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Our Virginia, Our Challenge

January 13th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · 4 Comments

Last year, upon the release of Five Ponds Press’s fourth-grade textbook, Our Virginia, and its unfavorable write-up in the Washington Post, the history nerds of Virginia—which is to say, pretty much everybody—mobilized into a mass orgy of righteous fact-checking. I was right there with them, of course, shocked to learn that Sir Walter Raleigh had traveled to North Carolina or that Stonewall Jackson had mobilized two battalions of black Confederates.

I was also appalled at how the Post gleefully seized on author Joy Masoff‘s use of the Internet as a research tool, as if that were a bad thing. (Hint, hint.) How does the old saying go? The Internet doesn’t create two battalions of black Confederates. Only textbook authors create two battalions of black Confederates … or something like that.

But now that a new edition of Our Virginia has been approved, with its most egregious factual errors corrected, it’s worth giving Five Ponds some credit. Sir Walter is safely back in London and those thousands of black Confederates have—poof!—magically transformed into “body servants.” The press opened the process up to historians and the result, as one might expect, is a much better book.

But is it good enough? I’m not yet convinced.

I’ve written history and social studies textbooks for third-, fifth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders. I’m familiar with the challenges of communicating with kids who don’t always have the same interest level, let alone the same literacy level. And I know something about the frustrations that come with trying to shape a compelling narrative out of what often are stiff, unforgiving, fact-based state standards. My dad taught middle-school American history for more than thirty years, and he just e-mailed to say that “it’s an enormously difficult subject to teach, perhaps the hardest.”

If he doesn’t have all the answers, then neither do I. But because history is a critical part of our civic discourse—see here and here and here and heck, even here—it’s worth thinking hard about how it’s taught. If, as adults, we can’t speak intelligently about history, then we will have more and more trouble speaking intelligently, period.

So, back to Our Virginia

One has to start somewhere, so why not with pages 54 and 55 pictured above: “WHEN WORLDS MET” (you can click this and other images to enlarge).

Here the author contrasts the Englishmen who founded Jamestown, represented by John Smith, with the Virginia Indians who already lived there, represented by their paramount chief, Powhatan. The facts are more or less in order, but what about the bigger picture? This is from the text:

Smith described himself as brave and fearless. Many others thought he was obnoxious.

Let’s be fair: he probably was obnoxious. Smith was like that other John, John Adams, in the classic musical 1776: “I’m obnoxious and disliked; you know that, sir!” But little if anything is offered to suggest how he was obnoxious or, more importantly, what the consequences of his personality were. Instead, we are left only with this representative Englishman who’s a boastful and obnoxious soldier of fortune.

So how’s the representative Indian?

Powhatan knew the English settlers were a terrible threat, but he was a ruler of great spiritual, mental, and physical strength.

Hey, wait a minute! Is it fair that the typical Englishman is obnoxious and disliked while the typical Indian resembles nothing if not Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid: “Look eye! Always look eye!”

Please understand that I am not making a complaint here about political correctness. Instead, I am highlighting one clue to the ways in which this text sometimes fails.

One of the early settlers at Jamestown was a fellow called William Strachey. His Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia serves as one of the most important sources we have on that moment “When Worlds Met,” and he paints a more complicated picture of Powhatan. For instance, Strachey tells the story of how the English visited Powhatan at his capital, Werowocomoco, and there noticed an awkward and gruesome sight: a number of human scalps hanging on a line between two trees. By way of explanation, Powhatan apparently told his visitors that he had recently ordered an ambush of the Piankatank people, killing twenty-four of their men, and now he displayed his trophies for all to see. The English never heard why Powhatan had done this—why he had had these men killed—but perhaps that was the point. The paramount chief aimed to instill fear among his English rivals just as he had done with his Indian rivals.

Strachey bravely dismisses the idea—”But, God be praysed, yt wrought not feare but courage in our people” (yeah, right)—but the point seems to be clear: Powhatan did not command tribute from twenty-eight to thirty-two Indians tribes and chiefdoms simply because of his “great spiritual, mental, and physical strength.” He was a man who understood power. And violence.

I imagine him thinking: This is what I did to people who look like me. Imagine what I could do to you!

And no, I don’t think that the author of Our Virginia should have included Strachey’s graphic description of Piankatank warriors being scalped. I do, however, think that an understanding of Powhatan’s relationship to violence is not simply desirable but necessary. Why? Consider the last sentence in this two-page section:

Without the help of Powhatan, his daughter Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians, Jamestown might have ended up as another “Lost Colony.”

