Teaching Historical Understanding with Christopher Columbus

Teaching Historical Understanding with Christopher Columbus

By Benjamin Justice

Social Studies and Diversity Education, eds. Elizabeth Heilman, Ramona Fruja, and Matthew Missias (New York: Routledge, 2010)

19th century painting of Christopher Columbus on Santa Maria in 1492

Introduction: I’m a big fan of Christopher Columbus. Not the man, the phenomenon. Columbus plays a major role in how historians, teachers, and popular media talk about the past. For the big winners of the Atlantic encounter – those Europeans who settled North America and accumulated vast wealth – the story has typically been told as a triumph, a grand narrative with a happy ending. For those people who lost in the exchange – the people of Africa, the Americas, and others – the story is a disaster.

The moment when Columbus touched land in the Caribbean marks the beginning of one of the greatest shifts in human history: the appropriation of land and resources of two continents by the people of a third; the depopulation by accident or disease, or, some argue, by conscious policy, of tens of millions of people in North and South America; the abduction and wanton killing of tens of millions of Africans to work as slaves on that “new land”. In any case, triumph, disaster, or pivotal moment, Columbus, more than any other historical figure I have yet encountered, can serve to create the necessary cognitive dissonance for future social studies teachers to unlearn what society tells them history is for, what heroes are made of, and how social studies instruction be a force for inequality and racism or, instead, for democracy and thoughtful inquiry.

I devoted an entire session to Columbus in each of my two social studies methods courses. What follows is a description of how we examine Columbus (the phenomenon) as a complicated historical and cultural symbol. The first case is an elementary methods course where I ask students to consider how an alternative reading of the Columbian encounter troubles the traditional representation of Columbus as a hero. The second case, a secondary methods course, utilizes Seixas’ (2000) and Segall’s (2006) curricular and disciplinary representations to ask students to question how they will design and teach curriculum about a complicated historical and cultural figure.

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