Monday, November 1, 2010

Textbooks Even The Texas School Board Could Love

By Nancy Mattoon

Author Joy Masoff's Inaccurate Textbook,
Passed For Use In Classrooms
By The Virginia Department Of Education.
(Image Courtesy of Five Ponds Press.)

The controversy about what should and shouldn't be included in American textbooks has been front page news recently. Virginia students were being taught history from Our Virginia: Past and Present by Joy Masoff, a book which erroneously claimed that "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson." (In fact it was illegal for blacks to join the Confederate army until after Jackson's death, and no one has any idea how many blacks served in the Southern army, but most at the front were servants or laborers brought by their masters, and were never allowed to be armed or to wear uniforms.)

But the problem with this book goes beyond one factual error. According to Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic, "The offending section begins by explaining that 'The war between the states was a war between peoples of all colors, on both sides of the fight. White men, and enslaved and free African Americans all those sides [sic]. Most American Indians did not take sides during the Civil War.'" The implication being, of course, that The U.S. Civil War really didn't have anything much to do with race...

Maybe Joy Masoff Could Have Avoided Some Controversy
By Sticking With This Tried and True Format.
Annie Cole Cady.

History of Pennsylvania, In Words of One Syllable
Chicago, New York: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1889.
(Image Courtesy of University Of Delaware Libraries.)

That revisionist view would probably sit well with Arizona State School Superintendent Tom Home, who along with Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, banned ethic studies courses in Arizona public school's because they encouraged "ethnic chauvinism." And with the Texas State School Board who recently banned history textbooks which it claimed "devoted more lines of text to Islamic beliefs and practices than to Christian ones." And further maintained these books were being financed by "Middle Easterners [who] buy into the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly."

Vocabulary Words From:
The New England Primer,

or, An Easy and Pleasant Guide to the Art of Reading:

Adorned with Cuts: To Which Is Added the Catechism.

Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, [after 1836].

(Image Courtesy of Harvard University Libraries)

All of these groups would probably be more than happy to throw out modern texts in favor of some of the good, old-fashioned books that can be found on a massive digital collection created by Harvard University. Reading: Harvard Views of Reading, Readership, and Reading History contains 250,000 pages from 1,200 books and manuscripts, ranging from poet William Wordsworth’s private library catalog to old pedagogical works explaining how reading should be taught.

Those teaching materials include hornbooks and battledores, ABC books, and spellers, which taught children the rudiments of reading: letters of the alphabet, numbers, and syllables. Once those were mastered a child moved on to primers and readers, which ostensibly taught vocabulary and sentence structure, but in fact included enough moral and religious instruction to make the members of the Virginia, Arizona, and Texas State Boards of Education swoon with delight.

Moral Lessons Masquerading As Alphabet Letters.
The New England Primer,
or, An Easy and Pleasant Guide to the Art of Reading:

Adorned with Cuts: To Which Is Added the Catechism.

Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, [after 1836].

(Image Courtesy of Harvard University Libraries)

The ideal child in 19th century America was essentially an obedient "mini-me" of a responsible, unquestioning, God-fearing adult. The hornbook, the earliest form of children's primer, common in both England and America from the late 16th to the late 18th century, contained the letters of the alphabet, simple words, and, invariably, a Bible verse. There was no separate category of books for children before the 18th century. The Bible and epic tales of saints and martyrs were among the first printed books available to children. Books of the 18th and 19th centuries written for children were really meant to mold the mind of the student into accepting without question the values of teachers and parents. Not surprisingly, the word "primer" originally referred to a prayer-book.

The Pictorial Primer.
New-York: C.P. Huestis, 1845.
(Image Courtesy of University Of Delaware Libraries.)

Some 19th century authors even went so far as to condemn any children's book containing stories not based in reality. Lyman Cobb, author of Cobb's Juvenile Reader (1835) maintained, "The practice of giving children dialogues between wolves and sheep, cats and mice, etc, ...containing statements and details of things which never did, and which never can take place, is as destructive of truth and morality, as it is contrary to the principles of nature and philosophy." So much for Aesop's Fables... Similarly, Irish author Maria Edgeworth opposed adventure stories such as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels, warning that "the taste for adventure is absolutely incompatible with the sober perseverance necessary to success." In America, even more than in Europe, the influence of Puritanism led to moralistic stories intended to teach young savages that death and damnation were the wages of bad behavior.

A Is For Adam...
The rhyming alphabet, or,
Sarah Bell and Fanny Blake.

Philadelphia :
American Sunday-School Union, c1851.
(Image Courtesy of Harvard University Libraries)

In his introduction to Harvard's Reading website, Robert Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library, states "reading lies at the heart of our most intensely human activity, the making of meaning, and therefore deserves study as a crucial element in all civilizations…" How we read, and what we read, largely determines what, and how, we think. No matter what political or religious philosophy is found in the books that children read in school or for pleasure, the important thing is that parents and teachers encourage children to look at everything they read with a critical eye. The blind acceptance of information, printed and online, is what leads to blatantly false books like Our Virginia: Past and Present being found acceptable, and spreading lies disguised as historical truths.


  1. I recommend that you contact Ms. Masoff directly and find out exactly where she got her information (not from 'the Internet' as the Washington Post claims) and also to find out what her background and experience with textbook research and writing actually is.

    The Post's article contained none of the information that she freely shared with them about the truth behind the statement. Ms. Masoff, someone I have known personally for over 10 years, is the LAST person who would ever make a racist or revisionist claim about the Civil War.

    It's horrifying to see someone completely trashed on the Internet because a Washington Post reporter decided to make a name for himself by writing garbage.

    Go to the source. Learn the truth. And then, print a retraction. That would be the humanitarian thing to do.

  2. So, where did she get her information from?


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email