Growing up, everyone heard the phrase, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” We are taught that Columbus was a great and brave man who sailed across the ocean looking for the Indies, and instead stumbled upon the Americas. We typically attribute the discovery of the New World to him. We celebrate Columbus Day, read his accounts and speak highly in his honor. Are we missing something here? When reading only one side of the story, we miss important information: information that completely changes the outlook on Columbus’ story. The truth is that Columbus and his men enslaved, tortured and wiped out an entire group of natives. They put them under extreme work conditions; families were separated. The natives that were spared were captured and thrown on to ships, where they would contract diseases, starve and die before even reaching Spain. It’s pretty clear that the story we grew up hearing isn’t quite as innocent as it seems. While it may have been a huge step forward for the rest of the world, this was a huge step back for the natives.
So why shouldn’t we be taught the truth? It could be argued that some of this information may be a little bit too harsh to be taught to children, but that argument cannot be applied in high school, where we are expected to make life-changing decisions about where we will venture off after graduation, what our major will be, and what we want to do for the rest of our lives. This is the age where many students are expected to begin using critical thinking and decide for themselves what is right or wrong. The perfect time to answer the question about the true story of Columbus brings up: is it truly considered human progress if another group of people are forced to take a giant step back? Teaching this in schools would bring to the attention of the students that sometimes there are decisions that are not all good; sometimes a choice will still include consequences even if it seems to provide good outcomes. It also brings forth a way for them to look at history in a new light. They can begin to make decisions on their own about whether or not they think a piece of history was productive or destructive.
Dr. Jason M. Payton, assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University, stated that, “When teaching controversial figures or subjects, students should read primary sources as often as possible, and they should be empowered to decide for themselves how to feel about the issues raised by those texts. When I teach Columbus at the university level, I have students read his letters and excerpts from his logbook. These texts invite students to reflect on the legacies of imperialism and colonialism, and they allow students to grapple with the legacies of imperialism and colonialism. My junior-level American literature survey students invariably admit that they learn very little in high school about the European colonization of the Americas and that they know very little about major figures like Columbus himself. Although the conversations that ensue are difficult because they demand that students grapple with histories of violence and dispossession, I find that students are generally glad to have had the experience of reading these texts for themselves and of coming to a deeper understanding of historical events. I believe high school students should have the same opportunities to engage primary texts dealing with controversial issues. Doing so makes them better researchers and more nuanced thinkers.”
Teaching high school students the truth about what happened in the Americas not only fulfills their right to know the true history of their country, but also allows them to come to their own terms about whether or not they will follow blindly or not. It will allow them to become leaders of their own education, deciding for themselves what they believe to be morally right or wrong. They can then, in turn, make these types of decisions to current situations that would affect them directly. This can become a powerful tool when instructing the students who will one day be our lawyers, our doctors, our politicians and our leaders. By teaching high school students the true story of Columbus, we allow them to form opinions about morality that could change this country.