South Carolina's U.S. history standards are "solid." Credit: John Bazemore/AP Photos

When voices in South Carolina rose to defend the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia in the name of “heritage,” I wondered what exactly they thought that was. Heritage can be anything and everything from the day before yesterday on back, and what matters can be as simple as whatever it was that was stressed in school. Do they understand? I wondered, using they in the sweeping way appropriate to a stranger passing judgment on a distant place, that a century after the battle flag was the emblem raised by gallant farm boys dying in defense of their homeland’s sins, it reigned as the battle flag of Jim Crow? Do they even know what Jim Crow was— those southern whites too young to have lived in it?

Mary Schmich, writing in the Tribune, said that as a child in Georgia, “rooting for the Confederacy was more like sport than war. North vs. South. Yankees vs. Rebels. Go team.” As for the flag, she never thought of it “as a symbol of segregation or slavery. The idea of the Confederacy, the sense of the South as a defeated but proudly defiant land, was steeped into white Southern culture, but I didn’t connect any of that to racism.” A second cousin of mine who grew up in Georgia a generation later tells a similar story. “Growing up, I just found the flag cool. It was more like a vintage historical symbol of the place where I was from. I remember wanting to buy a confederate flag sticker for my car when I turned 16 but decided it was just a little too redneck. . . . It didn’t really cross my mind that it was actually more of a white supremacist symbol or the symbol that stood for slavery. I think that might also have to do with the fact that in my lifetime the GA state flag had a prominent confederate flag on it. I really do think when you see official state things, it doesn’t make it seem as bad.”

That state flag was adopted in 1956, a time when the Georgia legislature “was entirely devoted to passing legislation that would preserve segregation and white supremacy”—according to a 2000 report by the state senate. It was replaced in 2001.

In a later e-mail, my cousin observed that the bane of education in the south might be Texas, a textbook market so enormous that publishers courting it will write their history any way Texas wants it. (A friend who edited at one of the most reputable of the educational publishing houses recalls lining out of textbooks anything Texas might disapprove of.) My cousin linked to an article a year ago in the Houston Press describing the “glaringly off-balance” new social studies textbooks written to standards imposed by the conservative state board of education. For instance, the Press found no mention of the Ku Klux Klan and no mention of Jim Crow, and a Civil War in which slavery was a side issue. “These textbooks will end up being used by school children across the country,” the Press predicted.

They’ll be introduced in Texas this fall.

One article led to another as I surfed the ‘net, looking for assessments of southern education, and I came to a 2011 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute of the public school history curriculums of every single state. The institute is a conservative think tank dedicated to setting and raising educational standards across the country. In 2009, funded by almost $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it studied the emerging Common Core standards and then championed them as “clearly superior” to what could be found in many states.

The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011 says bluntly that “a majority of states’ standards are mediocre-to-awful. The average grade across all states is barely a D.”

Only one state received an A from the institute. That state was South Carolina.

The study reports:

South Carolina has supplemented its already solid U.S. history standards with extraordinary, narrative “curriculum support” documents. The support texts not only outline what should be covered, but also explain the actual history in depth, maintaining a nuanced, sophisticated, and balanced approach throughout. The result sets a new bar for what states can accomplish: The combined standards and support texts earn the distinction of being the best U.S. history standards in the nation at this time.

This sophisticated history doesn’t begin in high school:

The Kindergarten through second grade materials introduce Native American and minority history without marginalizing unifying national themes. The third-grade state history course is unusually sophisticated for the age level, introducing slavery, the state’s role in the Civil War, and its history of Jim Crow. The eighth-grade recap of South Carolina history is admirably detailed and well-linked to national issues. Again, slavery and segregation are covered with dispassionate accuracy.

Alabama got an A-, Georgia a B, Mississippi the F I carelessly supposed every southern state deserved. The study noted that Mississippi, whose state flag still incorporates the battle flag, promotes a “Mississippi studies” curriculum for fourth-graders that encourages kids to make “I Am Proud to Be a Mississippian” booklets and ignores slavery completely. Texas got a D and was accused of combining “a rigidly thematic and theory-based social studies structure with a politicized distortion of history. The result is both unwieldy and troubling, avoiding clear historical explanation while offering misrepresentations at every turn.”

  • The flag of Mississippi

And Illinois? Its history standards were “exceptionally vague,” its history outline full of “odd gaps and oversights.” Illinois was graded D.

It’s possible I was paying more attention to the minority crying “heritage!” in South Carolina than that minority deserved. After the Tea Party governor, Nikki Haley, called for the removal of the statehouse battle flag, the state senate voted 36 to 3 to get rid of it, and the house voted 94 to 20 to do the same. Those numbers suggest the legislature had a pretty clear grasp of heritage. The overwhelming decision to bring the flag down might be a tribute to public education.