As children, we commit to memory that pleasant jingle "In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," in order to remember the year in which Christopher Columbus "discovered the New World." We then spend weeks learning lessons about his journey, taught to feel proud that he settled this land for future generations / us. We even have an official holiday, today, Columbus Day, marked as an occasion to pay homage to this historic event. Yet, should we continue to celebrate the man?
Though there is value in celebrating the spirit of exploration, isn't the discovery and aftermath just as important as the journey to get there? We cannot overlook the good reasons that this holiday gets questioned:
- Columbus was not the first to discover the land, why continue giving him credit? The discovery was only from a European standpoint - they may not have known about the the "new" world, but other peoples were completely aware of its existence
- Native peoples inhabiting this land were brutalized, both by the men of the Columbus expedition, and of future colonization - a legacy worth celebrating?
President Obama has brought this second point back into focus today, commenting on the tragic burden the native Americans bore after colonization, brought on by European discovery of the New World. Good for you Mr. President! Discussing our country's history (pleasant or not) is the best way to progress as a nation. We need to scrutinize past behaviors, especially the atrocious ones, and discuss why we were wrong and how to do things differently now. Children need to learn these skills too - critical thinking and self reflection.
So, let's get the kids involved in this discussion! While you're making newspaper hats, wooden ships, or other craft projects, remember to throw some all-encompassing history lessons into the mix. Let's use this holiday as an opportunity to teach...begin posing questions to kids to see what they already know. Sometimes our children can teach us too! Undoubtedly, they've already been discussing this in school. (Questions/discussion should be age-appropriate and language should be tailored to your child's intellectual/emotional development.)
- What do you know about Columbus? Who was he? What did he do?
- Do you think his discovery was significant? Why/why not?
- Is it okay to take things that belong to other people (if you're given permission by a government to do so?)
- How would you feel if someone came and told you they'd "discovered" your home and thus they own it (as Columbus did to the native peoples)?
- Is it ever okay to enslave people? Did you know that slavery was accepted (even encouraged) by many cultures throughout history? Why do you think that happened?
- What do you think about that?
If we use this day as an opportunity to teach children that ours is not the only perspective, that others are living and experiencing life from their own realities/perspectives, this will improve the future for all of us. They will begin to understand that their notions of "right" are subjective, open to interpretation and influenced by the time period in which they live. They will learn that actions have long-lasting consequences, perhaps unintended consequences. Most importantly, they will learn to feel empathy for others, to be humane.
I say, embrace Columbus Day as a universal teaching day, not one explorer's day. This alone will make it a valuable holiday to keep celebrating.