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.
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"
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.