How controversy has changed the way Columbus' story is taught in schools

Amid controversy, suburban schools focus on more accurate account

For generations, students in American elementary schools were taught Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” to discover America in 1492. Today, that lesson is changing in schools across the suburbs and country.

Contrary to the once-popular rhyme and belief, the American continent had been inhabited for centuries, and other explorers from Europe, Asia and Africa already had been here. And lessons about Columbus have become much more nuanced in suburban classrooms, at least in the higher grades.

Critics say Columbus was responsible for atrocities committed by his crew, some perhaps at his direction, against the inhabitants of the islands he encountered.

Columbus statues nationwide have sparked protests, leading to the removal of many of them, including monuments at Chicago's Grant and Arrigo parks.

Although Columbus Day — observed today — is recognized as a federal and state holiday in Illinois, a growing number of states, cities, towns and counties now celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead, to honor Native American history and acknowledge the impact of colonialism on Indigenous communities.

President Joe Biden commemorated both holidays on Friday, noting in his remarks the contributions to society Italian Americans have made and continue to make.

The debate between Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day also is raging in classrooms nationwide, said Anna Veksler, who teaches honors U.S. history and current events at Round Lake High School.

“We do have to realize that the story has shifted, and we do have new resources, new information and new viewpoints that we want to present,” Veksler said. “Of course, we never want to teach (students) the wrong narrative, but very often we present them with the sources and we let them create their own narratives.”

Many educators say it's not revisionist history, but rather teaching students a more accurate version of Columbus' story, which includes the Indigenous perspective and uses original sources to paint a more realistic picture.

“It's changed because we share the truth more,” said Paul Friedrich, who teaches global studies, Advanced Placement U.S. history and current events at Vernon Hills High School. “We share the actual narrative of what happened. It's not hard to make it accurate. All you've got to do is read (Columbus') notes on his first voyages.”

Columbus' description of the natives he encountered from his notes reveals he didn't see them as a threat because they didn't possess metal tools or weapons.

“He keeps describing the perfect slave,” Friedrich said. “He fits in with the general, European worldview of others as less or even not human at all. It's the beginning of a cultural narrative of purposeful and accidental (because of disease) genocide of the aboriginal people here.”

Friedrich said he guides students “to approach history like a historian does” and draw their own conclusions based on actual evidence.

“That's the impetus of this broader cultural discussion about, 'Do we really want statues of this guy?'” Friedrich said. “I am not saying that we should think about Columbus either this way or that way. Thomas Jefferson was not either a bigoted, racist slaveholder or a progressive liberal thinker about democracy. The challenge is that he's both.”

Columbus still is a hero to many people, young and old alike. Particularly, for many Italian Americans, Columbus Day is a time to celebrate Italian heritage and the contributions of Italian Americans to the nation.

“This is a 130-year-old tradition that means a lot to us,” said Ron Onesti of Wood Dale, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, a congress of more than 50 groups in the Chicago area. “It's the one day of the year that our Italian heritage is celebrated, and that's what people can't forget. We believe in reconciliation, righting wrongs and making amends. We just want to be a part of that discussion.”

History always has been reinterpreted over time, and teaching students how to be historiographers helps hone their critical-thinking and inquiry skills, said David Bell, social studies coordinator for Round Lake Area District 116.

“When I taught high school, our big topic with Columbus was always, 'Was he a hero?'” he said. “Forcing the kids to choose one or the other isn't the goal. There's nothing more important (that) we do as historians and as social studies teachers than teach kids how to look at a source critically and ask questions about it.”

A positive byproduct of the Columbus controversy is a growing call for re-examining the facts surrounding historical figures.

“At young ages and elementary levels ... they're kind of learning this, sort of, airbrushed, quasi-nationalistic, patriotic version of history ... where everything is kind of bright and shiny and everything is good,” said Geoffrey Guiney, who teaches sociology at Elgin High School. “But when we get them into high school, we're doing them a disservice if we're not teaching them to look more critically at those things. It's kind of teaching them to look at their own society critically and to look at their 'historical heroes' ... more critically. You don't really understand history if you only know those bright, shiny parts of it.”

City crews help guide the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park as it's removed by a crane on July 24, 2020. Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times
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