas said…
Melissa, have you ever lived in the South?

"Allow Southern children to grow up believing one thing about American history and then move to a non-Southern state and learn that millions of other school children got taught something else."

That's the way it already is, at least with regard to the War of Northern Aggression.
No, Charlie, I haven't.

In doing family research, I did find, though, that I have relatives on both sides of my family from the South (Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia).
seattle citizen said…
My dad, now 83, grew up on one side of the tracks on Old Hickory, Tennessee. He's a smart guy, and knows law. He still makes convincing arguments about how the war between the states was "more complicated" than just over slavery, it was more about states rights, apparently.

The argument is to some degree valid, but coming from a man who, I know, also soaked up more than a little "southern culture" it sounds defensive.

Just today he was reading Robbie Burns (the Scottish poet) to the family, then excitedly diverged: He had recently learned that Burns was on the side of the Americans (or those who would become Americans) during THAT "civil war," the Revolutionary War. He was excited and astounded, lately, by learning that many English and Scottish people were on the side of teh Americans, against taxation without representation and all that.

Now, of course, if one wants to delve deep into the history books this is apparent, but he, in all his learning, had not really had the pint driven home, ever: It was always: "Those damn English!" and "Our fine revolutionaries!"

My dad went to one of the natioon's "top" law schools, became a lawyer, then a judge, and had always had, in the back of his mind, "those damn English!" because that is what was (is) taught in American public schools regarding the Revolutionary War.

What I'm saying is that the background knowledge we attain as children is, it seems, always couched in tribal affiliations and nationalistic jingoism. He, somewhat unconciously, defends the South. He believes, somewhat unconsciously, that all of England was our enemy 235 years ago.

I watched the US put men on the moon: I still believe in American technical wizardy. I push to the back of my mind that Werner Von Braun, a Nazi, was whisked over here after the war to develop our space program.

Tribalism is an inappropriate system on earth in this 21st century.
Syd said…
But I have. And in the 70's in TX that is not how it was taught. It was not the war of nothern aggression. I think that is how my great grandmother was taught (my family has been in TX a long time), but that was a long time ago. In fact, the only people I have heard use that term were not from the South. It was about slavery an it was about agrarian vs industrial societies and it was about states rights and federal rights. It was about a lot of things, but primarily it was about slavery. If I remember correctly, we roughly spent a portion of every year between the 6th grade and the 12th grade going over the civil war and the repercussions into modern times. It wasn't war history - the only battle I can remember is John Brown's raid - it was how the war affected society.

Looking at my 10th grader's history in Washington state, they don't spend that amount of time on that war or talking about civil rights.

Not everyone in the south is a yahoo, but it sure seems to be considered a pleasant way to spend time in Seattle to think they all are.
dan dempsey said…

Thanks for pointing out that jingoistic tribalism is doing nicely in Seattle in December of 2010.

Not everyone in the south is a yahoo, but it sure seems to be considered a pleasant way to spend time in Seattle to think they all are.

Great point.

"Support your local tribe" is alive and well most everywhere and certainly in Seattle.
Daniel said…
@Syd: "Not everyone in the south is a yahoo, but it sure seems to be considered a pleasant way to spend time in Seattle to think they all are."

I couldn't have said it better myself. I grew up in NYC and Jacksonville, MS and I must say that Seattlites are certainly a sanctimonius bunch of folks. My schools in Mississippi never taught about a "War of Northern Agreesion."
Daniel said…
I meant Agression.
Patrick said…
My wife's from Virginia, and at least back to her parents' generation, they called the 1861-65 unpleasantness "the war between the states." And they always said that slavery was not the reason it was fought, at least on the Confederate side. It was about whether government policies would favor manufactured goods from the north, or agricultural goods from the south. There's probably a little truth to that, though it leaves a lot out.

But we have things we like to leave out of history, too. It wasn't until college that I found out racial covenants attached to deeds weren't just a southern practice, but were in place right here in Seattle.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David said…
The "I'm against public education altogether" line is also disturbing. These are children we are talking about here, some of which would have no opportunities at all if not for public schools. How can someone be against teaching children?
I'm a little surprised at the defensiveness here. This isn't about anyone being a "yahoo" and yes, there certainly are oddities and bad behavior throughout the U.S. in our history.