The astute student is bound to ask: How might they have ended up as another “Lost Colony”? And why? Would they have disappeared without a trace? Would they have disappeared for a lack of help?

Our Virginia doesn’t offer any clues, and as a result these entire two pages, devoted to making sense of how these two alien peoples interacted, end in incoherence.

To help make sense of it, I flip back to page 51 and a two-paragraph section titled “The Lost Colony.” Here, the author mentions the Roanoke colonies—er, I mean colony. In Our Virginia there is no mention of the failed first colony of 1585–1586, the one that ended with Englishmen ambushing and beheading a local weroance, or chief. Why does that particular omission matter? Because when it mentions the so-called Lost Colony, the book finds itself helpless to explain what happened.

When a supply ship returned in 1590, every single settler had vanished. A tree trunk with the word “Cro” and a gatepost with “Croatoan” scratched in it were the only clues to their fate.

Even innocent little fourth-graders deserve something here—some kind of stab at an explanation. To explain, for instance, that fighting may have contributed to the deaths of the English colonists in 1587 may help prepare students for understanding that fighting was also part of the equation in 1607 and later.

How so? Bear with me and flip ahead now to pages 56 and 57, devoted to “THE STARVING TIME.” As we all know, the Starving Time occurred during the winter of 1609–1610, when about 240 settlers hunkered down inside James Fort and slowly starved to death. Our friend William Strachey arrived in May 1610—having been cast away on Bermuda for the winter; lucky him!—and what he found was horrifying: only sixty or so skeleton-like figures remained of the original 240, prompting the colony’s new minister to cast up “a zealous and sorrowfull Prayer.” Strachey himself, though, was less interested in grieving than in figuring out what had gone so terribly wrong.

But first, here’s how Our Virginia explains it:

But in their excitement to do well, they [the English colonists] failed to stow away enough food for their own needs. When a shipload of new settlers arrived just before winter, things took a deadly turn. That bitter winter came to be known as the Starving Time.

Students—or at least the ones half paying attention—would at this point wonder what in the world happened to “the help of Powhatan, his daughter Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians.” Why hadn’t Pocahontas shown up and, in the book’s words, “bridged the Indian and English worlds, serving as a contact when the Indians brought food to the starving settlers”? I mean, this is the Starving Time, for crying out loud! Our Virginia doesn’t say, which means that, again, these entire two pages, devoted to making sense of an important moment in Virginia history, end in incoherence.

What’s missing, of course, is also what was missing at Roanoke: fighting. Flip a little farther back in the book now, to pages 36 and 37. In this section, called “THE FIRST NATIONS,” the author describes Virginia Indian life prior to 1607:

Many towns dotted the landscape. Most people were well fed and lived in vibrant communities. But all that was about to change when the first ships from Europe began to explore the waters of Chesapeake Bay and cross paths with the Powhatan (POW-uh-tan) Indians.

If the Indians were well fed and vibrant before the Europeans showed up, then presumably what changed is that they soon went hungry. Except how does that square with Pocahontas bringing the starving colonists food? Unless everybody was short of food—with the Indians simply being less short—which was, in fact, the case. Actually, what are the odds that when the English show up in 1607, Virginia would be suffering through its driest spell in 770 years? For that matter, what are the odds that when they showed up at Roanoke a few decades earlier, that area would be suffering through its driest spell in even longer?

All of which is to say that Powhatan’s people weren’t all that well fed, at least not in 1607, and when they helped the English, they didn’t help that much, and when the colonists didn’t get what they needed, they just went ahead and took it anyway. Which, of course, left the Indians even more hungry, which helped lead to … fighting. The First Anglo-Powhatan War to be specific.

It is this context—that they were fighting and what they were fighting over—that is crucial to making sense of the Starving Time and so much else in these sections of Our Virginia. Look at what William Strachey says about what happened during that deadly winter:

… and it is true, the Indian killed as fast without, if our men stirred but beyond the bounds of their Block-house, as Famine and Pestilence did within …

The Indians, in other words, had laid siege to James Fort. (I should say that not all historians subscribe to this terminology, but what does seem clear is that the Indians made it extremely difficult for the English men and women to do anything that winter but starve.) Does this completely explain the Starving Time? No, of course not. But it does help to make comprehensible what is otherwise incomprehensible in Our Virginia.

