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.
From the Archives: The Valentine
The Valentine, located at 1015 East Clay Street in downtown Richmond, was constructed starting in 1892 by Mann S. Valentine, Jr., the founder.
Valentine made his fortune from Valentine’s Meat Juice, a tonic made from pure beef juice and believed to be medicinal. Valentine was also an avid collector and possessed hundreds of historic objects. He died just a year after the foundation for the museum was poured, but left behind his personal collection at the 1812 Wickham House, also part of the museum.
The Valentine Museum opened in 1898 as the first private museum in Richmond.
Here’s a look back at the museum over the years from our archives.
Edward L. Ayers, president emeritus of the University Richmond, is a history professor, author and winner of the Bancroft Prize (2004) and Lincoln Prize (2018). Contact him at email@example.com.