EDWARD L. AYERS
The debate over Virginia’s Standards of Learning in history has been disheartening. The Virginia Department of Education claims the standards will “restore excellence, curiosity and excitement around teaching and learning history.” Instead, they are doing the opposite.
Standards produced by hundreds of experienced and dedicated people who labored in good faith and in public have been trivialized as flawed and incomplete so they can be replaced with vacuous prose supplied by partisan organizations with no professional standing among historians and no stake in Virginia education. An alliance of Virginia educators and the American Historical Association assembled a compromise document, integrating the proposed August 2022 standards with the DOE’s latest version, but they have been ignored.
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As a historian of Virginia, the South and the nation, I was happy to help update the standards from 2015. Working alongside teachers, my role was to integrate the insights of the best recent scholarship into what are called the “curriculum frameworks.” Those frameworks provide the examples, narratives and explanations teachers use in the classroom. While the standards themselves are formulaic, clogged with repetitious verbiage, the detailed frameworks show how the past actually moved and why it mattered.
Here is an example of how the public revision of the curriculum frameworks evolved. The 2015 curriculum framework for high school U.S. history offered an accurate but bare-bones list to explain the motivations of those who worked for the abolition of American slavery:
“Most abolitionists demanded immediate freeing of enslaved African Americans.
Abolitionists believed that slavery was wrong:
Cruel and inhumane
A violation of the principles of democracy
Abolitionist leaders included both men and women.”
The frameworks listed Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass as names students should recognize and whose contributions they should understand.
The frameworks produced in the August 2022 revision, by contrast, offered a coherent story rather than a list. They unfold in time, as history does, filled with surprise and change, and portray enslaved people as actors in their own drama. Here is what they proposed:
“African Americans called for the immediate end of slavery in the 1820s
Those black leaders, especially David Walker, persuaded white people in the North, especially William Lloyd Garrison, to give up plans to ‘colonize’ African Americans by sending them to Africa or Latin America
Abolitionists argued that slavery violated Christianity and the founding principles of the United States
Escaped enslaved people, especially Frederick Douglass but also many others, became especially effective advocates for emancipation
Thousands of people escaped slavery each year, often from the Upper South
Harriet Tubman led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom; across the North, loose networks of black and white people helped people escape on what became known as the Underground Railroad
Abolitionism grew rapidly in the 1830s in the North, attracting more women than men, but slowed in the 1840s
Abolitionists debated whether to become involved in politics; some created political parties to advocate for the end of slavery
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring people in the North to help return escaped enslaved people, triggered widespread resistance
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel sparked by the Fugitive Slave Act, became the bestselling book in American history
After the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that black people had no rights white people had to recognize, a new political party, the Republicans, grew up in the North and gained power in the 1850s
In the meantime, slavery continued to expand across a vast area and enslave nearly four million people; slavery grew stronger and more profitable in the South even as the movement against it spread.”
This framework, though longer than the previous version, would take no more time to teach but would help students understand why brave people did what they did.
The DOE’s proposed standards on the abolition of slavery, by contrast, dictate only that teachers must explain “how slavery is the antithesis of freedom.” Teachers must describe “the impacts” of abolitionists “including but not limited to” Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. And they must analyze “key policies and actions” of a long list of political events between 1820 and 1863. They say nothing about the enslaved people themselves or about the men and women who forced slavery to become a political issue despite the efforts of politicians.
The revisions proposed by the DOE sever the curriculum frameworks, the substance of history teaching, from the standards. They claim the frameworks are too complex for teachers to comprehend in an integrated document – as they were presented in the August 2022 revision – and promise to provide the curricular frameworks at some later time. The few examples they offered in their last outing led to public embarrassment – ignoring, for example, decades of scholarship to evade the centrality of slavery in the causes of the American Civil War. There is no reason to believe any subsequent frameworks they may produce would serve our students any better. Their proposed standards and opaque machinations should be rejected, the public informed and the democratic process they interrupted restored.
05-20-1990 (cutline): Consultant Randi Korn (left), with Richmond History Project coordinator Judy Harris checks Valentine Museum exhibit from visitor's point of view.
- P. Kevin Morley
09-25-1986 (cutline): Steven Erisoty researches old paint at Valentine Museum.
- Don Pennell
10-16-1987 (cutline): Lisha Penn, Shririn Spencer gain fresh insights as museum interns.
- Bob Brown
04-27-1979 (cutline): Michael Sanchez-Saavedra studies glass plate negative.
- Bill Lane
12-01-1950 (cutline): Members of the Barton Heights Woman's Club meeting at the Valentine Museum. Wednesday viewed the exhibit of old buildings in modern Richmond. Mrs. Robert W. Claiborn (right), director of the museum, points out some old buildings on Clay Street to Mrs. Page M. Beck (left), the club's chairman of fine arts, and Mrs. C.V. Cowan, art program chairman and newcomer to Richmond.
- Staff photo
01-05-1977 (cutline): Collection of donated art work is taken down for moving. Ms. Elizabeth Childs prepares paintings for storage.
- Bill Lane
05-23-1978 (cutline): Donna Deekens arranges costumes in new exhibit room on third floor of the building. Costume room is just one feature of modern facilities for the museum's collection of Richmond history.
- Don Rypka
03-06-1977 (cutline): Mrs. Luther Coleman Wells, Valentine Museum costume curator, examines 18th century dress.
- Don Long
10-29-1963 (cutline): Mrs. Thural Willis (left) and Miss Gayle Dean unpack exhibits at The Valentine Museum. A display of art works by Richmond public school pupils opens there tomorrow.
- Staff photo
11-08-1966 (cutline): William H. Garner of the Valentine, the Museum of Metropolitan Richmond, was putting finishing touches yesterday on one of five vignettes in the exhibition that opens tomorrow for a preview showing. The display of early camera equipment that accompanies this and other still-life scenes framed by a mock camera shutter will open during museum hours through January 2.
- Staff photo
09-25-1983 (cutline): Nurses Sue Taylor (left), Denez Yancy rehearse living history demonstration. The nurses are members of the Valentine Museum Guild which portray actual 19th century Richmond nurses at the museum's living history demonstration "A Souther Childhood."
- Lindy Keast Rodman