Columbus’ stature in U.S. classrooms has declined somewhat through the years, and many districts will not observe his namesake holiday on Monday. Although lessons vary, many teachers are trying to present a more balanced perspective of what happened after Columbus reached the Caribbean and the suffering of indigenous populations.
“The whole terminology has changed,” said James Kracht, executive associate dean for academic affairs in the Texas A&M College of Education and Human Development. “You don’t hear people using the world ‘discovery’ anymore like they used to. ‘Columbus discovers America.’ Because how could he discover America if there were already people living here?”
In Texas, students start learning in the fifth grade about the “Columbian Exchange”–which consisted not only of gold, crops and goods shipped back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, but diseases carried by settlers that decimated native populations.
In McDonald, Pa., 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, fourth-grade students at Fort Cherry Elementary put Columbus on trial this year–charging him with misrepresenting the Spanish crown and thievery. They found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.
The federal holiday itself also is not universally recognized. Schools in Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle will be open; New York City, Washington and Chicago schools will be closed.
The day is an especially sensitive issue in places with larger native American populations.
Many recall decades ago when there was scant mention of indigenous groups in discussions about Columbus. Kracht remembers a picture in one of his fifth-grade textbooks that showed Columbus wading to shore with a huge flag and cross.
Kracht said an emerging multiculturalism led more people to investigate the cruelties suffered by the Taino population in the 1960s and ’70s, along with the 500th anniversary in 1992.
However, there are people who believe the discussion has shifted too far. Patrick Korten, vice president of communications for the Catholic fraternal service organization the Knights of Columbus, recalled a note from a member who saw a lesson at a New Jersey school.
The students were forced to stand in a cafeteria and not allowed to eat while other students teased and intimidated them–apparently so they could better understand the suffering indigenous populations endured because of Columbus, Korten said.
“My impression is that in some classrooms, it’s anything but a balanced presentation,” Korten, said. “That it’s deliberately very negative, which is a matter of great concern because that is not accurate.”