Reconsidering Columbus: A Day Worthy of an Alternative

About Mike Dunn

Mike has been working to build strong connections between students and communities in outdoor and indoor classrooms for over 15 years. His practice is rooted in a deep understanding of History and the foundation on which we build our personal and institutional educational philosophies and values. He currently serves as the Director of College Counseling at a small independent school outside of Philadelphia, teaching courses in interest/career exploration, college essay writing, and college admissions fundamentals.

For decades, students in elementary school classes have admired portraits and sang songs telling the tale of America’s hero, Christopher Columbus. In his well-documented 1492 journey, Columbus — enroute to India — stumbled upon what would become the Americas; Hispaniola to be exact. The rest of his journey is…history.

Somewhere in the depths of our history books, we overlooked a slew of key facts surrounding Columbus’ journey, actions, and subsequent celebration. We failed to note the abundance of native people already inhabiting the island — Tainos, Arawaks, and Lucayans whose modern kin barely exist. We failed to note predecessors to Columbus — Leif Eriksson and polynesian explorers. We failed to note Columbus moral character, or lack thereof.

We failed to note the true lasting legacy of the explorer’s exploits -- slavery in the Americas. Click To Tweet

The truths surrounding Columbus are well documented. In fact, many articles have cropped up in the past few years about Columbus. Bill Bigelow, a teacher of social studies from Portland, OR has written extensively about the atrocities of Columbus. His publication entitled Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years is a tremendous resource for students and teachers looking for an expanded view on the early explorer. Other authors such as Roy Cook, Christopher Minster, and Eric Kasum have even gained popularity in their publications.

But, the truth is that we continue to teach the cute little song. In so many schools we continue to perpetuate the image of Columbus as the “founder” of America and thus… Click To TweetWe continue to lead our young people to believe that the strength of European connection to America comes in the form of a man whose true lasting legacy is opening the door for Spanish imperial domination of land and peoples stretching from San Francisco to the Falkland Islands, an area about double the size of the Roman empire. Not to mention the fact that Spanish lust for gold resulted in the further decimation of countless native North American people from disease and enslavement, thus paving the way for African slaves to supplant the quickly dwindling population of Native American slaves.

We teachers are, sadly, guilty of this perpetuation. We have fallen for the tricks of textbooks that briskly cover the journey of Columbus. We have fallen for the federal recognition of Columbus Day as permission to teach about the admirable Columbus, rather than the actual Columbus. We have further fallen in line with school, district, and state standards that promote the untruthful story of… Click To Tweet

As teachers, we must take a moment to step back and remind ourselves of the responsibility we have to teach our young people to be thoughtful and critical consumers of knowledge. Luckily Columbus Day affords us this unique opportunity. We can reconsider Columbus, teach the truth about his exploits, and we can do so with backing. Seattle’s Public School district, the city of Minneapolis, and Hawai’i are currently spearheading the movement to reclaim Columbus Day, asking people to celebrate other groups of national importance that are not Columbus.

To be clear: though this movement is one to right historical inaccuracies, it must not be undertaken with an angry heart. There are far too many “anti-” movements in the world. True change must be pushed by positivity and humility. We must embrace the fact that the research has supported a different view of Columbus for some time, and Now is an appropriate and measured time for change.

As you read this article and reflect on the “celebration” of Columbus Day, I implore you to consider an Alternative Columbus Day. As you have conversations with your people, consider a group, idea, or notion that is deserving of our sincere recognition as a nation.

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About the Author:

Mike has been working to build strong connections between students and communities in outdoor and indoor classrooms for over 15 years. His practice is rooted in a deep understanding of History and the foundation on which we build our personal and institutional educational philosophies and values. He currently serves as the Director of College Counseling at a small independent school outside of Philadelphia, teaching courses in interest/career exploration, college essay writing, and college admissions fundamentals.

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