How Do We Teach About Columbus Day? A Brave Explorer? The Annihilator of Indigenous Peoples?

How do we teach about Columbus Day? How do we teach children who come from Latin America? Was Columbus a brave explorer who discovered the New World, or, is Columbus Day, as a friend of mine suggests, more properly called Indigenous Peoples Annihilation Day?

The Governor’s message treats the day as a celebration of immigrants,

Columbus Day is a time to celebrate the achievements of those who came before us – immigrants who faced untold hardships throughout history, yet persevered to build the world we inhabit today. From language barriers to harsh labor conditions, those men and women surmounted every hurdle to become a dynamic force in society.

Or, as Italian Pride Day,

As the grandchild of four Italian immigrants, I am extremely proud of my heritage and the values of family, hard work, and the promise of American opportunity that my grandparents passed along. This Columbus Day, I encourage all New Yorkers to reflect on the legacies of those who came before us and built the Empire State we know today. May we follow their example and leave a New York State that is even better for our children.

Across the country the day, if it is celebrated at all, is celebrated differently,

Not all parts of the United States celebrate Columbus Day. It is not a public holiday in some states such as California, Oregon, Nevada and Hawaii. Moreover, Native Americans’ Day is celebrated in South Dakota, while Indigenous People’s Day is celebrated in Berkeley, California.

In Latin America the celebration take on a different tone,

The date Columbus arrived in the Americas is celebrated in many countries in Latin America. The most common name for the celebration in Spanish … is the Día de la Raza (“day of the race” or “day of the [Hispanic] people”), commemorating the first encounters of Europeans and Native Americans … The day was also celebrated under this title in Spain until 1957, when it was changed to the Día de la Hispanidad (“Hispanity Day”), and in Venezuela until 2002, when it was changed to the Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance), … Día de la Raza has come to be seen by some in Latin America as a counter to Columbus Day; a celebration of the resistance against the arrival of Europeans in the Americas and of the native races and cultures

The just-released New York State Social Studies Frameworks (See Frameworks here) avoids controversy at every level, the Frameworks are heavy on standards and light on content; the new College Board Advanced Placement American History test, is far more content specific and for some, highly controversial: See APUSA curriculum here.

Columbus Day is actually an opportunity to teach about “first contact,” almost akin to discovering an alien civilization.

A few years ago a PBS documentary presented a creative view of the “first contact.”

The PBS documentary, When Worlds Collide, (Watch Vimeo here or U-Tube here does just that as it takes the audience through the first one hundred years of the Spanish Empire in the New World. Instead of casting the Spanish as murderers or heroes and the indigenous population as victims or savages, the program explores the set of entangled exchanges and negotiations that occurred between these peoples. Although there is truth on both sides concerning the initial contacts between inhabitants of the New and Old Worlds, the aggregate is far more complicated than what is often presented in popular culture.

As teachers we must seize opportunities to encourage students to analyze, investigate and sift through evidence, to act as a guide, a critical friend, to probe, to challenge, to use our skills to encourage our students to research, write and argue their positions.

I was filling in for a friend in an American History college class, the lesson was the dropping of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima – was the dropping of the bomb a war crime, or, did we save hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese lives? I provided a number of readings supporting both positions and a few pages of raw data. A young kid immediately called the dropping of the bomb a war crime and a Vietnam War vet was just as vigorous on the other side … I probed, pissed them both off (“Where does it say that? How do you know? Is that opinion or fact?”) … some of the class jumped in, others were intimidated by the passion of the debate … I must admit I thought how I would handle threats of physical violence. When the class ended some students applauded … from my perspective it was the lesson I hoped for…

“Pride” Days, whether Italian, Irish, Hispanic or Gay should be left for parades, the classroom should be the forum to debate, to stimulate those neurons dulled by too much mindless texting and video game playing.

If we hope not to be replaced by online learning or 3-CPO we had better make sure we are the teacher who is both challenging and nurturing, probing and listening, a teacher who is far more interesting than a computer screen.


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