04/25/2014 03:34 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2014

What's in a Name? Virginia Politicians Cater to Rewrite Geography Lessons

It all came to light for most Virginians when John Stevens, the former chairman of the Loudoun County School Board, rebuked the state's legislature in the state's leading newspaper for needlessly trying to edit his children's public school textbooks line by line.

But it had started during last year's campaign for Virginia governor when Democrat Terry McAuliffe was approached by members of the state's Korean-American community.

More casually than thoughtfully, McAuliffe said sure, I'll support you. He was later to regret his easy response.

What the Korean group wanted was a law requiring that Virginia public school textbooks refer to the Sea of Japan as the East Sea, involving the state in a longstanding dispute oceans away.

The Korean activists enlisted a legislative sponsor, a controversial state senator, to do their bidding and gained support in Virginia's General Assembly, made easy by generous campaign contributions.

Sure enough, the bill passed both houses and was reluctantly signed into law by McAuliffe, who had tried but failed to find a way to avoid his signature.

The situation seemed to end with the enactment, until John Stevens, active on educational and political issues in one of Virginia's largest counties, stepped forward to point out lessons learned:

  • Virginia's politicians aren't qualified to rewrite geography. There are accepted national and international boards for geographical designations, and textbook manufacturers follow consensus, not the whim of a legislature.
  • For Virginia to accede to pressure because of political considerations places the commonwealth in league with such states as Texas, which is notorious for dictating religious and other requirements in state textbooks, and opens the door for any pressure group to succeed.
  • Virginia's legislature is causing an unnecessary burden on taxpayers and a needless distraction for students, parents and educators.

Stevens, who served four years as chairman of the school board for Loudoun County, wrote about these lessons and more in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Virginia's state capital newspaper, and at least some members of the legislature began to realize their folly.

Here's what John Stevens had to say:

Members of the state's House of Delegates and Senate openly admitted they favored the Korean position because Korean-American constituents have been generous political supporters, and for no other reason.

So just when you thought government couldn't get less efficient, Virginia politicians have decided to rewrite textbooks for my son and daughter, editing one sentence at a time.

He continued:

Controversies over geography and other subjects can and should be discussed in classrooms, with all sides considered. Virginia's students can be well served by learning about the naming of the Sea of Japan or the East Sea; the dispute is an excellent gateway to a discussion of the history and geography of East Asia.

But it is foolish for legislators to try to rewrite textbooks when there are accepted procedures for geographical identification.

Is the city Danzig or Gdansk? Derry or Londonderry? Who owns the name Macedonia? All of these and others can be covered in robust courses on history and current events.

John Stevens warned that few, if any textbook manufacturers, will modify their texts based on the whim of a legislature. Textbooks are changed when there is consensus from qualified sources, and he pointed out that the Virginia legislature isn't qualified as such as an authority.

But it turns out that Virginia isn't the only state where attempts are being made to rename the Sea of Japan, an identification historically accepted by geographical authorities.

New York state legislators with Korean-American constituencies want to change New York's textbooks, and other states are reported to be pressured, all accompanied by generous political support.

Perhaps in those states, another educator such as John Stevens will step forward and try to teach lessons that need to be learned.