Teaching kids about Thanksgiving or Columbus? They deserve the real story

In the season four premiere of ABC’s hit sitcom “Black-ish,” Dre, a charismatic dad played by Anthony Anderson, is distraught over his children’s performance in a school play about Christopher Columbus.

Dre’s daughter, dressed as a native American, recites arguably the most famous jingle about the so-called Admiral of the Seas, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” while his son, with a welcoming smile and upbeat attitude, says, “I’m Christopher Columbus, and I discovered America.”

Dre objects, saying, “Fake history, right?” The kids break into a fantasy sequence to rap about what actually transpired. “Everything you know about Columbus is a joke,” Dre’s daughter sings. “He didn’t discover America—prepare to get woke.”

My juniors in American History felt “woke” after reading about Columbus in author James W. Loewen’s book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” Not only did Columbus never set foot in the United States, they learn, but he also wasn’t the first to discover that the world was round. On that front, the ancient Greeks beat him to the punch by about 2,000 years.

Moreover, while it’s fair to give Columbus credit for opening our hemisphere to Western Europe, Leif Erikson, the Norse explorer, likely landed in present-day Canada hundreds of years earlier — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg with respect to who in the “Old World” crossed the Atlantic first.

Many teachers, students and institutions are reconsidering how to evaluate Columbus, and other figures like him who have been revered in history books of the past. Take it from Eric H Shed, director of the Harvard Teachers Fellows Program and a lecturer on education.

“I think it’s a part of a general shift in the way in which we teach history, to question the past and not accept it as fact,” Shed told me, when we spoke recently. He also feels that recent efforts to remove Confederate monuments, along with broader national discussions about what being inclusive means, are helping to bring about such welcome change.

Questioning Columbus 

My students felt betrayed, angry even, that throughout their elementary and middle school years, teachers had pushed a fake narrative about Columbus, or had done little, if anything, to correct the record.

“I’ve been tricked into honoring and celebrating this vile human being my whole life,” said one student, pointing to damning evidence to back up his claim:

  • During his first voyage, Columbus kidnapped a handful of American Indians to bring back to Spain. “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased,” he wrote in his journal. It’s worth noting that the indigenous people Columbus encountered in the Bahamas were largely peaceful and friendly toward the visitors.
  • On his second voyage, in 1493, Columbus rewarded his men with native women to rape. As Loewen writes, “On Haiti, sex slaves were one more perquisite that the Spaniards enjoyed.” As punishment for populations who did not supply enough gold, Columbus also sanctioned body dismemberment and war.
  • Explorers like Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro laid waste to the mighty Aztec and Incan empires, respectively, in their search for riches.

For his view on how to teach about Columbus, I spoke with Loewen, who suggested that I keep my personal views about the explorer to myself. Instead, he told me, “You might point out that he is the only guy who gets a named holiday, except for this guy named Martin Luther King Jr., who tried to remove some of the vestiges of slavery. And here with Columbus, you have the guy who started the transatlantic slave trade.”

When it comes to teaching younger children about Columbus, it’s understandable that certain details should be left out. Still, we do students a tremendous disservice when we celebrate only Columbus’s bravery, without noting how he personified evil and wrongdoing. No matter the age of your students, consider asking why they think a growing list of cities and states are adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the federal holiday reserved for Columbus.

To check my thinking, I asked Shed for his thoughts. “I would be concerned with any teacher who doesn’t help their kids question the past,” he said, before expressing how he would “find problematic” any approach that fails to direct students toward evidence and interpretation to help assess the past.

The Thanksgiving story vs. history

If you’re a teacher who feels that you may want to change course on how you teach U.S. history, keep in mind that Thanksgiving is right around the corner.

Reconsider the way teachers often start their lesson: how in 1620, the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts, carrying Europeans seeking to escape religious persecution.

Instead, recount how several years prior to the Pilgrims making landfall, a horrific disease had claimed countless indigenous lives in and around Plymouth. This made way for the Europeans, who, having arrived ill-prepared for the upcoming winter, for survival, resorted to robbing corn buried with the deceased.

NewsHour Extra Lesson Plan: Thanksgiving through the lens of today’s Wampanoag people

“Thanksgiving is full of embarrassing facts. The Pilgrims did not introduce the Native Americans to the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries,” Loewen writes in “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” also noting that our modern celebration dates back to 1863, during the Civil War. “Pilgrims,” he continues, “had nothing to do with it,” and “no one used the term Pilgrims until the 1870s.”

I leave it to my students to decide if on the fourth Thursday of November they find it appropriate to share what they are thankful for, but I also ask them to consider why many Native Americans use this date to honor a National Day of Mourning.

However you go about teaching these two holidays, remember to include the bad along with the good. Otherwise, you’re lying to your students.