The challenge, and the opportunity, of teaching about Columbus in a new era

In recent years, the legend of Christopher Columbus as the heroic discoverer of America has come up against the historical record and emerged with dents, and that’s also led to changes in how his story is taught in the nation’s schools.

Eric Soto-Shed, a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told WTOP that while Columbus isn’t a figure to be celebrated, he’s still one to be studied. And that kind of reconsideration presents an opportunity for teachers to engage in the kind of nuance and context that teaching social studies and history is all about.

Recent histories have documented, often with the help of Columbus’ own journals, the atrocities he committed, including slavery, exploitation and sexual abuse of natives.

That’s led to protests against the holiday — some 15 states and D.C. use the second Monday in October as a celebration of Native American history and heritage instead of celebrating Columbus. President Joe Biden on Friday become the first American president to mark Indigenous Peoples Day, and even Columbus, Ohio, doesn’t call it Columbus Day anymore.

Soto-Shed is a teacher educator who works with social studies and history teachers, and he taught high school history for eight years. He called 1492 “a turning point in world history,” and said Columbus’ voyages were a huge part of that. It’s not for nothing, he pointed out, that the majority of countries in North and South America speak Spanish, the language of the country Columbus sailed for.

His voyages began a trans-Atlantic trade in goods — and, of course, enslaved people. “It’s bringing goods; it’s also a fundamental part of a deep, long-rooted oppression,” Soto-Shed said.

The key is sticking to the historical record, Soto-Shed said. Teachers have to make judgment calls on how to teach multisided and sometimes controversial topics, but a key part of that call is “talking about what is controversial and what is not. And that’s something that changes over time. … And so you need to use your knowledge of history, and really try to base (your teaching) as much as you can on historical fact.”

That includes the fact that millions of people already lived on this continent when Columbus arrived, and what happened to them afterward, he said.

While Soto-Shed is quick to point out that he specializes in middle and high school education, there’s an age-appropriate way to discuss these things with younger students as well.

“The general sort of perspective that, you know, Columbus did some bad things — I think kids at a young age can engage in that conversation,” Soto-Shed said. “But without a doubt, you’d want to be really thoughtful about how you get into the specifics.”

Soto-Shed added that the evolution of Columbus Day as a holiday — a movement strongly tied with changing attitudes toward Italian Americans — constitutes another part of the Columbus story that makes for compelling teaching and learning.

“The establishment of the holiday is really an opportunity to get much more into the nuances of American history, and how it’s never sort of a simple story of good or bad. … That is an under-told story, and I think one that would really be nice to add to what we do in schools.”

In his 20 years in the field, Soto-Shed said, he’s seen “critiques of Columbus becoming much more popular,” even as some states and systems continue to teach his story as one of uncomplicated heroism. But the re-examination of Columbus, he said, fits in with a more complete, realistic examination of American history.

“We’ve seen various movements to begin to look at American history not simply as this glorified story of progress, but really look at it for its sort of ups and downs, positives and negatives … giving voices to those who have not often been mentioned in the curriculum.”

“And in doing that, I think the critique of Columbus is something that has been propelled by this larger movement to critically examine our past, from multiple perspectives,” he said.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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