Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Just the Facts? Revisions to Our Virginia: Past and Present

Brendan Wolfe

Today’s guest post comes from Brendan Wolfe, Associate Editor of the Encyclopedia Virginia. Here Wolfe returns to the Our Virginia textbook—which we posted on here and here. He asks if the revisions to the volume, implemented after a the controversial first version, make it a good enough text.

A little more than a year ago, the Washington Post reported that Virginia's fourth-grade history textbook was full of factual errors. The big news were those two battalions of black Confederates supposedly under the command of Stonewall Jackson, but there were other errors, too, and the resulting kerfuffle put Five Ponds Press on the defensive and almost out of business. More importantly, it persuaded the folks there to involve actual historians in the vetting of their books.

Now a new edition of Our Virginia: Past and Present has been released, and as one might expect, those historians have made it a much better book. But is it good enough? I'm not yet convinced.

To be clear, the facts are all largely in order. But as for the narrative constructed from those facts, it's a real mess. Facts only get us so far, after all. Textbook authors still must do the hard work of telling us what they mean, why they matter, and how we can put them together so that they begin to make sense.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about from Our Virginia:

The book tells us that the English colonist John Smith was "obnoxious" while describing his adversary Powhatan as "a ruler of great spiritual, mental, and physical strength." It makes no mention of Powhatan's explicit understanding of power and violence: that he ruled some of his people by force, for example, and that he both helped and fought the English.

Why does this matter? Because on the same page the textbook tells us that without Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas, "Jamestown might have ended up as another 'Lost Colony.'" How? Why? The book doesn't say. And what it does say about the Lost Colony at Roanoke doesn't help, because the author never even hints at why that colony might have failed or that it might have been because of fighting with the local Indians.

In other words, even though the facts are in order, a reader would still be left with the inability to draw any meaningful conclusions.

The author later tells us that the Starving Time at Jamestown occurred because the English settlers did not save enough food. While this is partly true, it doesn't explain why Powhatan and Pocahontas had helped them earlier but not this time. Nor does it acknowledge that food was short for everyone, and that this very shortage was causing conflict between Englishmen and Indians.

Food and conflict. These are two important concepts that are perfectly understandable to fourth-graders but are missing here. To make the point earlier that Powhatan understood power and violence is to be able to make it again now, when it truly bears on the students' understanding of the material. In the meantime, to pay respect to Virginia Indians is to make them actors in this drama. And yet during the Starving Time—this moment when they come so close to expelling the English once and for all—they have completely disappeared!

Last year's textbook controversy focused on fuzzy facts and, to a lesser extent, whether you could find quality information online. But now that many of those facts have been corrected, we are still left with . . . just facts. What do they mean? Why do they matter? Our Virginia is still not up to the task.

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