When I showed up for my first day teaching social studies in general and history in particular, I kind of assumed most students had heard about Christopher Columbus: both that he is credited with discovering and colonizing the western hemisphere and that he brutally enslaved the native population of a good chunk of the Caribbean. I also really hoped to not need to explain that no one ever believed the world was flat, and that Columbus definitely wasn’t setting out to prove it is, in fact, spherical.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Turns out that keeping high school students accountable for information they were supposed to have learned back in middle school is, with the best will in the world, naive. In my two world history classes, only one or two students even remembered his name.
This corresponded nicely with a book I am working through right now. Perhaps you have heard of it? Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Teacher Got Wrong, by James Lowen. Chapter two in this scathing review of history teachers everywhere focuses on Columbus, everything from the horrific details of his crimes against the Arawak people to the scant information about his early years (unsurprisingly, most American textbooks picture him as a pauper’s son, dramatically beating the odds and coming out on top).
Going in, I expected this chapter to be yet another roast of the education system in the united states. And I was not really disappointed. Lowen’s rebuke of textbooks is in fine form here. However, I was also surprised by sections of the chapter that seemed to step out of this clear bias and into a more measured, moderate tone. For example, on page 63, Lowen states that “Columbus’s actions exemplify both meanings of the word exploit.”
Now I realize this statement, especially out of context, appears to be still highly critical of Columbus. However, the historical community to which I have most recently belonged refuses to credit Columbus with any positives whatsoever. Here, Lowen admits that crossing the Atlantic actually took some form of bravery, and portrays Columbus as the complicated figure he was.
In retrospect, this view accurately depicts the point of Lies My Teacher Told Me. Lowen is not trying to tell us that all our heroic figures in history are actually villains, but rather that they were complex figures, who made choices based on who they were, in their own time. Personally, I am more interested in flawed characters than shiny, perfect heroes. Lets learn to present historical figures as complicated, often flawed people, rather than immaculate caricatures.