But we are talking about what we teach our kids in school. Ask any Native American.
Charlie Mas said…
In ninth grade I was taught that the Civil War was fought primarily over national tariff policy and whether the federal government would put a high tariff on the import of manufactured goods to support (and protect) the manufacturing economy of the North. National economic policies that suited the agricultural economy in the South worked against the manufacturing economy in the North and vice versa.

Prior to the war, the national government was not nearly as strong as it is now and state governments had much more power. That was certainly the case under the Articles of Confederation and was the topic of debate (and the Federalist Papers) prior to the adoption of the Constitution. Back then, the belief that states retained the right to withdraw from the Union was widespread. The war settled that debate, but state's rights continue to be stronger issue in the former Confederate states than elsewhere in the nation. The Constitution, as orignially written and interpreted, and as described in the Federalist Papers, certainly constrained the power of the federal government in favor of state governments. Only in the last fifty or sixty years has the federal government expanded its powers through broad interpretation of the commerce clause and other means.

While it my seem hard to imagine people fighting to the death by the thousands over something as abstract as "state's rights", it makes more sense if you think of it in terms of self-determination for local people. State identities were much stronger than national identity. People saw themselves as Virginians or Georgians more than they saw themselves as Americans. And the Virginians, just to pick one of the Confederate states, wanted self-rule and self-determination for Virginia rather than control from Washington, D.C.

Try to bear in mind the difficulty of travel and the pace of communication back then. Without the telegraph or rail the nation was not really very united. It could take weeks for someone in Mississippi to hear news from Washington and it must have seemed very remote.

I suspect that state identity (over national identity) was much less of an issue in the West (anything west of the Ohio River) because those communities were so new and made up of immigrants and settlers from a variety of states, and in the North, where there was more immigration from abroad.

Slavery, I was taught, was on the way out anyway. The idea that the war was fought to free the slaves, I was told, was a simplistic version told to children.

As for the concern that students in one part of the country will learn our national history differently than students in another part of the country, I regard that as inevitable. History depends largely on who is telling it. The history of the West makes more sense and has more relevance to students who live in the West. The history of the East and the South, the Prairies and the Mid-West all make more sense to the students who live in those regions.

I remember how astonished I was when I saw how close Philadelpia is to New York. It's no wonder that folks who come here from the East don't understand, at first, how far it is to Portland or San Francisco from here.

Civil war history is different when you have twenty battlegrounds within an hour's drive of your home. I was in Northern Virginia this year and - even for me when I was there - being there made the story of the Civil War feel familiar and current. Similarly, there are things that you can only understand about Rome or Paris or Tokyo by going to those places and being there makes the history feel alive and recent.
Anonymous said…
Although the plural of "anecdote" is not "data", I suspect that MOST public school US History is very Eurocentric, because it is mostly written by Caucasians, with the assumption that the majority history is everyone's history. So whether we have "states rights" as the cause of the Civil War, or, as one commenter in the Stranger put it, "states rights to own another human being", it's history still all told from the majority white point of view.

That's why Patrick didn't even know about Seattle redlining until he got to college. BUT, ask any NON-WHITE native Seattlite and they will likely know about it, because they, or their parents or grandparents had to live within the restrictions covenants right here in Seattle placed on them.

It's also why US History books don't cover much about the history of Native Americans, or the Chinese or Japanese in America. But within those populations, they certainly know what's being left out.

I was fortunate that despite growing up in one of the whitest states in the US, where I never shared a classroom with anon-white student, despite a middle school of 1400 and a high school of 2500, I learned a fair amount of non-white American history. I owe that to having progressive parents and history teachers who went outside the books in their teaching, while still getting all those state standards in. I knew at the time I was getting an education not everyone was going to have.

I'd like to say that back there things have changed, but my nieces and nephews aren't learning much more than I did in school about non-white history. One third grade in a nice, affluent town approached black history month with-a word search. That's all.

I have never been to the deep south, but I know many people who come from there (including some inlaws). All of them say there's still a great deal of open racism, despite progress. Any who have traveled back there, even recently, have experienced prejudice (they have here in Seattle too, but that's another post).

Interestingly I had two friends from the same part of Texas, roughly the same age, who went to the local public schools.Both are appear to be kind, progressive people, with parents who have long volunteered to help the less fortunate. Both appeared to go against the stereotype of ignorant, racist southerners, and I considered myself fortunate to have met them.

