These days teachers and students are reevaluating how they celebrate Christopher Columbus’ legacy.
What you remember about Christopher Columbus can probably be boiled down to a three or four line poem that starts with, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…" But kids of the next generation are learning a slightly more intricate history of the Italian-Spanish explorer and his legacy.
"The whole terminology has changed," Texas A&M University’s Executive Associate Dean of the College of Education and Human Development James Kracht told the Associated Press. "You don’t hear people using the word ‘discovery’ anymore like they used to. ‘Columbus discovers America.’ Because how could he discover America if there were already people living here?"
In James’ state, kids learn about everything that Columbus traded with the Native Americans, which included deadly diseases along with gold and corn. Fourth graders at Fort Cherry Elementary School in Pennsylvania hosted a mock trial, with Columbus as the defendant.
"In their own verbiage, he was a bad guy," said their teacher Laurie Crawford. The kids found him guilty of theft and misrepresenting the Spanish government and gave him life in prison.
Not every school is so keen to give Columbus the cold shoulder, though. Donna Sabis-Burns researched classroom treatment of the discoverer as part of a university dissertation. She surveyed teachers all across the country and inspected 62 Columbus picture books and found that most still represented an old-school picture of both Columbus and the native population. Facts being taught were false and disrespectful to the Taino people, who inhabited much of the Caribbean before Columbus arrived.
The decision to give kids the day off to celebrate Columbus is also pretty outdated these days with districts in Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle not even recognizing the holiday. New York, Washington and Chicago public schools do, though. For areas of America with native populations, the holiday is a touchy subject.
Experts say it was 1992’s 500th anniversary of the event, along with a sense of multiculturalism, that led people to reevaluate how Columbus was viewed in history and the extent of decimation of the Taino people.
Not everyone believes that this new discovery of Columbus is a good thing.
"My impression is that in some classrooms, it’s anything but a balanced presentation," Patrick Korten, vice president of communications for the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service group, said. "That it’s deliberately very negative, which is a matter of great concern because that is not accurate."
In the end, what kids learn about the historical figure depends on their teacher. Some teachers choose to focus on the exploratory accomplishments of Columbus or to allow students to think about the hardships of his voyages.
"Every hero is somebody else’s villain," Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a scholar and and Columbus expert, said. "Heroism and villainy are just two sides of the same coin."