Friday, October 22, 2010

"I Found It On the Internet." One Textbook Author Rewrites History.

College professor uncovers controversial passage in textbook
By Chris McKenna

College of William and Mary professor Carol Sheriff has gained national attention for discovering a disputed passage in her daughter’s fourth grade history textbook.

“Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks,” reads the passage from Our Virginia: Past and Present, “including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”

Such claims are generally rejected by American historians, but espoused by pro-Confederate groups attempting to downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War.

Most historians agree that African Americans did not fight in any organized way for the Confederacy, and certainly their numbers were not in the thousands.

“While it is true that there were isolated instances of African Americans taking up arms for the Confederacy,” Sheriff said, “they were usually body servants who had accompanied their masters to the front and who, in the heat of battle, picked up arms to protect their masters and themselves.”

According to Sheriff, the Confederates did not even allow black soldiers in their ranks until 1865 — a full two years after Jackson’s death.

“It is simply not true that Stonewall Jackson commanded two black battalions,” Sheriff said.

The textbook’s author, Joy Masoff, says she based her information about black Confederate soldiers on Internet research. Masoff, although a successfully published author, is not a trained historian.

“It’s disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship,” Sheriff told the Washington Post. “It concerns me, not just as a professional historian but as a parent.”

Despite the backlash, Masoff defends her writing.

“As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write,” she told the Post. “I am a fairly respected writer.”

- from "The Flat Hat," the student newspaper 
at the College of William & Mary


  1. For ease of everyone's Google searches, it's apparently Joy MASOFF not MASTOFF. I guess when writing about poorly researching one's subject matter, it would be good for The Flat Hat to get the author's name right... but one must pick one's battles.

  2. There was a proposal in Arkansas, ca. 1862 or 1863, to arm slaves, granting them freedom in exchange for service. Richmond turned it down.

    At least one regiment was formed from the ranks of Louisiana creoles in 1861 or so, officered by the upper-class among them. Creoles constituted a respectable class of free men in Louisiana; those who could afford it owned slaves, and some owned large plantations.

    Richmond told the Louisiana Native Guards to go jump in Lake Pontchartrain. Later on, Federal regiments of "Louisiana Native Guards" were formed, drawing on some of the same people who were snubbed by the Confederate government.

    To quote the Vice President of the Confederacy, "If black men will make good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong."

  3. Words fail me. How exactly did this get picked up by the Virginia board of ed as the elementary school textbook?

    Wait don't answer that. And before one of the defenders of the South comes out of the woodwork to accuse me of bashing the former Confederate States (as happened to someone else in a different thread), think about what you'd be defending here.

  4. Thanks for posting, I've been following this f*ck-up with great interest!

  5. I'm going to make up some cartoons about ridiculous things that didn't happen in history. Like the time George Washington time-traveled to witness the birth Jesus, in order to better set up the U.S. as a religion-based society. Or maybe I'll draw up my vision of that time when Abe Lincoln won a jumping jack contest despite his tall hat falling off and getting in the way. We all know it's a great anecdote for his governance philosophy.

    Then, I'm going to post them on the internet to a web site called "True History in Cartoon Form" and mail her the URL. It'll only be a matter of time before she includes these breathtakingly illustrated facts as source material for her next textbook.

    After all, she is a fairly respected author. And the Internet NEVER lies.

  6. “As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write,” she told the Post. “I am a fairly respected writer.”

    That's tantamount to the flake claim, "Like, OMG, this F can't possibly be my grade because I am an A+ Student!"

    This is but another instance of training flakes early on in their academic careers.

  7. If we start opening our textbooks to this kind of investigative criticism, we'll all be depressed and drunk by 5pm. The book "Lies my Teacher Told Me," is about inconsistencies in 12 History high school textbooks. Each successive edition has only gathered more startling problems. Things are getting worse when it comes to these sorts of white-washing text narratives.

    (Including the prize-worthy caption [I'm paraphrasing] "Historians have reconstructed the log cabin of Abraham Lincoln's birth, which he built himself.")

