October 09, 2011

Textbooks neuter Columbus critiques

The new (and improved?) textbook Columbus

By Bill Bigelow[C]ritics of the “Discovery Myth” pointed out that Columbus sent hundreds of Taíno slaves from the Caribbean to Spain; that his colonial policies destroyed cultures, devastated the ecology, and launched the African slave trade. And they pointed out that today’s patterns of poverty, racial inequality, and ecological degradation throughout the Americas began in 1492. Critics argued that we should not celebrate Columbus but instead those who resisted and survived the European invasion.

The demand to “rethink Columbus” blended scholarship with activism, and prompted much curricular soul searching in our schools. Almost 20 years later, the contradictory results can be seen in textbooks.

Two of these typify how the textbook industry has incorporated but neutered the Columbus critique.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Early Years

Unlike any textbook I had as a child, Houghton Mifflin’s Early Years, acknowledges the people who lived in the Caribbean before Columbus, and names them: Taínos. And the book says that the European arrival was not all joy and light. There were “many harmful effects.” Fifth graders learn that, “Many American plants and animals were destroyed.”

Still, the book’s use of passive voice shields Columbus, himself. The book never mentions that Columbus enslaved Taínos and forced Taínos to deliver impossible quotas of gold, or risk horrific forms of execution. Instead, the Early Years misinforms children that the Taínos died solely from “epidemics”— a word it helpfully teaches youngsters as new vocabulary.

Ultimately, the narrative becomes a paean to globalization. “The Columbian Exchange benefited people all over the world.” The section concludes: “Today, tomatoes, peanuts, and American beans and peppers are grown in many lands.”

TCI’s History Alive!

Another newer textbook approach to Columbus also acknowledges some of the critiques that became widespread 20 years ago, but it ends up as a kind of historical shopping expedition, asking students to buy whichever version of Columbus they prefer.

TCI’s high school text, History Alive! uses Columbus for an opening lesson in historiography—sort of.

History Alive! offers students three contrasting accounts of Columbus:

1. Washington Irving’s 19th century “Mythic Hero”—“his conduct was characterized by the grandeur of his views and the magnanimity of his spirit”

2. Samuel Eliot Morison’s “Master Mariner”—“As a master mariner and navigator, Columbus was supreme in his generation”

3. Kirkpatrick Sale’s “Overrated Hero”—“Admiral Colon [Columbus] could be a wretched mariner.”
Summing up the books:No doubt, as in the Columbian Exchange approach, the multiple Columbuses approach reveals more truth than in the old Discovery myth. The Early Years indicates that what happened back then had an impact on today, even if it limits its curiosity mostly to food. And in History Alive! at least students are informed that there are multiple ways to view Columbus—even if these focus mostly on his skills as a mariner.Comment:  Bigelow doesn't say as much about History Alive! as he could. Not only can students choose between the three interpretations, but they're grossly imbalanced. The first interpretation is about his moral character, and that goes unchallenged. The second and third are about his mariner skills, a relatively minor issue. One says they were "supreme" and the other says they were "overrated," a mild critique.

So the interpretations are positive about a major issue, positive about a minor issue, and negative about a minor issue. The overall impression is positive.

What's missing is a fourth interpretation to balance the first one. For instance:

4. Columbus was a criminal, slave trader, and murderer whom many Natives compare to Hitler or Osama bin Laden. He was a genocidal maniac.

Anyway, Rethinking Columbus is an excellent book that everyone interested in Columbus should read. When I read it, I wanted to share several of its essays with my readers.

For more on textbooks, see Tennessee Teabaggers Want to Rewrite Textbooks, Indians Evolve in Textbooks, and Indians in Christian Textbooks.

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