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.
- 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.
- 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.