What Happened in 1492?

January 01, 1992 9 min read
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Every year, Michael Connolly begins teaching his high school students about Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas by asking them what they know about the famous explorer.

“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492,’' someone usually volunteers. Another student offers the names of Columbus’s three ships--the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Someone else points out that Columbus misnamed the Indians he encountered because he thought he had reached the Indies.

That, says the Norfolk, Va., social studies teacher, is “just about all they know.’'

But this year, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing, students in classes such as Connolly’s will have an opportunity to learn much more. And the story they will hear is likely to be broader, more complex--and far more controversial--than anything they have heard before about the famous explorer.

The quincentennial of Columbus’s landing has spawned a barrage of educational efforts and a passionate debate over how best to teach about the historical event and its consequences. In a new era of concern over the “multi- cultural’’ content of classroom teaching, the Americas’ first known immigrant has become its most controversial one. “The Columbus issue,’' says Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, “is probably going to be the great symbolic issue in social studies during the coming year.’'

Not even the staunchest traditionalists continue to argue that Columbus did, indeed, “discover’’ America. American Indians were already living here. Fewer still would profess that the Italian navigator set out to prove the world is round, although a few textbooks in use today continue to make that claim. Historians say that most educated Europeans of Columbus’s day already understood that. Instead, Columbus’s purpose was to find a passage by sea to the Indies.

There is considerable debate nationally, however, over the consequences of Columbus’s fateful landing on the island of Guanahani, in what is now the Bahamas, in October 1492--and over whether the event is one to be celebrated or mourned.

At one end of the debate, American Indians and other groups and scholars contend Columbus was a murderer whose “discovery’’ set off a long chain of events leading directly to the genocide of the Indians, the advent of black slavery in America, and possibly even the eventual “ecocide’’ of the planet.

At the other end of the spectrum, traditionalists cling to a view of the man as a brave explorer and exemplar of the Renaissance who initiated a new age when he set foot in the Americas.

At least 33 national organizations have weighed in on the subject so far, and many teachers are re-examining their own approaches to the topic. The story of Columbus has taken on such importance because it is also the story of America.

“The world we know today began with Columbus’s voyages,’' says Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. “That’s not to be trivialized.’'

Notes Sewall: “Schools in essence are asking themselves: How are we going to portray our culture? How are we going to tell our story--how we got here and became an increasingly complex group of people with different backgrounds?’'

In a statement issued last fall, Haley’s group called on teachers to “convey the basic factual knowledge about the event, incorporating recent scholarship on the subject, and conveying the unfolding impact of the voyage.’' That means, for example, frank discussion of the diverse, and very often advanced, Indian groups living in the Americas in 1492 and of the devastating impact the Spaniards’ arrival had on them. “It’s not an extremist statement by any means,’' Haley says. Neither is it the traditional classroom yarn.

The statement, which was nearly a year in development, also received the endorsement of 30 other national groups, including the American Indian Heritage Foundation, learned societies, and education groups.

The controversy over Columbus comes at a time when schools nationwide are re-examining the way they teach about non-Western cultures. Two of the biggest states--California and New York--have taken steps in recent years to revise their social studies curriculum to reflect a more multicultural approach to history. In both of those efforts, Columbus was a prominent figure. A New York State task force report on the social studies noted, for example, that America was already settled when Columbus arrived and urges educators to include American Indian perspectives in their discussions on the “settling’’ of America.

“Columbus,’' Sewall says, “is the subject through which multiculturalism will express itself.’'

Like other minority and nonWestern groups, American Indians have long protested the failure of schools to include their perspectives in social studies classes. They say the traditional classroom tale of Columbus glosses over the horrors the explorer inflicted on the indigenous groups he met and treats them as little more than “pieces of furniture’’ in a white man’s story.

“He hanged chiefs and cut off the hands of Indian boys who didn’t bring him enough gold,’' explains Norbert Hill Jr., an Oneida Indian who served on a federal panel last year that examined the education of American Indian children.

More important, classroom accounts often make little mention of the devastation wreaked by smallpox and other diseases that Columbus and his men brought to America with them. By one account, the smallpox that ravaged the Taino Indians after Columbus’s arrival wiped out half of the population on what is now the Bahamas. “The conclusion must be that the major initial effect of the Columbian voyages was the transformation of America into a charnel house,’' historian Alfred Crosby has written. Crosby and other historians also note that Columbus’s “discovery’’ led in short order to the advent of black slavery in America. Soon after the explorer returned to Spain with tobacco, cocoa, sugar, and other agricultural products from the “New World,’' European demand for those somewhat addictive commodities intensified. Initially, Columbus’s successors used Indian slaves to work the huge plantations that grew those crops. African slaves were recruited for the tasks only after the Indians died off in captivity.

