Our Virginia, Our Challenge (Cont’d)

Published:January 23, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Last week, Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss reprinted my blog post on the new edition of Virginia’s fourth-grade history textbook. My argument is that even though the new edition has its facts largely in order, that’s not enough. The narrative you construct out of those facts still has to make sense, and in this case, it doesn’t.

There has been no stampede to comment here on the Encyclopedia Virginia blog, but  the Post‘s readers had some interesting things to say. I’ll reprint some of their thoughts here with my own responses where appropriate.

AyahDawood: When are they going to deal with the rest of the textbooks in America? Historians write textbooks, and I dare say that nobody is objective. To become an elementary school teacher in Virginia, you must have taken a Virginia History course, and there is absolutely no relevant material in the course for the purpose of teaching because we are not allowed to tell the truth of what we learn to 4th graders for the purposes of being “politically correct.” I think the real problem is that teachers are required to teach complete sugar-coated misconceptions and are not allowed to touch different viewpoints which allow kids to examine theories and form an educated opinion.

It’s probably true that “nobody is objective,” but I think that’s okay so long as the point of a textbook isn’t to “tell the truth” but to teach students—yes, even fourth-graders—how to think about history. I think this reader is exactly right in saying that teachers should be “allowed to touch different viewpoints” and students should be allowed “to examine theories and form an educated opinion.” And in order to do that, you have to assume that there are different ways of looking at things, right?

I don’t mean to argue that facts aren’t important, but facts by themselves—absent any larger understanding of what they mean—are like empty calories. We need something more. So teachers need to help students understand how facts fit together and, most importantly, that not everyone puts them together the same way.

sideswiththekids: The author of the manuscript—the historian, if there was one—may very well have given a fuller explanation of all these points. By the time a textbook is printed, it has been through several editors and design artists, and a lot of the original manuscript is reworded because to fit the supposed vocabulary level of the childen (after all, we can’t expect them to learn new words) or to fit on the page. While working as a textbook proofreader, I saw many instances of paragraphs being arbitrarily shortened or even dropped entirely to make room for a particular design element, such as a chapter heading of a certain size. (And I once insisted that someone reword a sentence that “pioneer women were usually confined to camp, cooking or tending the sick.” After the editor and I stopped laughing, we changed it to read “tending the sick or cooking.”)

I think that much of what this reader says is true: editors edit, and authors try to figure out what language is appropriate for fourth-graders, and design people fight to make space for their graphics, etc. But as a critic, my job is to look at what’s there now, not what might have been there in an earlier draft. And I want to emphasize that none of the suggestions I made are precluded by a fourth-grade vocabulary. Anyway, the same reader continues:

It’s especially interesting that the author’s father, a middle school history teacher says, “it’s an enormously difficult subject to teach, perhaps the hardest,” since in many schools a teacher below the high school level is not required to have studied the subject, and even many high schools assign the social studies classes to teachers who consider their main job to be coaching. (After subbing in several different schools, I have noticed that you can usually identify the social studies’ teachers’ rooms. While the Spanish teacher has pictures of Spain or Latin America on the walls, the chemistry teacher has the periodic table, and the English teacher has quote from authors, the history teacher all too often has pictures of athletes on the wall and several trophies on his desk.)

I can’t speak to this particularly, except to say that I agree with my dad. If history were so easy to teach, would we even be having this conversation? If schools don’t recognize that, they should.

pattipeg1: Sadly, we teachers are usually expected to teach the textbook, and some teachers aren’t aware of the intricacies of history (blame their college professors for this). It’s also unfortunate that curriculum standards require that students be exposed to a lot of facts/information, rather than having an opportunity to explore a few particular areas in depth. The teacher who stops to explore a subject, such as the author has done, risks being unable to complete the prescribed curriculum, and may doom his/her students to failure on standardized tests. By demanding so much more, we are providing so much less to our students–more facts, more standardization, less critical thinking and analysis. But this is what the public demands, so we give it to them.

With this reader, I bemoan the emphasis on “more facts, more standardization, less critical thinking and analysis.” But my critique of the textbook was not intended to be a call for teachers to drop everything they’re doing (which is plenty!) and “explore a subject” in greater depth than what their curriculum prescribes. I understand the need to “teach the textbook.” But that’s exactly why I want a better textbook! To understand Jamestown in the way that I have suggested does not require more space and time; it requires that the book’s space be used in smarter ways.

alice-belle: Textbooks have gone downhill since christians have made it their business to control textbook content to present their version of history. Scholarship has been under assault for decades and the future looks bleak.

Just for the record, I’m Christian.

zsisyphusrocks: I agree with the father’s comment about students not know what is going on in their subjects. A fourth-grader is really not going to try very hard to understand any more than what is required to do whatever kind of assessment the teacher is using for the class. He or she is not going to notice inconsistencies in the book, unless he or she is a genius. Rather, the average fourth grader or even high school student is more likely to be skimming the text so they can get to their video games faster.

Of course, I agree that textbooks should be historically factual. But as a teacher, I agree with the father’s assessment of what it’s realistic for students to absorb.

