So Much for Burying the Dark Side of Virginia History

Should this be our framework for learning American history and civics?

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has posted a new set of proposed goals for the teaching of civics, geography, and economics — the first major changes to the History and Social Science Standards of Learning since the existing standards were adopted in 2015.

Critics have accused the Youngkin administration of wanting to ban the teaching of the more unsavory aspects of Virginia history such as slavery, racism and segregation. The charges were leveled without any evidence and in the face of repeated declarations to the contrary by Youngkin administration officials, but Virginia’s legacy media has allowed them to pass unchallenged.

If Governor Youngkin is bent upon whitewashing Virginia and U.S. history, it’s not apparent from this overview to be presented to the Virginia Board of Education November 17. Consider these proposed changes to learning goals enumerated in that document:

  • Adding more specific and thorough treatment of the issue of slavery, particularly by requiring more content in earlier grades;
  • Adding more specific and thorough treatment of the issue of segregation, particularly by requiring more content in earlier grades;
  • Adding more specific and thorough treatment of the Reconstruction era;
  • Adding more clear and thorough treatment of the issue of the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia;
  • Requiring the examination of important Supreme Court cases like Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. U.S., Buck v. Bell, Loving v. Virginia and others;
  • Further examining the critical role of the Founding Fathers and the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the U.S. Constitution;
  • Further explaining the importance of Women’s Suffrage and key events in history that led to the Nineteenth Amendment.

The devil is not so much in the details, which Virginia school children undoubtedly will learn, but in how the issues of slavery, racism, segregation and women’s rights are framed.

One approach — we might call it Charles Beard approach, or, updated, the 1619 approach — treats U.S. history as a parade of unrelenting horribles and atrocities. The founding of the nation was illegitimate, Whites are irredeemably racist, and the United States has made meager progress toward equality and justice over the past 250 years.

A different approach would stress how the American colonies inherited a set of institutions, values and attitudes passed down from the feudal era. Context is crucial. In mother England, as in every kingdom, empire, satrapy, and chiefdom across the world, the strong preyed upon the weak. Rulers devised hierarchical institutions and ideologies that preserved their dominance. The vast majority of mankind existed in conditions of servitude that differed only in the degree of severity and immiseration. Holland and, more consequentially, Britain were the first nations to emerge from the medieval mire with strong representative institutions that shared power more broadly across society. In the Enlightenment, Europeans were the first to mount an intellectual challenge to the ancien regime and the worldview that undergirded it. And the American colonies represented the greatest leap forward in putting those principles into practice, imperfectly at first, but always navigating toward the beacon that “all men are created equal” and entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” One of the great themes of American history is the expansion of the circle of empathy and the long struggle to apply those principles universally.

But there’s a lot more to American history than the mitigation of oppression. Following in the footsteps of England’s industrial revolution, America adopted a market-based economic model that unleashed the greatest prosperity seen in the history of the world. The story of technological innovation and material progress, though little talked about these days, is also a fundamental part of the American story. Wealth creation cannot be taken for granted. Virginia children should be acquainted with the values and institutions that make it possible.

Here’s an idea that might be novel to both sides of the culture wars: it’s OK to teach students that differing perspectives exist, and it’s OK for them to apply different frameworks of analysis to U.S. history and current affairs. Our goal should be to equip children to think for themselves and reach their own informed judgments, rather than tell them what to think.

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43 responses to “So Much for Burying the Dark Side of Virginia History”

  1. Carter Melton Avatar
    Carter Melton

    Surely you jest. Option #2 hardly qualifies as a “non-starter” in today’s brave new world. Think of the hundreds of woke warriors and employees in the ballooning race industry who would have to go to Martinsville and retrain to become wind industry mechanics.

  2. Wahoo'74 Avatar

    Superb analysis, Jim.

    The overarching tenet in studying history is to analyze people and countries’ behavior and philosophies in the context of their times. Today’s revisionist historians judgmentally condemn America and our Founding Fathers comparing their actions with 21st century moral criteria, through their Progressive lens.

  3. This sounds outstanding.. the earlier young Virginians learn about the true nature of the Democratic party [the developer, supporter, & promoter of many of these issues], the better — right?

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Clearly, some are still stinging fromm the loss of their inheritance.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Slavery was ‘inherited” and it was bad/wrong but… then it stopped and everyone was equal from then on…. no harm no foul… the “oppression” ended, end of story.

  6. Thanks JAB. That’s an admirable vision. With work and a little good fortune we can achieve at least some of it, even though the partisan rage recently has been rampant.

  7. OK, so this is a very positive development. And what exactly is Youngkin yammering about then when it comes to CRT? Is it actually being taught in K-12? Do we have proof?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Well if you listen to JAB, it’s all in “how” it’s taught and that’s why they need the “tip” line! Woke teachers can teach it in a very wrong way…

      1. Yeah, I’m sure Youngkin has a real feel for “HOW” issues like slavery are taught. Such a worthwhile campaign issue….;-)

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          well… it did work.. he got elected on it….