Remember that Powhatan was a man who understood power. And violence. To make this point early on is to be able to make it again now, when it truly bears on students’ understanding of the material. One gets the sense that the author is almost preoccupied with underscoring the positive in Virginia’s Indians while acknowledging the unwelcome intrusion represented by the English settlement. This is as it should be. But to really give Virginia Indians their due, you have to allow them to be actors in this drama.

Did you notice that at this crucial moment in the history of Jamestown—when the colony had nearly starved to death en masse, then packed up and headed for home, only to be saved by the miracle arrival of English resupply ships—that the Indians have, for all intents and purposes, disappeared? Consider that this is also a crucial moment in their history. The Powhatans had used power and violence in an attempt to expel the foreigners, and it had almost worked! But of course it didn’t work, and they would never again come so close. That is part of the story, too. How could Our Virginia miss it?

Last year’s textbook controversy focused on fuzzy facts and, to a lesser extent, whether you could find quality information online. (You can!) But now that many of those facts have been corrected, we are still left with … just facts. What do they mean? Why do they matter? And how can we put them together so that they begin to make sense? Our Virginia is still not up to that task.

Am I asking too much of a fourth-grade textbook? My dad e-mails: “One thing you know intellectually but can’t possibly understand very well without having experienced it as much as I is that so very many students have only the vaguest notion of what is happening in their subjects. Sometimes I couldn’t assume most of my eighth-graders had any previous knowledge on the subject. I seemed to be starting from an empty slate.”

True enough. But we all know about fighting, and if we don’t all know what it means to be really hungry, then most of us can at least imagine it. These can be starting points for fourth-graders, concepts to build on—from Roanoke to Smith & Powhatan to the Starving Time.

There are other ways to organize this information, of course, and other pedagogical choices that could be made. The point, though, is that a textbook has to make some choice. It’s not enough for it merely to be fact checked. And while we should applaud Five Ponds for making an extra effort to get these facts right, we also should demand even more.

PS: Lest you think that I am merely picking on these few pages, I’ll give you one more, head-scratching example. Flip forward to pages 68 and 69 and you’ll find a paragraph on Bacon’s Rebellion, which, I will be the first to acknowledge, would be awfully difficult to teach to fourth-graders. On the other hand, guess what? It’s not in the state standards!

Anyway, here’s Our Virginia:

In 1676 an angry group of poor, former servants, both black and white, joined a planter named Nathaniel Bacon and set fire to Jamestown. Why? They wanted to expand westward by taking Indian lands, but the governor would not let them. Bacon’s Rebellion soon faded, but the uprising alarmed Virginia’s ruling class. This growing fear helped lead to an end to short-term servitude and to the growth of permanent slavery as an economic choice.

So you’ve got white servants and black. You’ve got Indians. You’ve got a governor who is being contrary but you don’t know why. And now, out of all this, you have the end of indentured servitude and the rise of slavery “as an economic choice.” Even if you were going to read between the lines here—and I don’t imagine that most fourth-graders are going to be able to do this—you’re led to believe that the “growing fear” of the ruling class came from free blacks and whites causing trouble and burning stuff. The elites respond to this social problem by making sure that such hooligans don’t ever again become free. So how is this an “economic choice”?

As you might imagine, Our Virginia does not say.

UPDATE: The Washington Post reprinted the blog post here, and I respond to the Post‘s commenters here and here.

Tags: Around the State · Textbooks · Virginia History

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Zachary Schrag // Jan 18, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Thanks for this interesting post.

    When thinking about Our Virginia and Our America, I’ve struggled with the question of how much blame goes to the textbook authors vs. the Virginia Standards of Learning. Here’s what Standard VS.3g wants fourth-graders to know about Jamestown:


    The student will demonstrate knowledge of the first permanent English settlement in America by g) describing the interactions between the English settlers and the native peoples, including the contributions of Powhatan to the survival of the settlers.

    Essential Knowledge:

    Captain John Smith initiated trading relationships with the native peoples.

    The native peoples traded mainly food with the English in exchange for tools, pots, and copper for jewelry.

    The native peoples contributed to the survival of the Jamestown settlers in several ways.

    * Powhatan, chief of many tribes, provided leadership to his people and taught the settlers survival skills.
    * Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, served as a contact between the native peoples and the English.
    * The native peoples showed the settlers how to plant corn and tobacco.

    Over time, the native peoples realized the English settlement would continue to grow. They came to see the settlers as invaders who would take over their land.

