Schools Grapple With Columbus's Legacy: Intrepid Explorer or Ruthless Conqueror?

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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, the Pinta, and the 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."

This year, however, as the 500th anniversary of Columbus's landing approaches, students in classes such as Mr. Connolly's will have an opportunity to learn much more. And, according to historians and educators nationwide, the story they hear this time around could be broader, more complex-and far more controversial--than anything they have heard before about the famous explorer.

The coming quincentenary 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 "multicultural" content of classroom teaching, the Americas' first known immigrant has become its most controversial one.

"The Columbus issue," observed Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, "is probably going to be the great symbolic issue in social studies during the coming year."

Hero or Villain?

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 scholars note that 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, they say, 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, Native Americans 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 American 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.

America's Story

The story of Columbus has taken on such importance, experts say, because it is also the story of America.

"Schools in essence are asking themselves, 'How are we going to portray our culture, how are we going to tell our story, and how we got here and became an increasingly complex group of people with different backgrounds?' "Mr. Sewall said.

Few other historical figures have as many statues, universities, and cities named after them as Columbus does. Few other historical tales have achieved such epic proportions. Just decades ago, write two University of Minnesota history professors, Carla R. Phillips and William Phillips, textbooks were still using the Columbus tale to instill "the virtues of good citizenship."

"The problem has been that Columbus has been presented as a symbol of this country, a kind of founding father--even though he never set foot on this soil," said Delno West, a professor of history at Northern Arizona University, who has a book on Columbus for young adults due out this fall. "Heroes tend to be surrounded by mythology."

Even without all the embellishments, however, the story marks a watershed moment in history, according to Mr. West and others. Although probably not the first foreigner in the Americas, Columbus did establish permanent, continuing contact between two major world civilizations. That single achievement, scholars say, indelibly altered the course of world events--for better or worse.

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

In a statement to be issued this week, her group is calling 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," Ms. Haley said. Neither is it the traditional classroom yarn.

The statement, which has been nearly a year in development, has also received the endorsement of 30 other national groups, including the American Indian Heritage Foundation, learned societies, and education groups. (See text, page 15.)

"Over the last 10 or 15 years, there have been a lot of anniversaries, and they seem to be an occasion for educators to do something, and we have been dismayed and concerned that there has been a lot of celebration and not much education," Ms. Haley said. "We're setting straight the record that has been called into question with the advent of new scholarship."

Among other education-minded efforts geared to the quincentennial:

  • The members of the National Education Association resolved at their annual convention to promote "alternative analysis of the landing, highlighting the treatment of the Native populations and not relying on long-promoted and misleading views of Columbus's landing and subsequent 'settling of this continent."
  • The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. issued a statement calling the quincentenary a time of "repentance" and noting that "what represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation, and genocide for others."
  • The American Library Association formally urged librarians nationwide to provide quincentennial programs and materials that "examine the event from an authentic Native American perspective" and deal with topics like "cultural imperialism, colonialism, and the Native American Holocaust."
  • The National Endowment for the Humanities funded more than 330 research efforts by teachers and students examining topics related to the quincentenary and supported an upcoming Public Broadcasting Service documentary series on the topic.
  • The Library of Congress sponsored two comprehensive institutes for 86 teachers on Christopher Columbus and the consequences of his arrival in the Americas.

In addition, a number of universities are sponsoring similar institutes on the subject specifically geared to classroom teachers.

As one educator has observed, "Everyone is talking about Columbus."

'Glossing' Over Horrors

The controversy over teaching about 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, for example-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 curriculum notes, for example, that America was already settled when Columbus arrived. It urges educators to include Native American perspectives in their discussions on the "settling" of America.

"Columbus is the subject through which multiculturalism will express itself" said Mr. Sewall of the American Textbook Council.

Like other minority and non-Western groups, Native Americans have long protested the failure of schools to include more of their perspectives in social-studies classes. In the quincentenary, they see a rare opportunity to further that goal.

These and other groups and scholars 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 mostly white man's story.

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

More important, perhaps, classroom accounts often make little mention of the devastating smallpox and other diseases that Columbus and his men brought to America with them. By one historian's account, the smallpox that ravaged the Taino Indians after Columbus's arrival wiped out half of the population on what is now the Bahamas.

By 1947, the Native American population of the United States had dwindled to about 250,000, according to another estimate. The 1990 census estimated 1.9 million American Indians, an increase of nearly 38 percent over the 1980 census. "The conclusion must be that the major initial effect of the Columbian voyages was the transformation of America into a charnel house," the historian Alfred W. Crosby has written.

"There's going to be a lot of celebration around Columbus," added Mr. Hill, who is also executive director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, "and there's not much for Indians to celebrate."

While a number of Native American protests are being planned to counter national quincentennial celebrations, Mr. Hill and officials of other Native American groups said the event also presents an opportunity to teach about the positive aspects of their cultures.

