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Professor's discovery leads to national story on Virginia textbook

  • Sheriff on Countdown
    Sheriff on Countdown  Carol Sheriff appeared live on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann Wednesday evening.  
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When Carol Sheriff looked through her daughter’s social studies textbook, the William & Mary history professor had no idea she would soon find herself a central player in a national story.

A section of the fourth-grade textbook on the Civil War claimed that two battalions of African American soldiers fought under Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.

Sheriff, who teaches about the Civil War at the College and has authored a book on the subject, knew the passage in the textbook to be factually inaccurate. Historians, Sheriff said, universally agree African Americans did not fight in any organized way for the Confederacy. In fact, the Confederacy made it illegal until the last year of the war – and well after Jackson’s death, she said. Even then, there is no record of organized battalions of African Americans serving in battle, according to the professor.

Sheriff serves on the College’s Sesquicentennial of the Civil War Committee, which is organizing a conference in 2013 on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. She said the committee decided to use the textbook error as a “teachable moment.” They submitted an op-ed to the Washington Post about how the Civil War is portrayed – a topic that will get much discussion as the country prepares for the 150th anniversary. The hope, she said, was that the op-ed about the textbook error would be used as a springboard for addressing broader issues of history and historical commemoration. At first, she was told the op-ed would run in the “Local Opinions” column of the paper. The paper's news staff later contacted Sheriff about a story that eventually ran on the front page of the paper on October 20. The author of the textbook “Our Virginia: Past and Present” told the Post she based the textbook’s claim on internet research.

“It's disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship," Sheriff said in the Post. "It concerns me not just as a professional historian but as a parent.”

Since the Post story ran, Sheriff has become a favorite of the national press. The day the story broke, she took part in an online chat about the subject on Washington Post’s website. Later that night, Sheriff appeared live from campus on MSBNC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” The next day, Post metro columnist Robert McCartney quoted Sheriff about the textbook controversy and the Associated Press put out a story on the national wire that led to more than 200 news outlets across the country picking up the story. Sheriff has also appeared on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and local papers such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Daily Press, Virginian-Pilot, Williamsburg-Yorktown Daily and Virginia Gazette ran stories.

The story has grabbed the attention of historians across the country as well. For example, Sheriff was notified last week that she has received a complimentary membership into the National Council for History Education, a national organization of K-12 teachers, historical organizations and university faculty.

“We knew this was an important story with national significance, which is why we used it in our proposed op-ed piece in the first place,” Sheriff said. “The instant and widespread media interest in the story reaffirmed our sense that the issues raised by this unfortunate factual error are indeed of deep interest.”

Once the media frenzy slows down, Sheriff said, she hopes the story can become a “teachable moment” for students, teachers and administrators. In the short-term, she hopes fourth-grade teachers will use it as a way to discuss issues and concerns with using sources they find on the internet. In the long-term, Sheriff hopes the story forces states across the country to scrutinize their standards for textbooks and for all educational materials.

Sheriff said she has been impressed with reaction by local schools officials and has already been contacted by Scott Burckbuchler, the acting school superintendent for Williamsburg-James City County public schools. Burckbuchler expressed interest in reaching out to William & Mary faculty when textbooks in all disciplines are under consideration for adoption, she said.

“I very much welcomed the superintendent’s overtures to partner with the local school district,” Sheriff said.  “In the long term, I hope that safeguards will be put in place—first with the publisher, then with the state’s Department of Education, which decides which texts to recommend, and finally with local school boards—to prevent such unfortunate misinformation from getting  into children’s schoolbooks, no matter what the discipline.”