My father should speak for himself, of course, but I don’t think he was saying it was unrealistic for fourth-graders (actually, in his case, middle-schoolers) to absorb the material. I think he was simply saying that it’s an enormous task for a teacher to get students to think in sophisticated ways about history when they are a blank slate, historically speaking. Imagine trying to teach algebra to students who don’t know yet how to add, subtract, or multiply! We take for granted that in math we are always building on certain basic skills. So why not do that in history? If we teach students how to think about history—that it is more than facts but a struggle to judge which facts are reliable and then a struggle to arrange those facts in a meaningful way—then it will matter less that they have no background in, say, the Civil War.

Am I being naive? I admit that possibility.

sideswiththekids: And if a student notices an inconsistency, what then? I frequently spotted factual errors–incontrovertibly wrong names or dates or misspellings–in my elementary textbooks, and was told to ignore them or use the material in the text even though it was wrong.

psikeyhackr: Well if we are going to deal with history shouldn’t we try to distinguish between important facts and unimportant facts? Things like who won which battle and when and where the battle occurred are regarded as important. But isn’t the manpower and motivation of the fighters important also?

For instance, what percentage of the White men who fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves? When is that ever mentioned? Suppose 75% of them did not. Then what were they fighting for? To serve the economic interests of people richer than they were? If even half of the non-slave owning White men had refused to fight then how would that have affected the war? Is history having the right facts swept under the rug?

I love this comment by psikeyhackr because it gets right at the heart of what I’m talking about. Let me be clear, though: these kinds of questions are best suited for students older than fourth grade—but that doesn’t mean that fourth-graders aren’t suited for other questions. Anyway, what makes some facts important and other facts unimportant? As the commenter tells us, it has to do with what you want to learn. And this commenter wants to learn about the motivations of Confederate soldiers. I have a lot more to say about this in a separate post. For now, suffice to say that what this commenter is doing is spinning an argument from a single fact. I don’t happen to agree with that argument, but this is what history should be: not a series of facts, but building blocks out of which narratives and arguments like this are made.

shred11: Well, I think the Injuns WERE good people, n’ the whites WERE bad people. Kinda like Repubs are bad people n’ demos are good people today. See?

It’s hard to know for sure where this commenter is coming from, so let me just say this: my point is not that a textbook mixes up who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. It is simply that history is rarely that clear cut, and that whenever you are making that judgment—that some people were good and some were bad—you are making an argument. You are not citing facts, but telling me what those facts mean.

When adults, students, and yes, even fourth-graders, are unable to understand this, then they are unable to speak intelligently about history.

IMAGES: Pages 36–37 from Our Virginia: Past and Present (Five Ponds Press); Virginia Indians and European men work near a fortified Virginia town in this engraving by Martin Pringe (Virginia Historical Society); Algonquian-speaking Indians at Roanoke cook food in this ca. 1590 engraving by Theodor de Bry after John White (Mariner’s Museum)


1 Comment on “Our Virginia, Our Challenge (Cont’d)”

  1. amy

    Pattipeg1 writes:

    “Sadly, we teachers are usually expected to teach the textbook, and some teachers aren’t aware of the intricacies of history (blame their college professors for this). ”

    Pattipeg: I presume you have an internet connection and a library card. At a certain point, it’s time to stop blaming parents, professors, and others for deficits in your education.

    I write K16 “content”, as you guys call it. I write to deadline, and I’m usually paid a flat rate. But because I know I may well be the last defense against error, I spend many hundreds of unpaid hours annually doing research. Reading. Asking hard questions. Writing to scientists and asking their advice on whether I’ve understood an idea well. Sitting in on university science classes. I do it because it’s important. There are no CEUs, no dollars, no promotions involved. Just accuracy and the hope that I’m telling the kids something worth hearing.

    I’m a single mom, incidentally. With a kid in Girl Scouts, Hebrew school, and swim lessons, and who’s asked me to teach her some modern Hebrew to supplement the liturgical stuff she gets. K16 is not the only writing I do; I write (usually unpaid) reviews, essays, and fiction, too. I’m also a former aerobics teacher with a serious fitness jones. I do not have three months off in summer, either. In summer I keep doing my usual work while pretending to be a housewife of leisure, paying mad summer-camp rates and taking vacations so my daughter doesn’t feel like she’s deprived. My usual “vacation” schedule goes: Get up, do fun stuff with kid, put kid to bed, stay up till 3 am working, sleep or a few hours, repeat.

    So if you want to talk busy, I’m busy. I still do the unpaid research in an effort to get things right, because it’s important. If you want to talk money: I make about 1/3 what you do, and I don’t get benefits, retirement, paid vacation. And I do the research.

    If your history’s weak, fix it. Read, ask. Take the time. It will repay you richly, and if it brings you into further conflict with the testing structures, good.

    Also, please tell your colleagues to call off the lynch mobs when we point out how poorly-prepared teachers are, and point to the quintiles the ed-school applicants come from. It’s no secret among faculties ed students are viewed intellectual lightweights and taught accordingly outside the ed college. Before the professors will get more rigorous, though, they have to be assured that the ed students can handle it. Professors are not rewarded for handing out Cs, Ds, and Fs.

    We really need to get a lot more serious about ed in this country. 17th in the standings, it’s not a joke.

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