    And, of course, the Texas situation is only going to further this problem. Students in Texas will no longer have to learn about the Civil Rights Movement or 2nd Wave Feminism, but will have to study the life and accomplishments of Phyllis Schlafly.

  8. I just find it generally amazing that the writing of a history textbook would not be assigned to, oh, an actual HISTORIAN.

    How do these "writers" get their jobs?

  9. I have often wondered where they get the textbook writers. I'm going into my daughter's middle school on Tuesday to give a lecture on men's and women's lives in ancient Greece - largely to correct the errors in their text on the subject. Really egregious stuff.

  10. They get their jobs by pitching it to the press, or having their agents do it. The presses that produce these texts are not picky about who does the work. They care about sales a lot, and about standards not at all. And the boards who pick the texts probably never look at them. The sales reps come to the board of ed meetings and make a pitch for why their shiny product should be the pick. Maybe one member of the board is in the pocket of interests with an ax to grind (in this case it is pretty obvious what was up), but for the most part, it is a form of slightly malignant neglect that allows this to happen.

    But whose neglect? The school board's obviously, but I'd actually lay the blame at our feet. The reason they don't have historians writing these things, and the reason the boards aren't consulting with historians about which text is best, is because we have failed to make any kind of case to the general public for the fact that:

    a) Writing history is not simply a matter of putting some shit on paper, but actually involves specialized training and expertise.

    b) That history is more than just a series of facts (just one damn thing after another) but involves careful consideration of evidence and vigorous debates over meaning.

    c) The peer review is an integral part of producing good history. Because, let's face it, if textbook publishers were forced to submit their texts to a peer review process, this kind of shit would never happen.

    I would add to this that we (academics, and academic historians in particular) have contributed mightily to this problem by deciding that it is beneath us to concern ourselves with such piddling matters as elementary school textbooks. This reminds of the past a couple of weeks ago about the junior professor who refused to do committee work because it wasn't "related to [her] research interests." That's exactly the kind of attitude that allows this kind of bullshit to happen. And let me remind you that some people on this page were praising the little refusenik in that post. Well, reap what you sow motherfuckers. By acting like this kind of shit is beneath you, you are all contributing to the dismal state of the American mind.

    And let's not pretend this is just the AHA's problem. Let's go have a look at elementary and secondary school texts in science and math. They probably aren't much better.

    So while this is atrocious, I have to say:

    Nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa.

    Archie out

  11. I'd add that there is a connection between this and the attitude evinced by some people in the science wars thread that has now fallen off the front page. Some people here think that humanists must be lame, because after all anyone can write a history book. It's just about feelings and opinions. Of course it isn't, and writing good history requires a lot of hard work and a lot of specialized knowledge, as well as technical and intellectual tools.

    But if scholars in other disciplines can say with a straight face that humanities must be easy because anyone can do it (go look at the thread for at least three different versions of that statement), then imagine what the general public thinks.

  12. The whole process of textbook writing is horribly broken. The author whose name appears on the cover often had very little to do with the actual content.

    There's a very enlightening - but terrifying - description of the process from an ex-editor here:

  13. " This reminds of the past a couple of weeks ago about the junior professor who refused to do committee work because it wasn't "related to [her] research interests." "

    Hey, I resemble that little refusenik! In fact I AM that little refusenik. But you seem to have fatally confused skipping the odd time-wasting committee meeting with avoiding volunteer work.

    My university is big on faculty governance, which I can only approve of. I am moreover in a small department so a lot of administrative work falls on all of us. All told I'm on 3 university-level, 2 faculty-level and 5 department-level committees, some of them quite labour-intensive, some of them not so much.

    Some of them are doing very important stuff and I faithfully show up for those. Some of them on the other hand are bureaucratic twaddle wasting the time of everyone in the room to decide in slow-motion questions that could have been handled by email. The two I skived off last week from were in the latter category. In both cases I did the homework and sent my comments to the chair by email before excusing myself.

