A Strange Turn in the Virginia Textbook Debate
By now there’s been plenty of commentary in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the controversy concerning statements included in a Virginia history textbook used in fourth grade classrooms. The controversy highlights assertions made that blacks fought for the Confederacy, including two battalions of black Confederate soldiers that supposedly served under Stonewall Jackson.
In this case the author of the textbook admitted that her research relied upon websites associated with the Sons of Confederate Veterans; her ability to make sense of those claims has come under scrutiny, as had the review process employed in Virginia for textbook adoption, where, for some reason, historians do not participate in the selection of textbooks (note: the participation of a historian might not have affected the outcome, given who defines themselves as a historian and what interpretations they might espouse).
The publisher responded to this controversy by deciding to omit the passage in question, in part by handing out stickers that could be used to cover the passage in question in published copies.
Now comes word that a history teacher in Virginia has filed a lawsuit to stop this process. I found that somewhat bizarre, not because of her objection to the process, but because of the means used to object. How, exactly, can anyone but the author file a lawsuit against a publisher for that publisher’s decision to edit material in a book that said publisher publishes? It would seem that the grounds for complaint against the state and local boards of education would proceed upon a different basis, but suing publishers over editorial decisions seems to be something an author might do. I look for enlightenment here.
The petitioner claims she is gathering research and witnesses to prove that blacks served in the Confederate army. Now, I know it’s coming upon Halloween, but witnesses? Who is alive today who witnessed the Civil War? Oh, sure, you’ll now tell me she’s gathering expert testimony. But that’s not what she said, and legal documents require careful wording. In addition, the petitioner sees as relevant the race of a professor who moved to question the book’s content. Surely it would have been better to stick to the facts instead of implying that this is a racially-motivated plot.
The petitioner also shifts the grounds of the debate a bit. She never does say she’s going to document the existence of two battalions in Stonewall Jackson’s command. What she insists is that there were blacks who served in Confederate ranks. There’s nothing about the terms of service, the capacity in which they served, their willingness to serve, etc. So there’s some evidence of people talking past each other.
In short, the petition could have used a little revision (and perhaps a few stickers) as well. But this should be interesting, because it may prove to be a Pandora’s Box for all concerned.