So, while you are apple-picking and enjoying the beginning of fall’s foliage, why not take a moment to find out what your children know about the man we purport to honor today?
Most can tell you that Christopher Columbus was a European explorer who led three ships — the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria — in search of a western route to Asia. And most can explain that, instead of Asia, Columbus found islands in the Caribbean — the gateway to an entire hemisphere of which Europeans previously had been unaware.
So far, so good. (If your kids can’t tell you that much, then we’re in worse shape than I thought.)
But ask your children (particularly those over the age of 10) for their opinion of Columbus, and few will express admiration. Many — if not most — will express contempt. Ask why, and they will explain earnestly that Columbus was a barbarian/villain/murderer (fill in the blank with your own epithet) who brought disease/slavery/environmental ruin to the peaceful indigenous peoples of the Americas.
At least that was my experience when my daughter’s fifth-grade class was asked to write an essay on whether Columbus should be regarded as a “hero or a barbarian”: 17 of 20 students came down on the side of barbarian.
It is easy to understand why. Kids can’t help but reflexively apply their own 21st-century morality to the past. But it is the job of a teacher to place events in proper context, so as to avoid what historian David McCullough calls the “hubris of the present.”
Unfortunately, many do not. Rarely do they explain that, in the time of early Spanish exploration, slavery was practiced throughout the world (most notably, in Africa, Asia and the Arab world); that many native tribes were far from peaceful (some desired war with the European explorers, others routinely practiced human sacrifice among their own people) or that, overall, the Spanish explorers treated the natives more humanely than many of their European counterparts.
It is far easier — and politically correct — to portray Columbus as villain, so as to undermine the very concept of exceptionalism.
What should kids know about this Italian navigator who, under the patronage of Spain, set off to chart new routes to Asia?
* They should know that he was a visionary — an independent thinker who refused to be ruled by superstitions of his time.
* They should know that he was persistent — that he tried for years to find a patron for his journey and that, even after multiple rejections, he never gave up.
* They should know that he was brave — that he was willing to sail into the unknown and face whatever misfortune lay ahead.
Columbus, of course, was no saint. By most accounts, he was stubborn, arrogant and narcissistic. And he made mistakes.
But he dared to do what others thought impossible, and the result was a changed world: the integration of two previously autonomous hemispheres; the birth of a new Hispanic culture; and the beginnings of colonies that would eventually become new nations, including our own.
We honor Columbus today, not because he was perfect, but because he was an imperfect person whose spectacular courage altered the course of human events.