Until one of them learned that I'd married an African American. This person pulled out not just racism, but a really repulsive racist stereotype I can't repeat.

I wonder-what was the difference between these two? So much was similar. I have to conclude that upbringing was the primary difference-as it was in my childhood, with parents who taught me that MY reality wasn't everyone elses.

I've long supplimented my kids' history education to be less Eurocentric. Would that it were not necessary.
Anonymous said…
From my 40,000 foot level, it appears to me that groups of humans are very consistent about finding reasons to crap on each other, they are very consistent about crapping on each other at the behest of some parasitic 'leadership' group living on the surplus of the community, and it is rare that the parasitic leadership group bears the costs of the crap they've stirred up.

I grew up Irish Catholic in Massachusetts - I've heard plenty bad about Irish Protestants, the English, all Protestants ... And what is up with that Middle East place - how long have they been slaughtering each other over who has the better God? I've heard northern Italians belittle southern Italians as lazy, and I've heard Germans say things about the French and the Italians ... and don't the Poles love the Russians the Germans! How does that Japan - Korea - China thing work out? What about the Vietnamese and the Chinese? Those Tutsi & Hutu people did a good job on each other a little while back.

Oh yeah! And just about all cultures treat their women like garbage.

And for 8 or 12 thousand years, in many places of the world, the "government" exists to make sure the serfs provide a comfy living for those in charge, and for the enforcers of those in charge.

Then should the warlike Harry,
Like himself, assume the port of Mars,
and at his heels,
leashed in like hounds,
should famine, sword and fire crouch for employment.

Teach stupid history, keep repeating stupidity.

kprugman said…
Its not so much your opinion of how the Civil War started, but what gets written about and then discussed between teachers and students. In the end, we all are entitled to our opinions, but the writers should at least get their facts correct. It used to be that hs textbooks prepared students for college, but now anything goes.

What gets taught in a classroom depends mostly on your SES and if your primary language is English. Its not equitable - worse 80% of the students are wasting their time. How would you feel if your English teacher gave an open-ended assignment - "What is Satanism?" The game now becomes what track are you learning in! That is the result of the leadership muckery in your STATE.

Far better to find these children jobs or educate them for work.

Racism is alive and well in Washington state - and I'm referring to now, not just the past.

Where I used to teach, the Latinoes were dropped off by the weight room and the whites terrorized the campus. I never saw a Confederate flag until I taught there and the ICP kids carried hatchets. Don't be misled into thinking that small rural schools are safe places. This town could have been a sequel to the Lost Boys.

I prefer teaching in a diverse, progressive, somewhat devout, Latino community with kids who are eager to go to college, then live in a closet community that pretends to think the Civil War never ended.
kprugman said…
If you want to know how to educate a serial murderer, this town did it and I predicted that they would a year before it happenned. They are the devils own and they should never be allowed near another classroom. What causes senseless violence in our young people? Our schools are at the very heart of the problem.
another mom said…
The Daily Kos has a rec'd diary about the civil war and the approaching 150th anniversary of its start. But the diary is really about the 1860 map of slavery and an article in the NY Times. It's worth the time to look at the map and read the historian's piece.
KSG said…
This revisionist history of "states rights" is sickening, yet not surprising.

Here's a quote from Professor McPherson, Civil War Historian from Princeton, one of the most accomplished Civil War historians:

"While one or more of these interpretations remain popular among the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other Southern heritage groups, few professional historians now subscribe to them. Of all these interpretations, the state's-rights argument is perhaps the weakest. It fails to ask the question, state's rights for what purpose? State's rights, or sovereignty, was always more a means than an end, an instrument to achieve a certain goal more than a principle"

Slavery was such a big issue at the time, it dominated everything else. As much as people in the US know about slavery, most people don't realize how much it dominated the politics of its day. It makes things like taxes and abortion seem like complete non-issues.

Unfortunately, the South has largely already won the debate that while we talk about the travesty of slavery and the Civil War, we don't tie them together in such a way that it becomes clearer that they're linked. And its too bad, because the links are well known among historians (at least those that aren't cranks).
KSG said…
Also, I'm surprised by the number of Northerners who haven't read the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. Most older Southerners know it (although don't talk too much about it in mixed company), but Northern eduction has largely taken a very soft approach to slavery and the Civil War -- I rarely hear it talked about.

If you haven't read it, you should. It's one of the most important documents in the history of our country:
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