Friday, February 11, 2011

More on Our Virginia: Past and Present

Randall Stephens

The new issue of Harper's Magazine includes some of the findings of a "Report on the Review of Virginia’s Textbook Adoption Process, the Virginia Studies Textbook Our Virginia: Past and Present, and Other Selected United States History Textbooks." Heather blogged about the controversy surrounding the adoption of the textbook and some of its pseudohistory here. Now we return to it with more on the text's creative or unknowing anachronisms . . . I didn't see anything in the report about John Quincy Adams being a founding father.

The reviewers of the text included: Christopher Einolf (DePaul University); Mary Miley Theobald (Retired: Virginia Commonwealth University); Brent Tarter (Retired: Library of Virginia); Ronald Heinemann (Retired: Hampden-Sydney College); Lauranett L. Lee (Curator of African American History, Virginia Historical Society).

A note to any future textbook writers out there: Check your sources and then check them again. Or, at least have sources. Don't make things up.

I include below a sampling of the official critique. The items in quotes are from Our Virginia:

“In 1607 Queen Elizabeth sent three ships to found Jamestown, Virginia.” That would have been difficult, since Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and neither she nor her successor, King James, “sent” any ships. They approved when a private company, the Virginia Company, sent ships to Jamestown, and no doubt King James approved when the colonists astutely named the town after him.

“They had been terribly persecuted and had seen friends killed.” I would like to know the source for this statement. I’ve never heard of Pilgrims being killed in England. Mostly they left England because they wanted to get away from the bad influences of the established Anglican Church. The statement seems over-the-top, but I can’t prove or disprove.

“Very few people in colonial America could read . . .” This is a myth. The overwhelming majority of white colonists were literate. In New England, literacy rates were higher than elsewhere because there were more schools and there was an emphasis on learning to read the Bible, but even in Virginia and other Southern colonies, almost all white men and even most white women could read in the eighteenth century. Percentages change over time, always growing larger, but even in the seventeenth century, about 60% of men in Virginia could read and about a quarter of the women. Figures are higher for the northern colonies. At no time in American history did “very few people” know how to read (unless one is talking about African Americans or
Native Americans).

“. . . until you realize that it hurt America’s tea makers, whose tea already had a heavy tax.” America didn’t have any tea makers; the climate isn’t suited to growing tea. American had merchants who sold smuggled tea, avoiding the tax. Again, I understand it is hard to explain a complicated issue in simplistic terms, but this treatment of the Tea Act isn’t accurate.

“Washington and French General Lafayette inspect troops before the Battle of Morristown in New Jersey.” First of all, there was no Battle of Morristown. Morristown was where Washington and his troops wintered in 1777 (January 6- May 28). Second, Lafayette was not a general until July 31, 1777 and didn’t even meet George Washington until August 10, 1777, long after Morristown, so they wouldn’t have been reviewing any troops.

“Cyrus McCormick’s young grandson was there on the day the reaper was tested.” (then the book quotes the grandson’s “eyewitness ” account). Since Cyrus McCormick was 22 in 1831 when he first tested his reaper, it is unlikely his grandson was present. The reason this grandson’s account is quoted is to “prove” that a black slave, Jo Anderson, helped invent the reaper. While the slave helped with all the farm work, including building a reaper, he should not be credited as a co-inventor, as some Politically Correct people would like. It is a serious mistake to title this section “Anderson and McCormick’s Reaper.” It was Cyrus McCormick’s reaper. hour/index.html

“The Quakers, a religious group, believed that all people were created by God.” A rather unnecessary sentence, don’t you think? What religious group does not believe that all people were created by God? It doesn’t say anything about the Quakers’ beliefs. It might be better to note that they were Christian pacifists who believed all people were equal, even women, Indians, and blacks.

“Evenings were spent playing cards or checkers, writing letters to loved ones, reading old worn newspapers, and playing baseball by torchlight.” That would be some trick, playing baseball by torchlight, since you couldn’t see to catch a ball. Torches give off almost no light beyond a few feet from the flame. I have never seen any mention of playing baseball by torchlight.

“Atlanta, Georgia, was one of the South’s largest cities. It was an important railroad hub . . .” Yes, Atlanta was a railroad hub, but it was one of the smaller cities in the South. In the 1860 census, Atlanta ranks 99th among American cities, with a population of 9,000. The South had many, many cities larger than Atlanta, including Baltimore at 212,000, New Orleans at 169,000, Louisville at 68,000, Richmond at 38,000 (25th), etc. Georgia alone had three cities larger than little Atlanta: Savannah, Augusta, and Columbus.

Map showing Fort Necessity (which is spelled wrong as Neccesity) locates the fort in the wrong state. Fort Necessity is in Pennsylvania, not Ohio. Fort Duquesne is also in Pennsylvania, not Ohio. (The text accurately states that Fort Duquesne is near Pittsburgh, but the map positions it in Ohio.)

St. Louis is always written as St., not Saint.>>>


LD said...

Saw this post on "The Way of Improvement Leads Home."

So how can I get a gig writing K-12 history textbooks? I know it wouldn't help my CV at all in the academy -- might even hurt it -- but I would do it as a public service. Surely the lowliest grad students in the humblest history programs could do a better job than this.

hcr said...

I followed Randall's link and read the entire report. The errors are incredible. As appalling as this whole situation is, though, I take comfort from the fact that there was an outcry over it, and that it has become such a big issue.

I was also amused reading the report because I recall that the reason Virginia commissioned this new text was that legislators insisted the one in use, Joy Hakim's excellent A History of US, was too "liberal." In the report, it was the one text reviewers hailed as great.

If you really want to know more about textbook writing, LD, drop me an email and I'll fill you in on the pros and cons.

LD said...

Thank you so much, hcr. I am interested in textbook writing, though I can easily picture my advisor saying, "Do you really need one more thing to do right now?"

Of course, if I emailed you, then I'd have to divulge my secret identity. ;)

K. Freeland said...

Oh my goodness. What a mess. I'm glad that this is getting attention. I can imagine I would probably go over the edge if my kids were reading this textbook at school.