Incompetence Follies: Fractured History For Virginia’s Fourth Graders

Bob and Ray, the great deadpan comedy team that mastered the form of the comedy interview on radio, recordings and TV, once has a routine about a longshoreman without a high school diploma who had written a voluminous “History of the United States.”

“But the book is riddled with errors!” protested Bob Elliott, playing the interviewer. “For example, here on page 214, it says that Abraham Lincoln was born in 1926 in Bailey’s Mistake, Maine!”

“Well, it’s a big book with a lot of pages,” shrugged Ray Goulding, as the longshoreman-historian. “I’m sure I missed some typos. You can’t catch everything!”

I was reminded of the Bob and Ray skit when I learned that a history book used in 4th Grade in Virginia elementary schools, Our Virginia: Past and Present, teaches that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War, a discredited claim  often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the South’s rebellion. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian, explained said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers through Internet research, and that her source was work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Virginia education officials, after being told by The Washington Post of the passage in the textbook, said it would contact school districts across the state to caution them against teaching the passage, and added a comment that could have been uttered by Ray Goulding’s longshoreman. “Just because a book is approved doesn’t mean the Department of Education endorses every sentence,” said spokesman Charles Pyle, agreeing that the book’s assertion about black Confederate soldiers was “outside mainstream Civil War scholarship,” or in other words, “wrong.”

Masoff also channeled her inner longshoreman, sayng, “It’s just one sentence. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers. If the historians had contacted me and asked me to take it out, I would have.” But she added, “As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write. I am a fairly respected writer.” “Fairly,” because some ofher previous historical works were Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty and Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments.

Oh, brother.

The misrepresentations in Masoff’s book were discovered after College of William & Mary historian Carol Sheriff opened her daughter’s copy of “Our Virginia” and saw the reference to black Confederate soldiers. “It’s disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship,” Sheriff said. “It concerns me not just as a professional historian but as a parent.
It ought to concern her, and everyone else who cares about public education. Virginia allowed a history textbook into its schools that…

  • Was written by an author without any training as a historian;
  • Included information that was never verified or subjected to legitimate scholarly research, taken off the website of a Confederacy-celebrating—and excusing—organization, The Sons of Confederate Veterans. It is a group of male descendants of Confederate soldiers based in Columbia, Tenn., and has long maintained that many black soldiers fought for the South.  The group’s historian-in-chief, Charles Kelly Barrow, has written a book “Black Confederates,” to establish the argument. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson of Princeton University told the Washington Post, “These Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery.”
  • Was reviewed by a publisher’s advisory council of educators, none of which objected to the textbook’s assertions, either because they agreed with it, didn’t know the history, or didn’t read the book very carefully.
  • Passed through the Education Department’s review, and
  • Was ruled “accurate and unbiased” by a committee of content specialists and teachers.

No, Masoff isn’t the only careless, unprofessional, negligent participant in this fiasco. And who knows what other dubious accounts, biased slants, and outright lies have made it through all the supposed vetting and review processes to rot the brains of impressionable students?

I know where we should start looking, though: the book’s publisher, Five Ponds Press has published fourteen books that are used by the Virginia public school system,

All of them were written by Joy Masoff.

I wonder where she thinks Abraham Lincoln was born?

3 thoughts on “Incompetence Follies: Fractured History For Virginia’s Fourth Graders

  1. Especially curious when you consider that in Googling “Black Confederate soldiers” the first thing that pops up is an article that debunks.

  2. Welcome to the world without authority and the end of integrity.
    One of the good things about the big publishing houses is that they usually do a good job of reviewing their textbooks. I just grabbed the nearest textbook and counted 64 reviewers from around the country. They come from a variety of colleges and universities and all of them teach in this field. It takes a lot of time and money to have that many people review a book and only a large publishing house can do it. This limits the number of textbooks that can be written and who can write one. Textbook companies normally solicit authors from well-repected scholars.
    Now, anyone can publish a book. On-demand printing has made it so you can publish just one copy at a competitive price. You can’t afford to do all of that reviewing, of course, but otherwise yours can look the same.
    The state reviewers are generally not well educated about each subject and they are just going to skim the textbook. This was fine when each textbook was thoroughly reviewed already, but that is not the case anymore. In addition, state school boards feel free to specify all kinds of dubious things be in their textbooks now and the textbook publishers comply with special editions for that state. If a state decided that math books should teach that pi=3 (exactly), I’m sure numerous textbook publishers would alter their math books to accommodate them.

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