    Not much here about scalps, sieges, and other violence, just a hint of a changed perception at the end. The Commonwealth wants my kids to know how Powhatan helped the English survive, not how he intimidated them or contributed to their starvation.

    Under these circumstances, how much leeway does a textbook author have to tell a different story?

  • 2 Brendan Wolfe // Jan 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Thanks for your response, Professor Schrag.

    For a number of years I worked with an educational publishing company creating materials that covered state standards (for Virginia and for a number of other states). At least in that context, we had plenty of leeway. Teachers need their students to know what’s in the standards, for sure. But what’s in Virginia standards (as you have helpfully shown) doesn’t contradict the history I lay out except by omission. And, by my lights, those omissions are what make the history comprehensible in the first place.

    The author of “Our Virginia” could include or not include, for instance, information on Bacon’s Rebellion. It’s not in the standards, but she chose to include it anyway. My suggestion is NOT to include it, and to use the saved space to make what she DOES include more comprehensible. That means, in some places, filling in what the standards leave out. Teachers can do that on their own, of course, but here I am talking specifically about the textbook.

    And just to be clear — I don’t suggest telling stories about scalps! I just think it needs to be clear that from the start, the English and the Indians — first at Roanoke and then at Jamestown — cooperated AND fought. Sometimes at the same time.

  • 3 Andrew Schwartz // Jan 24, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Thank you for the refreshing article on the sins of historical omission.

    In regards to the SOLs, is it not concerning that textbook companies, in response to state standards, alter their publications accordingly? I understand they want to get the contract (I would, too!). But would it be wiser to alter standards based on recent and scholarly research, rather than base research on arbitrary standards?

    Perhaps this would require a more devolved system where educators and administrators made their textbook decisions on a more local level, which can get messy I’m sure; but it might make textbook writers strive to write the best-researched (and best-told) history, rather than strive simply to cover standards at the lowest cost.

  • 4 Brendan Wolfe // Jan 24, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Thanks for the comment, Andrew. I sympathize with your argument, but let me take a moment to stick up for Virginia’s standards. First, I think it’s really difficult to write a good standard. Second, I think Virginia’s, while far from perfect, aren’t bad. And third, I think it would cause more problems, not fewer, to follow the latest research.

    It’s difficult to write a good standard because you need to balance general knowledge with specifics. It’s best to remain general so that you can leave room for teachers to teach as they know best and to be flexible when research advances. On the other hand, if you’re not specific, there’s no way to prepare students for a multiple-choice exam. All teachers will teach something different, and then where are you? (I’ll leave for another day the appropriateness of said exams.)

    I think Virginia’s standards strike this balance pretty well. Nevertheless, there are a few factual errors. In VS.3e, for instance, the standard relating to the origins of slavery in Virginia states that “Portuguese sailors captured African men and women from what is present-day Angola.” By 1619, Portugal had been trading with Africans for slaves for more than a hundred years. This is not a small mistake. The standards also state that the “arrival of Africans made it possible to expand the tobacco economy.” I would say that in 1619, there barely was a tobacco economy, and Africans only began to play a significant role in it much later in the century. If the first is a major mistake, then the second is a minor one.

    As Professor Schrag pointed out above, the standards clearly emphasize cooperation between Virginia Indians and English colonists. And the seeds of the problem in the fourth-grade textbook are right there in the standards, which state that “over time” the Indians “came to see the settlers as invaders who would take over their land.”

    True enough. But then what? It’s up to textbook authors and teachers to recognize this blind spot and deal with it. And it’s worth saying that if the standards omit power, conflict, and violence from interactions between the Indians and the English, they acknowledge such things elsewhere. Jamestown was located where it was to defend from possible attack from the Spanish.

    But why might the Spanish attack? The standards don’t say. Which reminds me of another important omission — religion. Still, even as I waver a bit, I want to say that these standards, while not perfect, aren’t bad either.

    And anyway, none of these problems would be improved by updated scholarship. (The exception might be the Portuguese not actually capturing slaves themselves, but this isn’t really recent scholarship, is it?)

    What would help to solve these problems, I think, would be a willingness to treat the history, and the students learning it, with a bit more respect. Yes, fourth-graders can handle conflict. Yes, they can handle religion. Yes, they can even handle African complicity in the slave trade. And if they can’t handle it, then we need to treat the problem no differently than if they couldn’t handle basic math skills.

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