Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Teaching Columbus's Journey

A student made a brilliant presentation in my Hispanic Civilization class yesterday on the differences between the way Columbus's journey is taught in public schools and the way I was teaching it in class. I loved this presentation because it demonstrates very clearly how ideology is made and imposed on school-children.

So here are the main differences between the way Columbus is taught in public schools and the historical reality of the journey:

1. Columbus sailed in search of gold. In his letter to the Spanish crown, Columbus gives as the one and only reason for his journey the need to find more people to convert to the Christian faith. Many people believe in the myth that Columbus's journey was motivated purely by the reasons of greed. Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, for example, harps on this subject endlessly and tediously. One has to have no understanding of the Medieval mentality whatsoever to believe that a search for gold and spices was the only reason for such a huge undertaking. As everybody knows, the riches of the Americas ended up bankrupting the Spanish Empire precisely because economic considerations always took a backseat to ideological needs in the Medieval and Early Modern Spain.

When I asked my students to read Columbus's letter to the Spanish Crown and tell me what reasons HE gives for his journey, their unanimous answer was "To look for gold and spices." Even though the text was right in front of them, they paid no attention to it and kept voicing the same tired myths that they had heard many times before in high school. This just goes to show how easily ideology makes us disregard the evidence that lies right before our eyes.

2. The Spanish Kings refused to fund Columbus's journey for a while but then finally agreed in 1492. They didn't just suddenly agree to fund Columbus's trip because a whim overtook them one morning. In 1492, the Christian Spain finally conquered the last Muslim Kingdom on the territory of the Iberian Peninsula. In the same year, Spanish Jews were expelled from the country. Columbus's journey was funded as a response to these two major events. To put it in very simple terms, when there were no more people to convert on the territory of the Iberian Peninsula, more people needed to be found somewhere else.

My students told me that the schoolchildren are not being taught the religious reasons behind Columbus's trip because they are too young to understand such things. However, these children are obviously considered mature enough to understand greed as a reason for exploration of distant lands.

3. Public school students are offered carefully edited parts of Columbus's Diaries where everything that has to do with the descriptions of the indigenous people Columbus encountered is excised. The descriptions of the indigenous people and their treatment by the Spanish conquistadores are edited out because nobody wants the students to remember that the very existence of their own country is only possible as a result of the genocide of Native Americans.

If this is the way Columbus's journey is taught to school children, I can only imagine what happens with the teaching of the US history.


Anonymous said...

From being there in class, but often having read ahead and apart from the classes I was in, I can tell you that it's 80% wrong or extremely distorted what's taught about American history in US schools.

Yeah, I was kind of thorn in many of my teacher's sides -- and for one history teacher to the extent that she didn't even grade my tests anymore, just rubber-stamped an A on them.


Clarissa said...

I'm sorry to say it, but your teacher was an idiot. The most valuable student is the one who disagrees.

As to the US history, many of my students were appalled when I informed them that the separation of Church and State is in the Constitution and that it is the cornerstone of the very creation of this country. :-)

V said...

Could it be that Columbus approached his proposal the same way scientists now apply for the grants sometimes? Namely, they want to explore some scientific problem because... they "satisfy their curiosity for taxpayer's money", but they write how important it is to solve that problem for whatever objective reasons. These days these may be reverting climate change, reducing energy dependence on foreign nations or finding cure for cancer, in Columbus' days these could be proliferating of Christianity or greed.

Clarissa said...

Oh, I have no doubt that Colon himself was motivated purely by his desire to go on a huge road trip that would make him super famous. When people talk about the reasons for his journey, for the most part they mean the Spanish Crown's reason to fund him.