And then there are scholars who say Columbus’s “discovery’’ should not be celebrated at all because he never even knew where he was. Moreover, they argue, he may not have been the first explorer to reach the Americas; some theories suggest that the Vikings, seafaring Africans, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders may have preceded him.

Such questions, says Anne Paolucci, president of Columbus: Countdown 1992, a nonprofit educational foundation, “trivialize history.’'

“To suggest in schools the kind of superficial questions out there is counterproductive and is distracting young people from what they really should be studying,’' says Paolucci, who is also chairwoman of the graduate English department at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y. “You have to profess a sense of respect for history. Columbus was the first great visionary navigator of the Renaissance. If you put down Columbus, you put down the Renaissance.’'

Paolucci and others planning celebrations of Columbus accuse their detractors of using the occasion as a kind of “political affirmative action’’ and a “referendum on world woes, past and present.’' The situation is ironic, they add, because it was precisely Columbus who helped make possible the multicultural society that exists in the United States today.

To some degree, new views of Columbus have already seeped into the classroom. A number of teachers interviewed for this article, for example, say they have long been cautious about the language they use in discussing the event. “I’m going to talk about commemorating and avoid talking about celebrating,’' says Connolly, the Norfolk high school teacher. “Another word we don’t use anymore is ‘discover'; we talk about an ‘encounter’ that continues to this day.’'

Accounts of the Columbian encounter have also changed in some recently published textbooks.

“What we like to think of as the discovery of America,’' declares a Holt, Rinehart & Winston text adopted for use by 8th graders in California, “was actually the invasion and conquest of America.’'

For the most part, however, experts say that textbooks fall short of the breadth and balance needed to present the kind of approach to the subject that groups such as the NCSS advocate. West says that elementary school textbooks being used as recently as two years ago erroneously credit the explorer with proving that the world is round. Other social studies textbooks introduce the topic with such subtitles as “Brave Explorers’’ or “Daring Discoverers,’' according to Sewall. Some skip over Columbus entirely.

Marjorie Wall Bingham decided to confront the national controversy over Columbus head on. She appoints students in her classroom at St. Louis Park (Minn.) High School to an imaginary commission formed to commemorate the quincentennial. Some are selected to represent the local Native American community. Others represent Italian-Americans, Hispanics, and, in acknowledgment of the state’s large Norwegian-American population, the local Sons of Norway.

Their task is to decide how to spend the $1.5 million they have been allocated to mark the quincentennial. “It’s not so much that I’m telling them there’s a new view,’' Bingham says. “They have to do a certain amount of research to understand there’s a new view.’'

Alan Haskvitz, a Los Angeles middle school teacher, says he skips the controversy altogether in his classroom. He invited a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer to explore the navigational aspects of Columbus’s voyage with his 8th grade students. They compare 15th-century compasses with their modern-day versions and even study celestial navigation. “You don’t have to worry about the controversy and who’s first,’' he says. “These kids have learned something more important--how to survive.’'

Such creative classroom approaches to the problem, however, may be unusual, says Marilyn Johnson, a professor of education at Ohio State University who directed a university project intended to strengthen teaching about Columbus in five schools in three districts. The majority of the teachers who participated, she says, had been teaching “right from the textbooks.’'

“Most of us grew up with a simplified mythology of Columbus and, if we haven’t had an opportunity to go beyond that ourselves, we’re not going to do much different for our students,’' she says. “Our historical myths are not easily changed.’'

The task becomes especially difficult at the elementary school level, Johnson says, because young children often have ironclad concepts of good and evil, and teachers tend to simplify complicated material for them. “The key,’' she says, “is not in making it simple or less truthful but in finding ways for them to connect with what they know, ways of encouraging them to take multiple perspectives.’'

Despite such difficulties, educators say both the controversy and the outpouring of new educational materials about Columbus have been healthy for the classroom.

“Before, I used to spend about 20 minutes on Columbus, and now I spend days,’' says Norfolk’s Connolly, whose own interest in the subject was sparked by a Library of Congress institute last summer.

The students, he has noticed, seem to thrive on the controversy. “If anything,’' he says, “they’re kind of pleased you’re letting them in on a secret.’'---Debra Viadero

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as What Happened in 1492?


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