Have you heard yet? Joy Masoff, in the textbook Our Virginia: Past and Present, wrote that thousands of black people fought for the South during the Civil War. I’m no historian, but even I’m pretty sure that’s not right.
I’ll start off by being fair: it is absolutely horrifying that this book made it past the approval process for textbooks in the Virginia public school system. In that regard, yes, the blame does lie with the state of Virginia. However, I would bet everything I have that the system is equally flawed in most other states and that much more outrageous flights of fancy can be found across the country’s textbooks. I also wonder if we are really recognizing the difference between approved and required. I want desperately to defend Virginia outright, being as I still think it’s the best state ever, but there is no denying their part in this embarrassing episode. Their standards of learning (SOL) system is useless – how can you slap a set of metrics on knowledge that should be acquired in grade school?
Short version, in case you are living under a rock or admirably immune to stupid news: Joy Masoff, allegedly an award-winning graphic designer and author, was caught having written that thousands of black people fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War in a fourth grade textbook that happens to be for/about Virginia. From what I can tell, it looks like she makes her money “writing” (a.k.a. InDesign-ing) textbooks specifically catering to Virginia SOLs and doesn’t seem to do much fact checking (also known as, you know, research). For instance, in this review of her text Mali: Land of Gold and Glory, the reviewer finds that Masoff has blithely repeated an error in the SOLs! She turned “It had a famous university with a large library containing Greek and Roman books” into “The great library was filled with books from as far away as Rome and Greece.” Anybody who’s ever BSed a paper should find this kind of rewriting familiar, and can also tell you how much they actually ended up knowing about the topic they were supposed to be writing about. Hint: it’s not much.
My real question: what business does some woman living in a very nice part of “upstate” New York have writing books for the Virginia school system? As far as I can tell, she has no actual personal ties to Virginia. Instead, I only find these references to her living in Waccabuc, a part of Westchester Country, New York. She does, however, own Five Ponds Press, which seems to specialize in the creation and selling of books written for the Virginia SOLs and lists Laura Buckius as a contact [PDF link] in Virginia Beach. I’m no fan of conspiracy theories, but I can’t help but feel as though a person with experience in designing children’s books got overconfident in her mad internet research skillz and decided to take advantage of the SOL system by jumping on the expensive, ever-changing textbook train. Come on Joy Masoff, isn’t charging $1000/day plus expenses for up to three grade 3-7 presentations enough already? Did the Waccabuc Country Club raise its dues recently?
I know, most level-headed writers/publications have now dialed into questioning the “research methods” of this woman and the textbook vetting process in Virginia (and hopefully the 19 other states that also go through such a process). Unfortunately, I made the mistake of first clicking on a Gawker piece and am seriously disgusted with both the piece and internet commenters, though I should credit Gawker with teaching me to write inflammatory, traffic-attracting titles. Guess what people: just because a government made a mistake (surprise) and it happened somewhere south of New York doesn’t mean that everybody in the south is a drooling idiot. It’s not like it required a northern liberal coming down and reviewing VA textbooks for the lie to be exposed – as reported, a William and Mary historian caught the offending sentence in her child’s book and, SHOCKER, knew that it was a mistake.
A couple of the more… polarizing comments from Gawker’s oh-so-intellectual community:
BrownSugar***s: Gah, my kid started high school (in VA) this year. Thank God he never looks at his books.
Seriously, though, this kind of crap is why we’re leaving. How can any school district look itself in the face (metaphorically speaking) when they approve this kind of stuff, obviously without fact-checking it? This, the Confederacy Month, the W&M sex controversy; Virginia is helping make itself into a punchline.
lodown (is waiting for MizJenkins): So criticizing a southern school system for using a historically inaccurate and revisionist textbook = racism?
You must be another fine product of the southern educational system.
My actual K-12 school experience in Virginia (mostly Virginia Beach) was never, ever about promoting racism, the Confederacy, or any sort of ignorance. In fact, I’d argue that we end up with a more well-rounded education and overall experience, instead of just being told that the south is filled with backward rednecks and that having a position in the North is supreme and privileged. I am damn proud that in Eric Fisher’s recent set of race and ethnicity maps, Virginia Beach stood out as the most integrated place represented. Yes, it is still majority white people, just like the US as a whole, but I’ll take integration over diversity any day. The non-integrated black (blue) areas in the map actually help to clearly show where other cities are – Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, and Hampton in particular. What difference does it make if your city is 25% Latino and 25% Asian if each of those communities self-segregates and never ends up learning English or American customs? I have only encountered serious racism twice: once when I first moved from Manhattan to Norfolk (I had never known Asian people to be considered different until that time) and then again when I moved up here to Rochester, New York. Yes, that’s right. I encounter latent, self-segregating racism in a place that claims to be part of the liberal, diverse north.
You know what, New York? You’re the damn punchline, with your ridiculous taxes and such stunning public figures as Carl Paladino and Rent is Too Damn High Guy.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a recent textbook fail Adrian and I encountered. This particular textbook claimed that Costa Rican people were poor, lived in huts (with an accompanying photograph of a hut in a suspiciously dry area), and relied on the United States for money and support. You know, a third world country. Never mind that Costa Rica is ranked as the happiest and greenest country in the world, enjoys universal health care and public education, abolished their army in 1949 and can thus fund said health care and education, has a woman president, and a literacy rate of 95.9%. Is my husband from a more affluent family? Sure. Is the rest of the country in the gutter? Not in the least. Except for the Nicaraguans. But that’s another story. This story right here is about how there is quite likely no such thing as a 100% accurate textbook.
Stop dumping on Virginia, you crazy northerners. The real witch hunt is for Joy Masoff and it’s in your own back yard.
- The original Washington Post article
- More about textbook adoption processes [Washington Post]
- Ta-Nehisi Coates is ever thoughtful for The Atlantic (with mostly good commenters!)
P.S. Can we stop calling all black people “African American” now? They’re not all of African descent, you know, and not all African people are black.