Schoolchildren are discovering a new Columbus

October 11, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Source: Minnesota Council for the Social Studies: "Navigating the Quincentennial: A Question of Balance."Staff Writer Staff writers Mark Bomster, Anne Haddad, Sherry Joe, Monica Norton, Karin Remesch and Linell Smith contributed to this article.

There's nothing flat about the story of Christopher Columbu in 1992.

And there's nothing one-sided about the look students are getting at the man who set foot somewhere in the Bahamas, thinking he had found the Indies, and established himself for centuries as the discoverer of the New World.

On the 500th anniversary of Columbus' famous voyage, official history is changing. The picture of Columbus that emerges is more rounded, if not as glorious as it was.

Students in Baltimore-area schools no longer see Columbus portrayed as the heroic discoverer of America and the savior of savages. Educators say they now approach the story of 1492 with perspective and balance:

* Columbus' landing is no longer being heralded as a discovery, but rather as a cultural encounter.

* The "New World" that Columbus proclaimed is shown to be far from new to the people who had been living there for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

* Driven by desires to expand trade and Christianity, most European countries were sending explorers in search of Asia. Columbus was one -- though a persistent one -- among many.

* Columbus may have been a heroic figure, but to the natives he encountered and many historians, he was hardly a hero.

"Although Columbus was an enthusiastic sailor and a great man, he wasn't necessarily a good man," says Stephanie Probst, a curriculum specialist in Harford County. "Historians believe that he was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Arawak Indians."

David Reck, a social studies teacher at Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City, says Columbus was driven by greed, seeking mainly wealth, power and fame.

"Everything we're sending out to the schools are things that give more balance to the Columbus issue," says Robert Jervis, coordinator of social studies for Anne Arundel County schools. "We're not presenting Columbus as a hero, but as a heroic figure. What he did was an extremely heroic undertaking."

"There's not as much emphasis on who did what first," says Pegeen D'Agostino, chairwoman of the social studies department at Mercy High School in Baltimore County. "If Columbus had not come, somebody would have come."

At Mercy, sophomores are remembering Columbus by examining the people and cultures he found. They have spent two weeks researching the Indian tribes that were well established when the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria arrived.

"Before, we wouldn't deal with the Indians. Columbus discovered America was all we needed to know," says Mercy sophomore Katie Angerer. "This year we are learning those positive aspects [of Indian civilizations]. They were much more advanced than we ever learned."

In Anne Arundel County schools, the lessons are similar. "We're teaching them what it meant for the two civilizations coming in contact with each other," Mr. Jervis says. "We're teaching both the exchange of cultures and the clash of cultures."

Most students are learning the negative impact of Columbus's arrival: that smallpox and other diseases came with the explorers; that Columbus's zeal for converts to Catholicism spawned slavery; and that the newcomers ravaged the land.

Columbus' once-sterling reputation is being tarnished.

After two days of intensive study, middle-school students at Roland Park Country School concluded that Columbus did more harm than good, administrator Aurelia Burt says.

Students at Canton Middle School in Baltimore will put Columbus on trial next month for crimes against Indians. "The kids are going to be the jury, they're going to be the prosecutor, they're going to be the defense," Principal Craig Spilman says.

The ideological implications of the trial aside, Mr. Spilman says, it illustrates a new approach to teaching history.

"In the old days, it was, 'Here is history, recite it back,' " he says. "Today, we'd look at content that would be presented from a variety of points of view. They're questioning motive, they're questioning facts themselves. . . . The curriculum is only good if you bring it alive in the classroom."

Five teachers at Holabird Middle School in Dundalk are taking a team approach to Columbus, sixth-grade English teacher Sharalyn Luciani says. For two days next week, they will look at his adventures as a lesson not only in social studies, but also in mathematics, science and English.

In math, for instance, the students will study statistics involved with Columbus' voyage and do word problems related to it. In English, they will analyze the explorer's diary. In science, they will hear about food preservation and some of the spices Columbus found. And in social studies, they will discuss whether Columbus was a hero or a villain. The school's guidance counselor, Lynn Farmer, will use Columbus as a model for setting goals and achieving them.

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