On Not Celebrating Columbus Day

Today’s Federal holiday had a cartoon moment in this morning’s newspaper – Hi and Lois, in which Dot, a little girl who is learning about Christopher Columbus, says to her dad, “Columbus thought he was in India when he landed in the New World?” Her dad says, “That’s right.” And she responds with, “So we celebrate his mistake with a holiday?” And her dad says, “Anything to get a day off.”

Dot pretty much summed up how I feel about Columbus Day. But I have another Columbus Day story that my son Shawn provided for us when he was in grade school. He was assigned, in fifth or sixth grade, to draw something that depicted Columbus in the New World. He chose to draw Columbus chopping the hands off some New World natives. The teacher flunked him on that assignment – gave him a great big zero for a score.

One of the things Mick and I have tried to teach our kids is that debate is a good thing. Debate is how we learn. And not all history is accurately presented all of the time. Columbus is a good example. There are historical references to Columbus’s brutal treatment of natives that include chopping off hands for not having enough gold (here’s one of those references:  http://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-christopher-columbus). Since Mick and I were well aware of other ways to tell the story of Columbus in the New World, we asked to meet with the teacher to talk about Shawn’s assignment.

We got exactly nowhere. The teacher was not open to discussion that Columbus’s story was not all wonderful, that he had done things to mar his image as an explorer. She refused to give Shawn partial credit for understanding the story beyond the classroom lesson. And perhaps that was her right to force Shawn to stick to what she taught rather than going beyond her simple lessons.

But I don’t really believe that. I was disappointed in her inability to engage my son in a conversation that would have expanded on a history lesson. Don’t we want children to question things? The Columbus story we were taught as children, the way Columbus Day is still a holiday, and the way we are discouraged from adding to the standard narratives even in the face of fact is not designed to encourage thoughtful consideration of what Columbus’s actions actually meant. There has been plenty of discussion about this since Shawn was in grade school and I’m pretty sure other families have bumped into similar issues with homework and history lessons.

If you’re interested, here is more information on Columbus Day and the controversy around it from the Constitution Daily: http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2016/10/why-columbus-day-isnt-really-a-national-holiday/

As for me, this is just another Monday, albeit one without mail delivery.

Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519
Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons


  1. Kudos to Shawn for so many years ago being his own person, for telling the other side. I’m disappointed in that teacher for the reasons you list. Kudos to you for being the mom you are, for raising your children to ask questions and to not always simply accept whatever they are told.


  2. Shawn is lucky to have parents which instill such critical thinking! It will serve him well in life. There are two sides to every story and every history lesson is worth deconstructing. It surprises me a bit that the teacher could not be more open minded.


  3. I love how you went to the teacher to stand up for your son and for what was the “right way” to look at history, from all sides. This is a lesson that I am sure made a huge difference in Shawn’s life, has stayed with him, and will carry through his parenting. Kudos! xoA


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