Critical Thinking and Columbus: Secondary Social Studies

By Knopp, Sharon L. | Transformations, March 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking and Columbus: Secondary Social Studies


Knopp, Sharon L., Transformations


Critical Thinking and Columbus: Secondary Social Studies

The quincentenary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the western hemisphere, 1992, was a year of considerable controversy in the United States media. In a country that once considered naming itself after this explorer hero, and which still has a national holiday and more geographic places named for Columbus than for anyone except Washington (they meet in the name of our nation's capitol), the media finally covered the views of detractors who saw little to celebrate, unless it was the survival of a small proportion of America's original inhabitants. In the field of education, this opposition view was best symbolized by the publication of Rethinking Columbus (1991), a special edition of Rethinking Schools, designed to encourage critical thinking modifications in teachers' lesson plans.

Perhaps because of the media coverage, there were a few students in my human relations classes that year who were vaguely aware that Columbus was more than heroic; he was also flawed. One or two had heard contrasting opinions in high school, and a couple more had learned in college of Columbus' misdeeds. But by far the majority of my students before and including the quincentenary had heard only praise, and were therefore shocked to learn that Columbus had instituted a gold tribute system and the encomienda system, both of which resulted in exploitation, enslavement, and death for the native population. They were unaware of any debate about his merits and apparently had no critical thinking training related to him. I wondered if children coming through our schools today are receiving a better education. In Columbian scholarship, the controversy was virulent long before the 1992 media flurry, and I wondered how much of it has gotten into the textbooks that are used now.

So I analyzed the Columbus curriculum in the most widely used social studies texts at the time of the quincentenary to see how he was presented and whether the next generation of students was likely to accept him uncritically as a hero. I began with the elementary series (Knopp, 1995a), and learned that these books are full of bias, errors, important omissions, and unquestioning praise -just what my students had reflected in my classroom. This study reports my findings regarding the secondary curriculum. Is the elementary bias continued through the secondary level, thus reinforcing a limited historical perspective, or does the secondary curriculum contradict students' earlier learning by introducing controversy and debate?

Sample and Method

The American Textbook Council provided me with a list of the most widely used social studies texts in the United States (Sewell, 1992). At the secondary level (both middle school and high school), there were 27 books (Table 1). I looked at the editions closest to the quincentenary. Then in the summer of 1996, I looked for the most recent edition of each text to see what changes had been implemented. This sample then represents the standard curriculum presented to today's students. The teachers' editions were used to include lessons that students might be told, as well as what they read.

I looked at Columbus' treatment as a hero by noting adjectives used to describe him and his enterprise, his presentation pictorially, and critical thinking questions asked about him. I evaluated the treatment of native perspective and associated concepts including "discovery," as well as suggestions associated with the pedagogy of Columbus curriculum.

I also considered the factual accuracy of the story. Numerous contemporary scholars call into question the interpretation of Columbus' contribution. Part of their question is based on values and ideology, but another part is based on the discovery and examination of primary materials previously unavailable. In "The Columbian Quincentenary," an official position statement, the National Council for the Social Studies urges educators to ". …

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