          1. Yes, past tense. His story was weak sauce in 2022.

        2. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

          Are you African American and descended from blacks who were enslaved? If not and using your standard, you have no right to judge anyone else who is white or to opine as to how slavery is taught in school.

          1. What?

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            TMT. Do you mean having white folks decide how and what to teach about slavery?

      2. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive


  8. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    Noble thoughts, JAB, especially the last line about encouraging students to reach their own conclusions, rather than to tell them what to think. That, as I understand our history, is the twin purpose of child labor laws and mandatory public education for an enlightened citizenry. At the same time, as the encircling empathy expands, the demand for equity increases exponentially over black-letter equality and rigid meritocracy for all to be equal.

    1. Thumbs up for your keeping up the Jim McCarthy silly walks.

      Way to go adding word salad as a silly walk variation.

      “At the same time, as the encircling empathy expands, the demand for equity increases exponentially over black-letter equality and rigid meritocracy for all to be equal.”

      That is really wonderful utter nonsense. Congrats.

      1. James McCarthy Avatar
        James McCarthy

        Apologies for plagiarizing JAB’s words which you so ardently seemed to embrace. “One of the great themes of American history is the expansion of the circle of empathy and the long struggle to apply those principles universally.”

        1. You didn’t plagiarize JAB, you made up nonsense word salad of your own.

          Trying to blame it on stealing from your betters is worth a Jim McCarthy silly walk award all of its own. Way to go, you keep finding new ways to be silly. Keep up the silliness, it is entertaining.

          1. James McCarthy Avatar
            James McCarthy

            “So, Yank, you are out of bullets.” Ha, ha. I can write your jejune, turgid, repetitive comments. Take a year off while I fill in for you.

    2. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

      I’ve been thinking about your use of the legal system’s concept of equity. At one level, I see where you come from. However and as you know, in order to obtain legal relief in equity, one must prove that one cannot be made whole with a remedy under law and that one (plaintiff(s)) must prove all the elements required for equitable relief. The broader the class of plaintiffs, the more difficult the proof that everyone seeking relief meets those requirements.

      It’s not unlike some of the many class actions under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). More and more class actions are not being certified because they could not prove all of the elements Congress set forth in the statute for the entire putative class.

      I struggle with the idea that commonality of race, religion, ethnic background, etc., alone can satisfy the requirements for equitable relief. But I appreciate you sharing your definition of equity as it’s much easier to understand your comments.

      1. James McCarthy Avatar
        James McCarthy

        Thanks. Equity cannot be appreciated as a fixed set of rules like the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In England, the chancery courts were supposed to reflect the King’s conscience to mitigate unfair or unjust outcomes in the application of the common law. Sometimes unfair or unjust is like pornography — we know it when we see it. Affirmative action in employment and education is likely to succumb to the normative “colorblindness” criterion unnecessarily. IMO, a principal American value demands fairness to support exceptionalism.

        The nation has sufficient resources and conscience to endure equity to achieve the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the letter of the law under the Constitution. Anal interpretations of both thru originalist or textualist lenses betrays that principal value falsely as not “deeply rooted.”

        1. Thanks? Fairfax did not agree with you, he just said you made it easier to understand you. Then he debunked what you were peddling.

          “The nation has sufficient resources and conscience to endure equity to achieve the ideals of the Declaration of Independence”

          What utter nonsense. “enduring equity” has nothing to do with achieving the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Equity, compelling equal outcomes regardless of ability, is subversive of our founding ideals.

          You disgrace the status of Jim McCarthy’s silly walks. I encourage you to get out of the gutter and strive to regain silly. That at least is amusing.

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      “Noble thoughts, JAB, especially the last line about encouraging students to reach their own conclusions, rather than to tell them what to think.”

      They’ll learn “what” to think from social networks.

  9. Deckplates Avatar

    The curriculum development, and its subsequent use in mandating topics as learning requirements, is essential in ensuring that our kids get taught the right stuff. That right stuff (partially) consists of the U.S. Constitution, civics. Also, understanding that why the treating of our citizens and legal residents differently, based on …something… is self-defeating and is a cause that will create a negative effect.

    It is difficult to understand the past and how people were controlled and mistreated. Yet attempting to do that adds to the thought process of being able to place a value on it & why it was wrong. Today, it is easy to misunderstand cultures (and yes race & religion) and associate them with a “class” of citizen. Thus, we treat them differently. And we do it all the time. Why? Cuz, it is the easy way out and we do not think. We react emotionally without knowing or considering the difference.

    As important, is the creation of wealth and not having it confiscated by the government, especially as it grows. Few countries in the world permit that. Why do we have a flood of people wanting in, rather than a flood wanting out?

    When we are taught to think, and how to improve our thinking skills and the understanding of what we see & learn, we substantiate our conclusions and consequently mold our actions. All with a more positive effect.

    Gov Youngkin and Secretary Guidera are trying to fix an educational system which has been ideologically & politically skewed. Moreover, they want to create a more positive effect. Most, rational, people want that fix. No one is perfect, but they are headed in the right direction.