The 1992 Alliance, for example, an umbrella group for Native American organizations intended to serve as a counterpoint to the quincentennial, is sponsoring cultural festivals and working with the National Education Association to get its message to teachers.

"What we're trying to do is speak to as many teachers as possible and basically tell them to stop lying to little kids in schools about the 'discovery of the New World,' "said Suzan Shown Harjo, coordinator for the alliance.

"I also want to update us and show us as part of the cultural continuum," said Ms. Harjo, who is of Cheyenne-Creek descent.

Mr. 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.

Other scholars say Columbus's "discovery" should not be celebrated 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.

'Respect for History'

Such questions, said Anne Paolucci, president of Columbus: Countdown 2992, 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," she said. "You have to profess a sense of respect for history."

"Columbus was the first great visionary navigator of the Renaissance," said Ms. Paolucci, who is also chairman of the graduate English department at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y. "If you put down Columbus, you put down the Renaissance."

Ms. Paolucci and others planning celebrations of Columbus next year 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.

"Above all else," said U.S. Representative Frank Guarini, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Italian-American Foundation's quincentennial observance, "the 2992 quincentenary observance should be the vehicle to motivate a greater appreciation for the mosaic which is America."

The volume of the debate, and the swiftness with which the barbs are being slung, has added to the confusion for some teachers.

"Both sides are calling each other names instead of looking at the middle ground," said Cathy Gorn, assistant director of National History Day, a nonprofit education program for schoolchildren. "What do you tell students? You can't just ignore it."

"The biggest problem," added Mr. West of Northern Arizona University, "is going to be finding factual information.''

'Encountering' America

To some degree, however, new views of Columbus have already seeped into the classroom. A number of teachers interviewed for this article said they have become cautious about the language they use in discussing the event

"I'm going to talk about commemorating and avoid talking about celebrating," Mr. Connolly of Norfolk said. "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 N.C.S.S. advocate.

Mr. West said 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 Mr. Sewall. Some skip over Columbus entirely.

"What the textbooks don't do," Ms. Gorn said, "is give multiple perspectives."

Partly for that reason, Earl Bell, a Chicago private-school teacher, said he supplements his high-school students' classroom readings on the topic with a pamphlet on the topic written by Mr. Crosby and published by the Organization of American Historians.

The booklet, entitled "The Columbian Voyages, the Columbian Exchange, and Their Historians," describes how the explorers introduced domesticated animals to the New World; new crops, such as wheat, rice, and yams; and new diseases, such as smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, and chicken pox.

For Europe, the New World became a source of sugar, tobacco, cocoa, and, of course, silver and gold. Tomatoes came from the Americas as well as potatoes, which became a staple of some European countries.

The booklet also discusses the Atlantic slave trade that prospered after Columbus and deals with the impact of all these new trading systems on the world economy.

"I don't see the utility of talking about this as a tragedy," Mr. Bell said. "I just give them the information and let them make their own minds up."

While this approach, which Mr. Bell calls "cultural diffusion," has caused no controversy at the university laboratory school where he teaches, it has generated some debate nationally. The Smithsonian Institution, for example, has been criticized by federal lawmakers for incorporating a similar approach in its major Columbian exhibit, known as "Seeds of Change," at the Museum of Natural History in Washington. Members of the Congress said the curators were flouting tradition by including diseases as part of the exchange between the Old and New worlds.

In her classroom at St. Louis Park (Minn.) High School, Marjorie Wall Bingham has decided to confront the national controversy over Columbus head on.

For the past four years, she has appointed students 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 I'm telling them there's a new view," Ms. Bingham said, "but they have to do a certain amount of research to understand there's a new view."

Alan Haskvitz, a Los Angeles middle-school teacher, said 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 said. "These kids have learned something more important--how to survive."

Changing Myths

Such creative classroom approaches to the problem, however, may be unusual, said Marilyn Johnson, a professor of education at Ohio State University. She directed a university project intended to strengthen teaching about Columbus in five schools in three districts.

Most of the teachers who participated, she said, "taught 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 said. "Our historical myths are not easily changed."

"I think there may also be some resistance from parents about demythologizing Columbus," she added. "He stood for heroic characteristics, and to present a more complex picture of Columbus may not be well received."

The task becomes especially difficult at the elementary-school level, she said, because young children often have ironclad concepts of good and evil, and teachers tend to simplify complicated material for them.

"The key 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," she said.

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

"Before, I used to spend about 20 minutes on Columbus, and now I spend days," said Mr. Connolly, whose own interest in the subject was sparked by a Library of Congress institute last summer.

Besides, he said, the students seem to thrive on it.

"If anything," he said, "they're almost kind of pleased you're letting them in on a secret."

Vol. 11, Issue 06, Pages 1, 14-16

Published in Print: October 9, 1991, as Schools Grapple With Columbus's Legacy: Intrepid Explorer or Ruthless Conqueror?
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