Virginia Textbooks Full of Errors

History books have dates, events wrong

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Thursday, Dec 30, 2010  |  Updated 6:15 AM EDT
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Virginia Textbooks Full of Errors

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It's too late, governor.

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The Washington Post reported Wednesday that history textbooks published by Connecticut’s Five Ponds Press for use in Virginia schools contain dozens of factual errors. Historian Mary Miley Theobald, formerly of Virginia Commonwealth University, called one of the books “too shocking for words,” and added, “Any literate person could have opened that book and immediately found a mistake.”

A quick quiz: Which of the following nine inaccurate statements appear in the Virginia textbooks?

  • Sir Walter Raleigh visited the British colony of Virginia.
  • Colonial Virginians often wore full suits of armor.
  • New Orleans was a U.S. harbor at the start of the 19th century.
  • All the Americans at the battle of the Alamo were killed.
  • Twelve states joined the Confederate States of America.
  • Thousands of black soldiers fought for the South in the Civil War.
  • About 6,000 men were killed, wounded, or went missing during the two Civil War battles of Bull Run (Manassas).
  • The 13th Amendment, ending slavery, was ratified in January 1865.
  • The U.S. entered the First World War in 1916.

All nine. Historians who reviewed books by other publishers, also used in Virginia schools, found other errors.

One of Five Ponds Press’s authors, Joy Masoff (who has also written such respected works as “Oh, Yikes! History’s Grossest, Wackiest Moments”), has no training as a historian and says she got some of her information off the Internet. When the Post discovered her error about black Confederate troops in October, Masoff told the paper, “As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write. I am a fairly respected writer.”

There’s an irony to this. Virginia has one of the nation’s strictest Standards of Learning guidelines, the bane of holistic educators who say they are forced to “teach to the test.” It’s bad enough to equate teaching with the rote memorization of facts -- but it’s worse when the “facts” aren’t even accurate.

DCist’s Aaron Morrissey writes, “It appears as if the panel of reviewers who are slated to check textbooks against those guidelines aren’t really vetting the books for factual accuracy -- only making sure that they cover the subject areas which are required by the standard.”

James Loewen sees an even bigger problem. Loewen is the author of the bestsellers “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “Lies Across America,” which document mistruths frequently taught in America’s schools, either due to genuine error or in the service of a political agenda. He told WTOP that even well-meaning teachers end up teaching from faulty textbooks.

“When they do help choose them, statewide even, they don’t actually read all 1,100 pages,” he said. “If they do read them, they don’t have the historical expertise to spot the errors. … They kind of rely on the textbook as a crutch.”

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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