    But let us not confuse committee work, however unrewarding (or unrewarded), which as it happens I do a lot of, with volunteer and community work, which is where "involvement in primary and secondary education at various levels" would fall.

    I may be a refusenik of the occasional time-wasting committee meeting, but I'm also the one who's out visiting the local middle school next week to teach a flock of grade 7's what their textbook left out, or flatly got wrong. This is a test run; if it works well, next year we'll try getting to all of the middle schools in the district.

    I act as an unpaid consultant for a textbook company publishing in my field, to correct errors before they see print. I'm setting up an on-campus summer camp for high school students who want to learn something about our field during summer holidays. I write articles, unpaid and for no publication credit (since they are not refereed) for high-school level encyclopedias in my field, so that I know that at least those articles are right.

    I'm not going to get any credit for any of that either, but you are right that these activities are important, and I'm grateful that my job gives me the opportunity to do them.

    So, Angry Archie: much as I heart you, don't make assumptions about other people's circumstances. And please don't try to convince us that you've never skipped out on the odd meeting of a phenomenally dull and unproductive committee yourself.

  14. Merely, you are definitely not that little refusenik. I don't remember the details, but the person (I think we were calling her the "uncollegial colleague") was refusing to do anything at all that wasn't her research. That included refusing to have her teaching observed because no one was qualified to do that.

    If you are going around to local grade 7 classes, then you are so far from the refusenik that you might as well be in another profession. In fact, that may make you one of the five hardest working people on this board, in terms of service. I think that's admirable.

    I agree that not every committee is equally important, but I also happen to believe very strongly in faculty governance. I do a lot of service to back that up. And sure, I've been known to send a group email instead of going in person from time to time. And I've even tuned out in meetings on occasion. What I'm objecting to are the habitual shirkers who duck all governance related tasks and then complain when the deans ride roughshod over them, or hire another fifty adjuncts.

    In this instance, I'm objecting to something slightly more abstract as well. And that is the fact that we have become too high and mighty to engage with the problems of primary and secondary education, thus abdicating all the important decisions about how our subjects are taught--and by extension understood by the general public--to textbook companies. It isn't working out that well. I hope we can all agree on that.

  15. Archie nailed it, I think (and the article robin-adams posted only confirms what a mess the whole textbook-creation process has become). I suspect that this whole fascinating but frustrating mess started with someone's good intention to make sure that African Americans were included in the story told by the textbook, an intention which presumably was encoded in the goals or standards or specifications or whatever they call them for the book (of course, it's also possible that someone with a Confederate-apologist agenda slipped the requirement in there, but, sadly, I don't think that was necessary to produce the same outcome). I also don't see any reason to think that Masoff has any sort of neo-Confederate agenda of her own; in fact, when I was searching on Amazon for a copy of the book to use as an example of how not to do research (unfortunately, I couldn't find it; has anyone seen the scanned pages posted anywhere?), I noticed that she has written another book, for the same press and perhaps the same market, entitled The African American Story: The events that shaped our nation and the people who changed our lives, which got at least one good review from Booklist (whatever that proves -- probably not much, I realize), and from that review, seems to show a full awareness of the realities of slavery and continuing discrimination, past and present.

    But Masoff isn't a trained historian, which means she didn't have the broad knowledge of the scholarly work on the subject to decide whose work was worth including, in a paraphrase of a sentence or two, in the textbook (writing a few sentences that boil down a complex issue requires as much if not more knowledge and/or research than writing a much longer piece on the same subject). Instead, she seems to have grabbed the first thing she saw that would allow her to fulfill the stated requirement. While Sheriff, in reading the textbook, was very aware of how its individual parts added up to a larger message, and how that message played into longstanding scholarly (or perhaps scholarly vs. lay historian) controversies, I have the impression that Masoff saw herself more as assembling a collection of supposedly-verifiable facts which fit the requirements she had been given. The fact that she's quite willing to omit the offending sentence from future editions seems to confirm this conclusion; she's not really thinking of herself as telling a larger story, except, perhaps, in the strictly chronological sense. And that isn't good history -- or, for that matter, good writing.


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