Rethinking History Class on Columbus Day

The importance of exposing students to the many truths about the controversial explorer

Elaine Thompson / AP

Generations of schoolchildren have memorized the rhyme chronicling the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

He had three ships and left from Spain.

He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.

Factually, when it comes to Columbus, that’s pretty much where agreement ends. The lyrics then go into exhaustive detail about the sailors’ quest to make landfall, the hospitality of the Native Americans who greeted Columbus and his crew, and the Italian-born explorer’s many return trips to the Americas in search of gold, concluding that “Columbus was brave, and he was bright”—all of which has been a source of dispute in recent decades.

History, defined as the systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular period or person, has increasingly become synonymous with controversy in classrooms and schools. Last fall, the Jefferson County, Colorado, school board’s decision to rewrite its Advanced Placement U.S.-history curriculum—stripping any mention of "civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law"—led hundreds of students to walk out of class in a protest against censorship. A similar backlash unfolded when the College Board released new AP U.S.-history standards this summer. It was the second revision to cause a storm of complaints, with dueling sides accusing the College Board of bending to political pressure in shaping its history curriculum. Yet even as the teaching of history in South Carolina, Texas, and other states grows more contentious, few famous figures in American history are as divisive as Christopher Columbus. And schools, reflecting society’s broad cultural and political values, must find ways to navigate without a compass.

Today, over 500 years after he sailed the ocean blue, Columbus is equally derided and praised. Starting with Berkeley, California, in 1992, cities started renaming the second Monday in October “Indigenous People's Day” to shift focus from the conqueror to the conquered. Since August, eight cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, including several in just the last week. This follows both Minneapolis and Seattle, which adopted the new name in 2014, with a bevy of Native American groups and progressive activists applauding the changes.

Renee Roma Nose, of the Tulalip Tribe, told The Seattle Times, “We are asking for mutual respect and understanding. We hope that this holiday brings that.” Likewise in Minneapolis, Native leaders sought to separate Columbus the man from the myth. “He actually led a lot of devastating movements against indigenous people,” Native American Community Development Institute President Jay Bad Heart Bull stressed to MPR News.

But these name-changing efforts are not without their opponents. Italian-American civic and business leaders in Seattle strongly resisted any attempt to downplay Columbus Day. And in a show of diplomatic support the Italian ambassador to the United States sent a letter of criticism to Seattle’s mayor.

The picture grows even more complicated when you factor in teachers and schools, which often rely on textbooks, materials, and lesson plans inundated with Anglo-American, mono-cultural viewpoints. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen, a history professor, reviews the common misstatements and misrepresentations in the retelling of American history—from the first Thanksgiving and reconstruction to the mythology surrounding Columbus. The result is “a whitewashed version of history,” Shannon Speed, the director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed last year. “Omission of the truth is, in fact, a form of lying. I would offer that the purpose of teaching history in schools is to create critical thinkers capable of meaningful participation in a democratic society.”

In San Francisco, Robert Sautter, a kindergarten teacher, agrees. Sautter, a recent recipient of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance award for culturally responsive teaching, is committed to telling his students “the truth about everything” including the Columbus legacy —in ways appropriate to their age and life experiences as 5-year-olds. A self-described anti-racist, self-reflective, white educator, Sautter strives to help youngsters learn “injustices happen, and have happened and will continue to happen, but those who experience injustice aren’t powerless.”

The San Francisco Unified School District retitled the holiday “Columbus/Indigenous People’s Day/El Dia de La Raza,” giving Sautter wide berth to build his students’ conceptual framework of Columbus within the context of their own culture and community. Nearly two-thirds of the children Sautter teaches at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School are Latino. “Facilitating children’s understanding of a wider view—a broader perspective—is always important [and] goes a long way as students grow up and encounter various forms of misinformation or disinformation about Columbus or The Mission District or Latinos or immigrants,” Sautter explains.

Thousands of miles away in Wisconsin, Jeff Ryan, an AP history teacher, finds his lessons on Columbus leave students intrigued with “jaw dropping, eye-opening moments” that come as new ideas are explored. Ryan emphasizes that his job is not to start a movement to ban Columbus Day or browbeat students into thinking Columbus was heinous. At Prescott High School—a small, predominately white school about 20 minutes from the Twin Cities—Ryan invites Native people into his classroom to tell their stories about Columbus and allows students to develop their own hypotheses and viewpoints on the topic.

“One of the things that we discuss extensively in class is the whole notion of discovery and of course, Columbus is always at the center of this conversation,” Ryan said. “The story of Columbus through Native eyes can be viewed as difficult [but] we do have some evidence that shows Columbus behaved in ways that certainly are not worthy of celebrating. Exposing students to this interpretation is crucial.”

Ryan’s teaching philosophy is bolstered by an unusual education law in his state. Act 31, passed by the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1989, mandates the teaching of American Indian history, culture, and tribal sovereignty in Wisconsin's public schools and teacher education programs. Ryan admits that screening Dances with Wolves—a controversial 1990 film about a white man's experience with Native culture on America’s western frontier—is enough to satisfy the law’s requirements in some Wisconsin schools. But at Prescott High, it’s “Act 31 on steroids,” Ryan says, with a college-level course in First Nations History and American Indian topics infused into biology, English, civics, and the music department.

“I don’t understand why people find it threatening to present Columbus in a different way,” Ryan notes. “If there’s credible, rational, decent evidence to show a contrasting point of view, it’s just another story.”

The importance and meaning of this was driven home for Ryan two years ago when his 7-year-old daughter came home from school and told him they were talking about Columbus in her first-grade class. As a dad with a keen interest in the subject, he asked her what they talked about and what she learned about the famed Italian explorer. Her reply was consistent with lessons taught in many grade school classrooms: Columbus was a “very good sailor” and “very brave.”

Inquiring further, Ryan asked his daughter if she learned anything else—and the conversation took an unexpected twist. “She paused, put her head down and said, ‘He was very mean to the Indian people…I don’t know why he treated them so bad.’ I wanted to jump up and down and scream,” Ryan said.

The moment was one of realization and appreciation as his daughter explained in her child-like way what Ryan conveys to his high school students: Interpreting history is hard. He then posed his final question that’s the source of heated and tense debates every year.

“Do you think we should celebrate Columbus Day in our country?”

And with a simple innocence yet profound insight that belies her age, the first-grader answered, “Yes, but we should tell the truth.  Not everyone liked Columbus.”