On NYT’s textbook story and the Our Virginia incident

Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

This week, the New York Times published an article called “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories”  exploring how textbooks in the state of Texas tell the story of United States history versus how textbooks from the state of California do it. If you know anything about the politics in either of those states, there are some predictable differences.

As the article mentions, this isn’t a new thing. In fact, until very recently, I used the controversy surrounding a fourth grade textbook in Virginia as a case study in my information literacy courses. In that case, the textbook in question (which was called Our Virginia) included a number of egregious historical errors, like one about how slaves fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, something that’s not supported by historical evidence. When asked about the errors, the textbook author, who was not a historian, said that she based her writing on information she found on the internet. Information authored by a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

This was 2010, so the main reaction at the time was basically everyone laughing at this author for basing the research for her book on something she found on the internet. No one seemed to consider the possibility that the issue might be more complicated than that.

As an information literacy case study, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this example by asking students who they feel is most to blame for what happened: the textbook author, the publisher, the Board of Education that approved the book, or the Sons of Confederate Veterans for promoting a view of history that’s not supported by evidence. Their answers are revealing. Of course, a lot blame the author herself for not doing proper research. Others blame the publisher for not fact-checking thoroughly enough. Others feel that the Board of Education should have done more to vet the book before allowing it to be taught in classrooms.

Almost none blame the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Actually, that’s not true. One student did.

Here’s the story.

This was during the few years I spent living and teaching in South Carolina at a school where a debate on campus about whether to fly the Confederate flag in public was “won” by a student who suggested that if LGBTQ people can fly their flag, which she found offensive, she should be able to fly the Confederate flag, a point one of the Philosophy department faculty members who was leading the debate felt he couldn’t argue with. Even as someone who grew up in a very red area of New York state, I felt very out of place, culturally speaking. Witnessing the debate (which took place in the campus library) was just very surreal to me.

So when I got to the Our Virginia case study in my information literacy class, I had no idea how it would be received in this particular context. I was surprised when the students in my class engaged in a debate that was very similar to the ones I’d led in Albany, NY, on the relatively liberal campus where I’d previously taught. In fact, it was a richer conversation because many of these students had firsthand experience being taught a version of history similar to the one that caused controversy in the case study. It was one of the best class discussions I’ve ever had.

One student, though, seemed particularly upset by the discussion. He was an older gentleman in his seventies, the only nontraditional student in the class. When he got a chance to speak, he revealed that he himself was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and made it clear that, in his personal opinion, they deserved the most blame for what had happened. In fact, he declared that he was ashamed at the part they had played in this particular story.

To this day, he’s the only student I’ve taught who felt that the Sons of Confederate Veterans deserved any blame for what happened.

Why is this? The most common reason students give when asked why they don’t blame this group for spreading a lot of what is, objectively, misinformation, they generally say that the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as information creators, have the right to publish whatever they want to and it’s the responsibility of the information user to do the necessary work to decide whether to believe that information. If the user falls for it, it’s the own fault. But when I ask them if they think anyone actually takes the time to evaluate information this thoroughly, especially the fourth graders for whom this textbook was intended, they don’t know.

To be clear, the cases the New York Times writes about are different from this one in the sense that the various textbooks they studied don’t appear to have historical inaccuracies like the ones found in Our Virginia. They just tell the story of American history through very different lenses, with very different emphases and occasional omissions that reflect very different political views. It goes without saying that if the Times had examined science textbooks in these same states, they probably would have found something similar.

The funny thing is that I recently retired my lesson on Our Virginia in part because the story (though not the issue) was getting old and also because I now teach primarily online where it’s much harder to have meaningful discussions. Now I’m second guessing that decision.

Because this is so clearly an information literacy issue. So many college students I meet still think that textbooks are above reproach when it comes to factual information—after all, isn’t that why tests are based on them? They don’t realize that they are subject to the same biases as any other piece of information. That’s why students in middle school and high school need to be taught to think critically about the information they encounter: so they don’t fall into the same trap.


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