  10. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Hah! No revision of standards was ever needed in my 11th grade US History class. The AP kids, the academic kids, and even the sweathogs all received an equal dose of how much I loved Virginia. I covered everything on the bullet list and had been doing it for years. It is a good story, and it is our story. A good history teacher would be doing this without the prompt.

  11. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “…but always navigating toward the beacon that “all men are created equal” and entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.””

    Simply and demonstrably untrue… why would we teach such a false history to our children?

  12. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Don’t despair quite yet, Jim. The Youngkin administration is working to modify the standards.

    The document that is up for review is the one that was developed over the previous two years under the board with Democratic appointees. The Superintendent of Public Instruction has made it clear that she wants major changes. Here are the major elements, as outlined in BOE meetings in August, September, and October:

    1. Timeline. The Standards were ready for adoption this summer. Balow asked the Board to put off adoption for “technical” corrections. Later, she proposed putting it off even longer, saying that “it needed to be right”, without saying what was wrong with them. She proposed final adoption in February. Some of the longer-serving board members argued that adoption could be accomplished sooner. Balow replied that more time was needed to hear from “entities, whose voices had not yet been heard.” When pressed about which other “entities”, she specified Hilldale College , a small, self-described Christian liberal arts college in Michigan, and the Jack Miller Center, a small 501 (c) (3) organization in Pennsylvania, with previous ties to the Koch brothers. Left unsaid was the reason why a small private college in Michigan would care about Virginia Standards of History and Social Science or why the BOE should give any weight to why anyone from that college said. The notice you linked to shows a proposed schedule with February as the month of adoption, as Balow proposed. She has the votes on the BOE to adopt that schedule.

    2. Format. As proposed by the former Board, the Standards is a 700+ page document, setting out both standards and curriculum. Balow has proposed “de-coupling” the standards from the curriculum. Anne Holton, a member of the former Board and reappointed by Youngkin, strongly objected to the decoupling. Without having examined the document, I suspect that the curriculum will be the key to how the standards will be met.

    It is not clear whether the draft being presented at the November meeting will have incorporated input from those other “entities” or whether such changes will be proposed then. The November meeting could well be a lively one.

    1. James McCarthy Avatar
      James McCarthy

      Read the Wiki entry to obtain an idea of Hillsdale. An ultra conservative dreamscape.

      1. LesGabriel Avatar

        Hillsdale College provides a FREE on-line Constitution 101 course. I challenge anyone to find any “misinformation” in the course. I’ll wait.

        1. James McCarthy Avatar
          James McCarthy

          Is it not an ultra-conservative institution? No misinformation was mentioned. Stand down.

          1. LesGabriel Avatar

            It is a conservative institution. I’m not sure what the “ultra” means, although I suspect it is a dog-whistle that means something to those who understand the code. I assume you haven’t had or taken the time to look at their online course.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            Why is Virginia using such a source for updates to it’s curriculum and standards and why was it not made known that it was?

          3. To some, ‘ultra-conservative’ means anything that deviates even a tiny amount from the far-left, socialist, agenda…

          4. James McCarthy Avatar
            James McCarthy

            Your assumption is incorrect. I was on its mailing list for years receiving a steady stream of radical ideological messages. The Wiki entry has some interesting info regarding statements of its current President. Read them. Hillsdale is not a little pregnant in its ideological mission; not even a “ tiny amount.” If Hillsdale is afforded a role in developing VA’s curricular content, the final product will engender only more bitter debate about the content of the. Commonwealth’s instructional program. It’s kinda like Dr. Oz inviting local politicians into the decision making for an abortion.

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          It has connections to FOX News, and more than a few Conservative politicians like Pence and Jim Jordan.

      2. Ruckweiler Avatar

        You obviously have NO idea about Hillsdale and it shows. Try actually reading the College’s site instead of getting the leftist slant from Wikipedia.

      3. LesGabriel Avatar

        The Wikipedia entry is very informative (and does not use the prefix “ultra” before conservative. It does inform that it was formed by abolishinists and has enrolled African-Americans and women from its beginnings in the early Nineteenth Century. It provided large numbers of soldiers in the Civil War and WWI. All-in-all a proud tradition.

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          From its website, here is Hillsdale College’s summary of itself:
          “Hillsdale College is a small, Christian, classical liberal arts college
          in southern Michigan that operates independently of government funding.”

          Make of this what you will.

          1. James McCarthy Avatar
            James McCarthy

            Yes, “operates independently of government funding” with the exception of its not-for-profit status under the IRS code exempting its income from taxation and permitting donors to itemize contributions as tax deductible. Usual ambivalence from right wing culture warriors.

  13. Ruckweiler Avatar

    The Governor is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t on this issue. Slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation WERE parts of the history of the Old Dominion. Teaching about it with the rest of the story is fine as long as these subjects don’t BECOME the only history of the Commonwealth at the hands of the lefties.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      So you think they will teach these things without “explaining” them?

      1. Ruckweiler Avatar

        Possibly, but the parents are up in arms about the Commonwealth so we’ll just to see what happens, won’t we.

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