October 12, 2004

teaching Columbus Day

Today when I picked Damian up from school, he greeted me eagerly with: "We did a BIG art project today!" as he unfurled said art project, a double-sized piece of construction paper with three paper images of sailing ships glued to the top and the words (in Damian's handwriting!) "Christopher Columbus October 12 1492" across the bottom. "I wrote that because that's the day Christopher Columbus discovered America," Damian informed me proudly.

I feel mixed. Oh so mixed.

Pleased. He's learning history now, not just the three Rs. This is cool.

Delighted. He wrote all that? Complete with lower case?

Tickled. He's so enthusiastic about learning, it warms my heart.

But also disconcerted and even a trifle disturbed. Because of course Christopher Columbus did NOT discover America. Eric the Red was probably the first European to set foot on this soil. Those we used to call American Indians, then Native Americans, and now call whatever the hell they want us to call them, they actually discovered this country before anyone else when they came trudging across the Bering Strait when it was still a peninsula that connected Russia with North America. To say Columbus discovered this land is to negate those who came before. It's a disturbing foreshadowing of Manifest Destiny, the rape and pillage of this continent's natural resources, boxing the Indians into tiny reservations on arid soil because they saw their relationship with nature in different, less possessive terms. It presages all that's wrong with the world, in a way. The assumption that MY needs matter and yours, well, you're not like me, are you? Your skin is a different color, your rituals are different, your language and religion are weird and uncouth and don’t count either. Not good to be teaching five and six year olds. Also, isn't it outdated? Don't we know better? My History & Literature major soul is disturbed by this simplistic distortion of the truth. Yes, I learned it this way but why does he?

I know, I know. It's Columbus Day today. This is the easy form, history in child sized doses. But does it have to be?

I didn't tell Damian today that his teacher was wrong – or, at least, only half right – because I didn't want to demolish his pleasure and his pride. But maybe next year or the year after, when he seems ready, I want to leaven the official elementary school story with something more complex and a great deal darker. I think it's important to understand that there's more than one way to see any historical event and that the way you learn it in school (at least at this level) is merely surface gloss. It's important to shaping a thinker, not just someone who trusts rote learning for all the answers. Answers are much harder to come by than that.

Posted by Tamar at October 12, 2004 10:05 PM

I'm kind of astonished that the lesson was *so* unleavened by truth in a school in California, where colonialism's legacy is so much fresher. I was happily surprised when my nine-year-old nephew was insistent in telling me that Columbus wasn't a hero, and why; when my father challenged him, mentioning how some Indians slaughtered colonists, Nicholas was firm: "It was a war! And the white people were much worse!" I smiled inwardly - Right, his teacher is probably a child of boomers.

I bet Damian's is an anomaly, and next year you're gonna hear about Indigenous People's Day.

Posted by: Chris at October 13, 2004 04:17 AM

I agree with Chris about the probability of this teacher being an anomaly. I also find myself saying things to my preschool and 1st grade sons like, "Christopher Columbus was one of the early people to come to the US from Europe," and even "Some people believe C.C. discovered America." I love using "some people..." I feel like I'm setting them up for more information at a later time.

Posted by: Tracy at October 13, 2004 08:15 AM