The Columbus Day Problem

Who do we celebrate, and why? Equipping students to grapple with the complexities of the past and the controversies of today

October 5, 2017
antique bronze compass, with blurry antique map in the background

Once upon a time, teachers celebrated Columbus Day by leading children in choruses of song about the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. If the commemorations dealt at all with the impact of European exploration on the indigenous civilizations already flourishing in these “discovered” lands, it was often fleeting. In recent years, the conversation has become more nuanced, as educators — and people across the country — have begun to explore the many reasons why celebrating Christopher Columbus is problematic: the violent abuse of indigenous peoples, the launch of the transatlantic slave trade, and the introduction of a swath of lethal diseases to an unprepared continent.

Just as the country grapples with the meaning and problems of Confederate monuments, so too are schools, towns, and even whole states grappling with “Columbus Day.” Many are deciding to rename and refocus the holiday, choosing to call it Indigenous Peoples' Day to honor the people whose lives and cultures were irreparably damaged by the colonial conquest that the age of exploration ushered into being.

We asked Eric Shed, a veteran history teacher who now directs the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program, to share perspectives on the changing currents around Columbus Day and the challenges of learning and teaching history, as distinct from celebrating it. 

Current views on Columbus Day:

Trends are really hard to detect in a country as divided as ours, but I’ve noticed two developments in my work teaching high school and teaching at Harvard.

  1. There’s definitely a trend toward questioning Columbus Day. Some schools, cities, and institutions, such as the Harvard Graduate School of Education, have adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. I think that’s part of a larger push nationwide to be critical of our past.
  2. Some of my students entered high school aware of the problematic nature of Columbus — but their thinking is, “Well, Columbus is not important to study, because he didn’t do anything.” We have to push back on that. We need students to understand that Columbus is important, even if he isn’t someone to be celebrated.

We need students to understand that Columbus is important, even if he isn’t someone to be celebrated. He initiated a turning point in our history.

Why the Columbus controversy matters for students:

Understanding controversies — what Columbus did, how he did it, whether we should be commemorating him — builds skills that are fundamental for understanding history and social studies.

  • It involves really unpacking the past, looking for complications, and making a deep exploration into the people that made history happen, rather than just looking for a glossy overview.
  • It requires looking at dominant narratives and counternarratives. Dominant narratives tend to speak about heroes in a simple sense; counternarratives can be much more critical.
  • It involves grappling with multiple perspectives, a fundamental skill for historians. And those multiple viewpoints may help engage students who might feel otherwise unrepresented in a history class, such as females and students of color.

The Columbus controversy can also help students see that history is still applicable today. Right now, across the country, cities and schools are faced with the question, “Should we celebrate Columbus?” We’re facing similar questions about how we commemorate the confederacy and the Civil War. Historical knowledge can help students create an argument to answer those questions.

And in general, we want to students to engage with controversy. That’s when learning happens. If we have a holiday honoring somebody, the question on everyone’s mind should be, “Why are we honoring them? What were his actual contributions?” Those are important questions we want to ask as citizens.

Why we should still teach Columbus:

Columbus did not “discover America,” but his voyages began the Columbian exchange, a turning point in world history involving the massive transfers of human populations, cultures, ideas, animals, plants, and diseases. Turning points are powerful lenses through which students need to view our past.

Understanding controversies — what Columbus did, how he did it, whether we should be commemorating him — builds skills that are fundamental for understanding history and social studies.

Teaching Columbus accurately and age-appropriately:

I don’t think it’s ever too young. We don’t want to expose young kids to graphic accounts of brutal treatment of Native Americans, but I think you want them to begin to question: What did this person do? Why is he important? Why are we celebrating him? How could we look at this from a different perspective?

Based on my experience, I think it’s vitally essential that teachers engage kids as young as sixth grade in questions that really interrogate Columbus. Students need to grapple with these multiple perspectives in history and the not-so-pleasant aspects of our past. And it’s fundamentally important that they do so.

Student activities that can help:

  • Engage students in a structured academic controversy, in which they look at multiple viewpoints around the question “Should we celebrate Columbus Day?” The goal isn’t to win a debate, but to articulate both sides of the question and form a conclusion based on the critical analysis of evidence.
  • Have students write letters to their Congressperson, school board, or other institutional leaders, explaining their opinion on how Columbus Day should be commemorated, if at all.
  • Ask students to rewrite textbook passages so that they more authentically account for what happened.
  • Discuss the Columbian exchange as a class. Look at Columbus as a turning point in history, and ask, “What impacts do we still see today?”
  • Explore how Columbus Day originated. President Benjamin Harrison proposed it in an election speech in 1892, at a time in which huge numbers of Catholic and Italian immigrants had entered the country, changing the voter demographic. Why is that historical context important? (See this additional resource on the origins of the holiday.)
  • Examine the culture and contribution of indigenous people through primary source analysis.
  • Examine Columbus’s "discovery" of America from the perspective of an indigenous person.
  • With older students, explore what Indigenous Peoples’ Day would really mean. Should we celebrate the contributions of indigenous folks? Share their voices and culture? Or should we engage in some sort of reconciliation work?

I want to make sure we do justice to indigenous folks. I think there is a ton of potential in celebrating an Indigenous Peoples' Day, but what that is, what it looks like — we need to start with asking indigenous folks to define it.

Resources for teachers:

James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, and his shorter Lies My Teacher Told Me about Christopher Columbus, critique how textbooks have covered Columbus. For instance, they lay out what specific textbooks omitted about Columbus’s involvement with the slave trade and genocide. They also show evidence that at least 12 other groups of people entered the Americas before Columbus.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States includes horrific, detailed eyewitness accounts of how the Spanish explorers treated the Native Americans. The Zinn Education Project also includes a bunch of primary sources related to Columbus, such as writings by Bartolomé de La Casas.

These books have fueled the trends I mentioned around Columbus Day. As these texts have become popular, and more history teachers have read them, more students have learned a more accurate account of Columbus from a younger age.

Columbus Day? Indigenous Peoples’ Day?                    

Personally, I don’t think we should celebrate Columbus Day. A genocide happened in "the Americas," and it began with Columbus.

When it comes to celebrating Indigenous Peoples' Day, I want to make sure we do justice to indigenous folks. I think there is a ton of potential in celebrating an Indigenous Peoples' Day, but what that is, what it looks like — we need to start with asking indigenous folks to define it.

It’s the responsibility of our school system to talk about Columbus as part of our work to prepare students to be citizens. As a citizen, you need to be able to critically engage and reflect in a discourse around the public celebration and honoring of historical events and figures. You need to be able to deeply understand the profoundly problematic past of this great nation. 

I think history teachers have a responsibility to prepare students to comment critically and participate critically in the discourse about who we are honoring, who we are celebrating, and how we are doing it. Because that’s public history. We all own it. We need to own it.

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Civics and History Diversity and Inclusion K-12

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