Columbus Day

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints’ Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

I was taught in elementary school that Christopher Columbus discovered America, proving in the process that the world was round.  Both teachings are false.  The truth of the matter is that more than 800 years before he sailed, mathematicians had proven the spherical (OK, ellipsoidal) shape of the globe.  He knew this.  And in terms of his discovery, making landfall in the Caribbean doesn’t quite qualify as a continental revelation.  I won’t even approach the questions of Vikings, for the best evidence of discovery points to paleo-Indians who wandered in about 10,000 years before them!

Today it is becoming increasingly common to vilify Columbus.  We have celebrated Columbus Day in this country since 1937, although strong voices like the AIM (American Indian Movement) are vehemently opposed to this national holiday.  They portray him as a slave-trading murderer.   I wonder where our teachers stand on this issue.  What sensitivity will be needed in addressing the truth of history when most schools will take a day off, many businesses (including the Federal Government) will be closed, and the historical myths of this explorer continue?

Within a decade, I predict, Columbus Day will be dropped from the list of Federal holidays.  Have no fear!  There will be a day off from work on the second Monday in October, but it will have a new name.  Did I say “have no fear”?  Perhaps that’s asking a bit much from some: that cultural segment that often dismisses irrefutable truths with homely and comfortable beliefs.  The fear driven response from this segment will blame the ubiquitous and amorphous “them” and will sound something like this:  “First they get rid of Washington ’s Birthday and now they want to take away Columbus day from us.”

Teachers do not have the option of resorting to these sorts of entrenched belief systems.  It is an educator’s duty to find the best evidence for her subject and to present it fairly.  The population’s response will, over time, gradually change the cultural.  This is powerful!

The example of Columbus Day is only one of thousands that our teachers are faced with in their professional career.  This is why we have professional development.  This is why the best teachers are continuously engaged learners themselves, and this is why education is a most powerful tool. It changes the world.  As we begin the next semester of our scholastic pilgrimage, I urge all teachers to wield this tool with a gentle hand.  Every day there will be change.  Change is hard.  Great teaching can lessen the pain of losing a beloved myth.

Source: Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN