As the old rhyme begins, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." What follows, however, has become a source of controversy in recent years as more consideration is given to the impact of the Spaniard's exploration on the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
One major point of contention at the heart of the debate: Columbus is often credited with "discovering" America when that accolade clearly belongs to the people who crossed over from Asia thousands of years earlier. Columbus wasn't even the first European to find North America, as archaeological evidence has placed the Vikings on the continent a few hundred years prior. (Notably, they're also alleged to share the commonality of having disparaged Native Americans with the name skraelings, which translates to “wretched people.”)
While the issue is often the subject of parody in popular culture — most recently on an episode of South Park in which Randy Marsh's crusade against Columbus Day is juxtaposed against his inability to confront his past as a Columbus enthusiast — its impact in the classroom is very real.
As you might expect, the controversy goes far beyond who "discovered" what, but also focuses on how nations or groups setting out to explore treat the indigenous peoples of any land. As History notes, indigenous populations have often been approached by explorers as a hurdle on the path to treasure and conquest, and Columbus' expedition included violence and slavery, forced religious conversion, and the spread of non-native pathogens. The events spiraling out from Columbus' expedition would ultimately decimate these populations, necessitating deeper thinking on the matter in schools.
For more information, I reached out to National Council on Social Studies (NCSS) Executive Director Larry Paska, who said, "As far as a specific stance [on Columbus Day], our board of directors approved a resolution this past spring that our organization will issue a position statement that encourages creating social studies curricula that explicitly presents and emphasizes accurate depictions of the lives of indigenous peoples and their sovereign nations’ interactions past, present and future, and a separate position statement in support of teachers working to provide more accurate learning for students emphasizing the sovereignty and self-determination of indigenous peoples and nations."
While those position statements are still in development, Paska stresses that the resolutions provide a clear sense that the NCSS supports curriculum materials and general instruction centered around multiple perspectives and understandings over time.
"If you’re focusing on Columbus Day, you’re focusing on the stories of the many cultures and groups that are affected any time we talk about exploration, any time we talk about what it means when one nation or group engages in exploration and settles or interacts with other cultures they meet along the way," Paska said.
Ultimately, schools should see this as an opportunity to encourage critical thinking around the historical consequences of how "turning point" events shape the course of history. These are events that define or shape interactions across cultures for years or centuries to come, in addition to the way land is developed, how resources are used, and how human history evolves. In the case of Columbus' landing in America, classrooms would potentially consider how that event leads to colonization, results in the disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples, and, ultimately, breeds the rise of what would become the most powerful nation on Earth — including perspectives on both sides.
"The concept of studying turning points, especially when we try to make meaning of the breadth of world history, is a way to approach inquiry," Paska said, adding that it supports "that we need to understand multiple diverse perspectives in order to really understand the scope of any event — whether it’s an isolated event or events over time — and how they transform cultural interactions and human history."
With that in mind, this Monday provides a key opportunity to adopt such an approach in your school's social studies classrooms, encourage critical thinking — a skill in high demand by many employers — and allow students to make up their own minds and discuss the pros and cons.