I can give a partial answer to this question by telling you about two events that occurred last week.
On a September weekend in Alexandria, Virginia, my husband and I joined a walking tour of the Old Town. The tour was led by a man I assumed to be a volunteer. Within the first hour, he had repeated three myths: that childbirth was the leading cause of death among women (Myth #2), that all the rocks in the streets came from ballast (Myth #54), and that the kitchen was separated from the main house because they burned down all the time (Myth #53). There may have been more to come, but after an hour had passed and we hadn’t managed to move farther than half a block, we concluded that we could accomplish more walking by ourselves. We slipped away.
More alarming was the 5th grade textbook that I was asked to review last fall by Virginia’s Department of Education. Maybe you remember this subject in the newspapers at that time–a history professor at William and Mary had noticed in her daughter’s 4th grade textbook a number of serious errors about the Civil War, including such things as the incorrect number of states in the Confederacy and the large number of black soldiers fighting with Stonewall Jackson. Oooops. So the state decided to look more closely into the publisher’s 5th grade textbook as well, and I was the person who reviewed it. What I found was appalling. Not mere differences of opinion, which happens among historians, or shades of emphasis, but factual errors, such as Queen Elizabeth sent settlers to found Jamestown in 1607 (quite a feat since she died in 1603) and Cyrus McCormick’s young grandson was there on the day the reaper was tested (Cyrus McCormick was 22 when he tested his reaper–no grandchildren yet!). Spelling mistakes, such as Mississipi, Washinton, Lousiana Purchase, Lousianna Purchase, governement, developement, ammendment, seccession, neccesary, weathy, seperate, and astronmer. Grammatical errors, such as “Each country believed that their culture was superior to the others.” Faulty maps: No, the battle of Vicksburg did not take place in Virginia, and Forts Duquesne and Necessity (misspelled Neccesity) were not in Ohio. Not to mention punctuation, repetition, and wrongly numbered pages. Adding insult to injury, the book repeated many myths, including some of our favorites from this blog, such as “Wigmakers made those all-important head toppers, since it was the style in the 1700s for most men to wear wigs” (Myth # 40). “Very few people in colonial America could read . . .” (Myth #37). “Continental soldiers, some shooting bullets made from their own melted-down pewter spoons and plates, captured 6,000 Hessian and British soldiers . . .” (Myth #39). “Every single American died [at the Alamo], but the Mexicans lost the fight a few weeks later . . .” (Myth #62). At the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, “a military band played a song called The World Turned Upside Down.” (I haven’t gotten to that one yet.)
I’m pleased to say that I had the chance to see the revised textbook a few weeks ago and all but two of the mistakes I had found were corrected. (I presume they’ll handle those on the next go-round. ) And the publisher pledged to replace all the mistake-filled books, so all’s well that ends well. Here’s a link to the newspaper announcement that the books have been approved. http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/news/2011/sep/22/disputed-textbooks-back-states-approved-list-ar-1329435/
Does anyone else have personal examples of how myths are spread?