As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed some inaccuracies in information I learned through my grade school career. One fallacy that was widely accepted and taught was the notion that Christopher Columbus discovered America. It was ingrained into our minds all throughout elementary school. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But as I’ve gotten older, I know that this fact isn’t factual at all. In high school, I recall one history teacher explaining that the vikings were the true explorers that discovered the new world. And while this is closer to the truth, it still doesn’t give any context about the indigenous people that had already been living there for at least 10,000 years, each with their own culture. Really, saying it was “discovered” by Columbus or even the vikings is just another way of saying “white people didn’t know about it until then therefore, it didn’t exist.” This land has a rich history that began much earlier than 1492 and the subsequent colonialism. Which is why it was so discouraging to find out that “Columbus discovered America” is still taught in public schools today.
In college, I have a job in which I tutor elementary school children at an after school program. Last week, when a student came in for help studying U.S. history, I listened to him read about Columbus’ journey unearthing the “New World.” I was surprised to discovered that this “fact” hadn’t been phased out of textbooks yet. How could anyone still teach the whitewashed version of history that negates all indigenous people (and the vikings)? What were we, as tutors, supposed to do about the misinformation the student was getting? It truly comes down to a question of ethics. Should the tutor explain how the textbook doesn’t provide the whole truth and that Columbus was actually a rapist, murderer, and slave trader? Or should they just help the student learn the information in the book, assuming that it will appear on a test? We were not hired to educate them on the intricacies of this land’s history; we were hired to help them with their homework. Not to mention, if they have a test on this material and put something other than the textbook answer, they could get a low test score. But not telling them the truth does them a disservice. It prevents them from knowing all the facts. And what happens if they do find out the truth from someone else and lose trust in us?
Along with the disservice to the student, think about all the indigenous people that suffered at the hands of Christopher Columbus. To continue teaching about him in a positive way dishonors their memory and allows for systematic oppression to continue. Is it ethical to pretend that the natives of this land didn’t suffer tremendously because of Columbus’ fleets? Shouldn’t we try to inform people however, whenever we can about the terrible past that comes with this land? And, of course, with the discussion of Columbus’ disturbing acts should come the conversation about how oppression is one of the cornerstones that this country was based on. If we continue to allow Columbus to be taught as if it’s not problematic, we will never be able to make sense of the troubling history of this land. How can we be progressive in conversations about race and systematic oppression if we can’t acknowledge that this country exists because a rapist, murderer, and slave trader “discovered” it?