When I was a child, my schools assigned history textbooks that were almost entirely accurate. But my daughter’s third grade history textbook is anything but accurate. Its false claims may reflect a clumsy, ham-handed attempt to make certain people (like minority children and residents of non-wealthy areas) feel better about themselves. But it is unlikely to achieve anything other than depriving kids of a solid grasp of their country’s history. Its false claims may also make bright children cynical about the value of their studies, and discourage them from studying history at the college level, leading to a further decline in the study of the humanities.
The book is “Our World Far and Wide,” by Five Ponds Press, used in conjunction with the Virginia Standards of Learning. The book, written by Joy Masoff and liberal academics, claims that “Roanoke is a fast-growing city.” But Roanoke is in a relatively poor, depressed part of Virginia whose population is barely growing at all. Census data shows that its population barely budged between 2000 and 2010, going up by only two percent from 94,903 to 97,032 (it fell between 1990 and 2000). By contrast, the population of Virginia as a whole increased by 13.03 percent from 2000 to 2010, going from 7,078,513 to 8,001,024. Roanoke is a charming city worth visiting, but there is nothing fast, or fast-growing, about it.
The book’s claims about history are also very misleading. It depicts a nation in Africa that had little effect on the world as one of the world’s three great civilizations. And its portrait of seven great Americans includes relatively insignificant black and Hispanic activists in order to make a majority of the seven be black or Hispanic.
It depicts the relatively short-lived Empire of Mali in West Africa as one of the world’s three great civilizations, along with ancient Greece and Rome (see pp. 12-13). It ignores far more historically significant China, Egypt, India, and Persia. By ignoring China and India, it understates the contributions of Asians in world history. If its purpose was to improve minority kids’ self-esteem, it may backfire with Asian-American kids, like my nephew and niece.
The Mali empire arose both too late (in the Middle Ages) and was too ephemeral to have any real impact on modern civilization. It contributed nothing to modern thought or technology, and today, Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries. It did not lay the groundwork for modern mathematics the way India did many centuries ago (the Romans’ ability to do math was sometimes crippled by their use of cumbersome Roman numerals. The Arabic numerals currently in use in the West originated in India and were later transmitted to the West by the Arabs. They revolutionized mathematics, making computation infinitely easier).
Mali did not remotely influence later civilizations the way ancient Egypt and China did. China gave the West paper, gunpowder, porcelain (“china”), silk, tea, printing, medicines, the mariner’s compass, umbrellas, lacquer, and games (including cards, dominoes, and kites). The Chinese were the first to mine coal and cultivate peaches, apricots, and citrus fruits. Egypt contributed to Western architecture, astronomy, medicine, and mining. Israel and Persia contributed to modern religion and philosophy (such as monotheism and the concept of the devil). By contrast, Mali left behind no pyramids, no great wall, no philosophical innovations, and only modest libraries in Timbuktu.
Mali was not even the most historically significant empire in black Africa. It was far less significant than ancient Ethiopia (sometimes called the “cradle of mankind“), which gave us things like coffee (which the Ethiopians originally consumed as a paste rather than as a drink). If the authors of “Our World Far and Wide” had wanted to make black kids feel good about themselves, they could have talked about Ethiopia rather than Mali. It would have made their textbook less ridiculous.
They could also have talked about Egypt rather than Mali. Most Egyptians are not black, but some are black, especially in upper Egypt, and some Egyptian pharaohs (like the Nubian Dynasty) were black. So black people did have some influence on Egypt, one of the world’s great civilizations. By contrast, the Mali empire was a temporary accident of history, resulting from unearned wealth (it lay across the trade routes between the sources of salt in the Sahara Desert and the gold region/mines of West Africa, but these trade routes shifted after Western ships learned how to travel down the coast of West Africa to obtain gold directly, contributing to the empire’s economic impoverishment and collapse). The book falsely makes it sound like the Empire of Mali was a place of equality and plenty, even though slavery was practiced in the empire, and it, like other ancient and Medieval empires, experienced famine that afflicted the poor more than the rich.
The book “Our World Far and Wide” also misleads students about American history. It features seven great Americans, but two of them are historically relatively insignificant figures chosen to make it look like most historically-significant Americans were non-white. In addition to three white males included because they were indispensable in creating and preserving America (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln), it also lists four black and Hispanic people of lesser importance. Two of those four were major historical figures in their own right: Martin Luther King, and Thurgood Marshall, who became the first black Supreme Court justice, and successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education. The other two listed as among the seven great Americans were far less significant, however.
For example, Cesar Chavez was added to the list, even though he merits but a footnote in American history. He was the leader of an agricultural union, but his union was tiny and uninfluential in comparison to more significant unions like the American Federation of Labor founded by Samuel Gompers, or John Lewis’s United Mine Workers. Chavez did not cause the passage of any significant labor legislation, either. Nor did he shape immigration law in any major way (Chavez opposed illegal immigration that could undercut the wages of U.S.-born Mexican-American laborers, and called illegal aliens “wetbacks.”). A short history text for beginners should focus on the most important people and cultures. That certainly includes non-whites and minorities. But not Cesar Chavez, who would not fall within any rational historian’s list of the 100 most influential Americans, much less the seven greatest.
As a history major, and someone who studies and writes about legal history, I am embarrassed by the book “Our World Far and Wide,” and the fact that it is used in schools in my state. But sadly, it’s far from the worst history textbook used in the nation’s schools, as you can find by doing searches on Google. Some widely-used textbooks are even more inaccurate, and even more mentally shackled by political correctness.