Across the Street: Who won the Civil War? |

Across the Street: Who won the Civil War?

Joyce Rankin/For Craig Press
Joyce Rankin
Courtesy photo

Who won the Civil War? Is your answer based on “facts” or on yours, or someone else’s, interpretation?

Last month the State Board of Education reviewed and voted on Social Studies Standards which include, history, geography, economics and civics.

The word “interpret” appeared 90 times somewhere in the social studies revised document. The word “interpret”, defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “to conceive in the light of individual belief, judgment or circumstance.”

Researcher and developer of K-12 mathematics curriculum Paul Goldenberg asserts that “Wrong answers are often correct answers to an entirely reasonable alternative interpretation of a question.” Children, due to their limited experience and knowledge base, may “interpret” a situation quite differently than an adult. Add their access to today’s most popular research sources, Wikipedia and Google, and you may find unexpected answers to seemingly obvious questions.

As an example, take a middle school assignment: “Who won the Civil War?”

One of the essential skills under the new social studies standards for eighth-graders is to “Interpret information as historians, and draw conclusions based on the best analysis using primary and secondary sources.”

The first challenge is understanding the definition of primary and secondary sources. When the eighth-grade student Googles these terms he or she finds:

A primary source “provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event,” including “internet communications via email, blogs, listservs and newsgroups.”

Secondary sources “describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon …”

So, if the 13-year-old uses Google and searches for “The South Won the Civil War,” the first article that appears is from the New Yorker, (2015) and bears the title, “The South Won the Civil War.” The first photo caption reads, “Southernization of American politics,” and cites civil and voting rights as the reason the Sough won the war.

The second article is from, advertised as “your best source for antiwar news and viewpoints,” and is titled “How the South Won the Civil War.”

The process the student used fits the standards. However, his or her conclusion is incorrect.

History Professor Terry Jones, of the University of Louisiana, wrote a piece in the New York Times titled, Could the South have won the Civil War? His article provides many “what if” scenarios that could have changed history. Might a 13-year-old use this as a primary source?

How would a teacher evaluate the student’s report when the process was followed, yet the outcome was incorrect?

The board approved the new social studies standards by a single vote.

Should we be teaching facts or interpretations?

Joyce Rankin is on the State Board of Education representing the Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. She writes the monthly column, “Across the Street” to share with constituents in the 29 counties she represents. The Department of Education, where the State Board of Education meets, is located across the street from the Capitol. Ranking is also a legislative assistant for State Rep. Bob Rankin.


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