Schools Re-evaluate Columbus' Exploits

October 23, 1991|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff writer

SYKESVILLE — When asked what they know about Christopher Columbus, seventh-grade students in Pam Monacelli's social studies class at Sykesville MiddleSchool offer a flurry of answers.

They can, of course, name the Italian sea captain's three sailing ships -- the Nina, Pinta and SantaMaria -- recite dates, point to the pertinent geographical locationsand tell you what the explorer was looking for.

But these students also will tell you that Columbus' meeting witha new culture had a profound impact on American Indians.

"It wiped out Indians," said Chris James, a 12-year-old from Eldersburg. "Notfrom guns but diseases. Indian culture died, and European culture grew."

In Carroll schools, like others across the country, Columbus is no longer given the "sailed-the-ocean-blue" treatment.

Instead,students are learning about Columbus as part of a much broader and more comprehensive study of explorers and the discovery of the Americas.

"We're not trying to present Columbus in any controversial way," said Donald P. Vetter, supervisor of social studies. "We're trying to enlighten kids that he wasn't the one who really discovered America."

Students examine historical evidence of early explorers, such as the Vikings, and they learn about other European explorers of thatera, including Ferdinand Magellan, Ponce de Leon and Hernando Cortez.

"We actually spend more time on the Vikings than Columbus," saidMonacelli. "There's been a de-emphasis of Columbus as the only important explorer and an emphasis on other explorers. We know so much more about the others."

As the country begins to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, the National Council for the Social Studies has recommended guidelines for teaching about the explorer in the nation's classrooms.

The guidelines emphasize that Columbusdid not discover a new world but came into contact with another, rich and thriving civilization, bringing conquest and diseases, such as chicken pox and influenza, that killed millions of Native Americans.

Jim Gerwig, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Northwest Middle School, said most social studies teachers, using textbooks and more recently published materials, are trying to let students come up with their own ideas.

"Students are coming up with Columbus as a person who was a combination of hero, adventurer and fortune hunter," Gerwig said. "We've given this individual so much credit and hero worship. As we find more information about his objectives and his treatment of Native Americans, we have to be extremely careful with what weteach until we get the full picture."

One thing's for sure, though. They don't teach Columbus like they used to.

"I personally don't teach Columbus the way I was taught," said Mike McDearmon, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Sykesville. "I de-emphasize him as the only explorer. He's a piece of a large puzzle."

The romantic treatment of Columbus is more apt to come from students who recite "In1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," than their teacher.

"That's something I never bring up," McDearmon said.

Both Shawn Loomis and Andy Hoffmeister seemed well informed about Columbus. They disagreed, however, on whether he was a hero.

"No, I don't think he was,"said Andy, 12, of Eldersburg. "The Indians were already here. He didn't discover anything. He brought diseases over here and killed them."

Said 12-year-old Shawn, "I think he was a hero of sorts. He did discover a world other people didn't know about."

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