Although I studied to be an American historian for a decade, it never occurred to me that one of the most important things I'd ever do in a classroom would be to teach about Christopher Columbus. For me, Columbus meant a three-day weekend.
But the unorthodox text I'd assigned in an introductory U.S. history course some years ago, Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" -- since made famous by Matt Damon in the movie "Good Will Hunting" -- starts with Columbus, so I gave it a whirl.
Here's how Zinn begins: "Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat."
Aside from its literary quality, the hint of Eden, and guesswork about the natives' state of mind, the passage asks us to look at the "discovery" upside-down: from the point of view of the people being "discovered."
Zinn tells the now familiar story of violence and mayhem and greed, how Columbus seized land and prisoners, embarked on a futile, relentless search for gold, finally, when that failed, took slaves.
According to the distinguished historian Samuel Eliot Morison, a Columbus admirer and biographer, "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide."
Year after year, students are as deeply affected by this story as by anything else they learn during the course. Why?
First, they're embarrassed. After all, 1492 is one of the very few dates burned into their memories. At the drop of a hat they can all recite, sing-song, "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." No such litany accompanies "In 1776 ... ."
Most are shocked to learn that relations between Columbus and the Indians were anything but trusting and peaceful. "But I thought they all had a big Thanksgiving dinner," one protested, confusing 1492 and 1621.
"Why weren't we told this?" they then want to know, initiating one of the most important discussions we have all semester. The answer, if simple, is far-reaching: because most history gets told from the vantage point of the victors, not the vanquished. Native Americans north and south lost their battles with Columbus, with Cortes and Pizarro and, later, with the United States of America. That's why our children learn that Columbus "discovered" rather than "invaded" America. (I once had a student raised in Puerto Rico, who told the class she'd learned that Columbus discovered American in 1492 but invaded Puerto Rico in 1493.)
Students go on: "What else weren't we told?" they demand to know. Another good question. The answer, of course, is plenty. Most important, their curiosity is engaged, and they begin seeing that history, like politics and the Constitution, has been a battleground, that much of what they've been taught is the result not of balanced analyses of the American past but of struggles over power and meaning that some groups won and others lost.
The Columbus story enables them to wonder why they learned the significance of the date 1620 (the landing of the Mayflower) but not the equally momentous 1619 -- the date African captives were first sold to North American colonists -- at Jamestown.
The point is not to make students feel guilty, but rather to help them think about their history -- and their present -- in a different light. They ask about other heroes. They realize that the history they've learned might not be adequate for an adult (or a child, for that matter). Those training to be teachers vow not to let Columbus become simply an occasion for cut-out hats and pretty pictures of the Niņa, Pinta and Santa Maria.
Others worry about how to broach the subject in their families. "My father's from Italy," said one young man, "and there's no way I can tell him this. Just no way." To get this point across, and many want to, they have to think like teachers, which is never a bad exercise.
Months later I ask students to write down the most significant things they've learned in the course. Most come back to Columbus. It's rare that a teacher happens onto a single story that teaches so much, and engages students so thoroughly. I suspect the Knights of Columbus wouldn't approve, but I love Columbus Day.
Warren Goldstein, a former fellow of the University of Minnesota Humanities Institute, teaches American history and chairs the history department at the University of Hartford.
© 2004 Star Tribune