Mike the Mad Biologist

Having grown up (or at least physiologically developed) in Virginia, this story about the totally awesome and rigorous history textbooks used in what are the wealthier counties in the state is not at all surprising, though depressing (italics mine):

In the version of history being taught in some Virginia classrooms, New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (instead of as a Spanish colonial one). The Confederacy included 12 states (instead of 11). And the United States entered World War I in 1916 (instead of in 1917)….

Historian Mary Miley Theobald, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor, reviewed “Our America” and concluded that it was “just too shocking for words.”

“Any literate person could have opened that book and immediately found a mistake,” she said.

Theobald’s list of errors spanned 10 pages, including inaccurate claims that men in Colonial Virginia commonly wore full suits of armor and that no Americans survived the Battle of the Alamo. Most historians say that some survived.

What? You’ve never seen all the people at Williamsburg walking around in full suits of armor?

So why did these school systems, which bill themselves as having excellent schools, choose these books? Lowest contract bid:

Five Ponds Press provides books mainly to the Virginia Department of Education. The department is required to find texts that meet the state’s stringent Standards of Learning, which includes lists of themes that each textbook must cover. That disqualifies many books produced for the national textbook market….

The creation of Standards of Learning requirements helped create niche markets for smaller publishers, including Five Ponds Press. One of its early books was “Mali: Land of Gold & Glory,” which, according to news reports, was crafted to fit a newly introduced Standards of Learning theme.

Five Ponds Press gradually expanded to other subject areas, filling a growing portion of Virginia’s $70 million-a-year textbook market. Many larger publishers employ professional historians, but all of the books by Five Ponds Press have been written by Masoff, who is not a trained historian. Other titles by her include “Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty” and “Oh, Yikes! History’s Grossest, Wackiest Moments.”

…School districts choose textbooks from a list approved by the state. Among the factors is price. The books by Five Ponds Press often are less expensive than those produced by larger publishers….

“They are willing to go to great lengths for our business. Their product is substantially less expensive than the committee’s next highest-rated competitor – very appealing in these lean economic times,” said Kenneth Bassett, Prince William’s social studies supervisor.

One hopes the damage is reversible.

Comments

  1. #1 Silent Service
    January 6, 2011

    Beware the lowest bidder mentality. They do not care if what they buy for us is shit as long as it doesn’t stick to them.

  2. #2 Ahcuah
    January 6, 2011

    Well, in their defense, one of the items in the article cited as being wrong was

    Text describing the Civil War states that the two Bull Run battles left more than 6,000 men dead, wounded or missing. The number is more than 22,000.

    Well, 22,000 is more than 6,000.

    Snork.

  3. #3 greatbear
    January 6, 2011

    There isn’t a big enough graphic to illustrate the face palm for this one.

  4. #4 scathew
    January 6, 2011

    Well clearly the problem is with the quality of teachers today…

  5. #5 Kate from Iowa
    January 6, 2011

    The thing I never understood about this is that the errors were so silly and so obvious and so easy to check. Even if the woman who wrote them had just gone through Wikipedia to er…”produce” these textbooks, the result would have been more correct than what she sold those school districts. And what the hell is with the district anyway? Didn’t they have …okay, obviously they didn’t. Rather, why didn’t they have someone auditing the textbooks before going ahead with the purchase?

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    January 6, 2011

    Rather, why didn’t they have someone auditing the textbooks before going ahead with the purchase?

    Even if they did, that’s no guarantee that the vetting process is effective. Take a look at Richard Feynman’s essay “Judging Books by Their Covers” (reproduced here; it’s also a section in his memoir “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character), about the year he was on the committee that recommended textbooks for adoption in California. Feynman reported an instance where committee members rated a book that turned out to have nothing but blank pages between the covers–supposedly the publisher had not actually finished the book by the committee’s deadline, so they sent a synopsis along with a dummy textbook. Feynman resigned after one year because he had had his fill of rank stupidity in the textbooks (to say nothing of the corruption surrounding the process); his wife commented that that year was like living on top of a volcano in that every so often there would be an eruption when Feynman found another instance of stupidity. That was in the mid-1960s, when California was generally considered to have top-notch public schools. I have no reason to think there have been significant improvements in the system since then, or that Virginia has a better system than California for adopting textbooks.

  7. #7 Drivebyposter
    January 6, 2011

    I mentioned this story to my dad and his only response is “Liberals are always rewriting history”

    I really hate not being able to respect my dad for being intelligent.

  8. #8 Jim Lund
    January 6, 2011

    You may want to stop by The Textbook League, a group that reviews school textbooks. They’ve been covering the train wreck of shoddy school textbooks for years. Here is the site:
    http://www.textbookleague.org/ttlindex.htm

  9. #9 Leslie H
    January 7, 2011

    As in all things, you get what you pay for. If you don’t minding risking your health, you could go to a person who is not a doctor for health care. If you don’t mind risking your life, you can have your house rewired by a person who is not an electrician. If you don’t mind risking the education of your children, you can buy history books written by people who are not historians. Some things are important. Some things are not. Sadly, some people (on Boards of Education) have their priorities totally upside-down.

  10. #10 Tamakazura
    January 8, 2011

    Damn…I have to take issue with some of the textbook league stuff. He spends pages talking about how we shouldn’t cover the Anasazi because they have no relevance to our culture and were not advanced compared to the Romans. He then goes on to talk about the culture of white guilt and how multiculturalism always results in a system where minorities play the victim card for special gain. I get quite sick of unpacking the invisible knapsack of white priveledge, and I agree that textbooks oversimplify issues that ought to be examined in depth. They also give vignettes of historical figures that are more convenient than factual.
    However even I know that even if the textbooks mentioned thAt Indian tribes kept slaves and kidnapped white people and killed them, it does not make their extermination by white settlers a less dark time in the history of the nation.