Monday, October 8, 2007

I like a day off as well as anyone does, but ...."Why?"

by Ed Latham

Warning: The views represented in this post are mine and are not being forced on anyone. I offer only some thoughts and observations and of course the question of "Why?"

Today is Columbus Day here in the states. It is a federal holiday in which many non-essential services are shut down and the state and government people get a day off. I like day's off so posting this post is hard for me to do, but here we go.

I like to ask questions as anyone in my family would be quick to tell you. Three year old toddlers love to ask, "Why?" and some in my family try to draw mental age connections to my constantly questioning "the way things are." As a teacher, I have always enjoyed the long weekend holidays that seemed to be nicely sprinkled throughout the school year. What a nice time to rest and relax while recharging my internal batteries to keep my energies and spirits up.

As a child, I realized that a day named after a person must mean that the person did something pretty awesome to have the whole nation recognize his/her achievements. Martin Luther King was an easy sell for me as I immediately saw the impact that man had on all of our society even today. Over the years I have come to study each of these one day holidays and the importance they have on our society. We have parades, there are special sporting events, and local towns all have little activities set up for most of these one day (almost always on a Monday) holidays. We also have president's day which lumps together Lincoln and Washington into a little celebration of some important people. Since Lincoln and Washington were not important enough to give each one a day I really thought this Columbus dude was going to be something special. I was floored when it came to Columbus Day!

History Notes... so that people can't say this post is totally without educational merit . President Benjamin Harrison issued that the country should observe a day for Mr. Columbus way back in 1892 (400 years after the landing). The Knights of Columbus took up that charge and helped to get October 12th as a legal holiday. As early as 1907 states started adopting that date as a holiday and on 1909 New York mayor Charles Evans Hughes started a parade up.

Like all youth, I started off asking my parents and my teachers what Chris was so important for. I got many renditions, almost like a mantra, that he was responsible for discovering the New World which lead to the formation of the U.S. Hmmm....that sounded important, so I dug deeper and asked for reading material. Many of the books seemed to state almost the exact same point of view and almost the same text. A few sources seemed to hint that Chris was not exactly a philanthropist and in fact may have been a down-right nasty person. Digging deeper, I found sources that backed up that nasty personality and I learned that Chris was a Portuguese slave trader with a very bad temper. Mr. Columbus was looking to expand his trade product looking to get into more valuable cargo like spices and of course all that legendary gold ... ahhh that true business spirit was alive and well even back then.

Directly, there is data that links Columbus's crew with the forced assimilation of at least one native population (the Tainos of the Bahamas region). Indirectly, the diseases that were home-brewed in the overpopulated Europe and introduced by Colubus's voyage managed to wipe out much of the native population. By some estimates, 80% of the existing population of the New World was destroyed by Christopher Columbus's "incredible discovery".

I love to study history and I have always been appalled with the way the United States has dealt with the native populations here on these chunks of land. I see our continued celebration of Columbus Day as not only an unworthy event to celebrate, but it seems that our culture has established a mantra that only promotes a positive outlook on what has historically been, at best, a wash.

Many had come to the "New World" before Columbus, but Chris was the first to really push for continued funding to help push a country to consider a full scale expansion (invasion?) into this region which had been mostly left alone. I am sure that someone else would have done it if Christopher Columbus had not got all the fame. I am against our continued celebration of such a controversial event.

In our politically charged society, we would not think once about electing someone to federal office that had a rap sheet like our buddy Mr. Columbus did; never mind make up a federal holiday for the bum. The exploits of Columbus's crew against the native population makes even Bill Clinton's escapades with an intern look like child's play. Why then do we perpetuate this holiday? Certainly, there are more worthy men/women in our history that have impacted our lives in much more positive ways! Two gentlemen that come right to mind are Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison. I am not sure if you have looked up these crusty old salts, but if you do, you will be absolutely amazed at the influence these two people had on our way of life even today.

Most shocking of all is what I see in our classrooms. Entire units are set up, and many hours are spent with children celebrating Columbus Day. All with the mantra of celebrating "the discovery of the New World". Students dress up and perform plays. Posters and in-class feasts are frequently observed. If I were a descendant of a people that originally called this land home, I would be pissed. Actually, I guess I do get a little hot under the collar and I am not even a "victim". Especially in our schools, institutions founded to educate people, I would hope to at least see some moderation or something other than the joys of discovery mantra.

Some schools have been able to shift the focus of celebrations from Columbus over to the bounty of harvest that is in full swing in many regions at this time of year. I know that idea muscles in on Thanksgiving's fame, but at least celebrating the fall harvest is something that can be educationally supported from most every angle ( I know some environmental people could argue something here, but we could argue about almost anything).

Some schools have been able to focus on the importance of exploration and explorers at this time of year. That's cool. We have so much of life we still don't know about and even here on Earth there are depths of the ocean we still don't know about. Students need to learn about why exploration is dangerous and important to our society. Looking at collections of explorers that may include Chris...well I could support that.

In the meantime, I will finish enjoying my day off and wait until spring, when we run into some other bizarre cultural celebrations : )

How about you? Are there national/state/local celebrations that have made you scratch your head and ask "... I wonder why?"


George Crawford said...

I think that we have to look at Columbus Day through the terms of exploration and also the that it was the start of the New World. Columbus as a perosn may have not been the best person in the world and we also need to look at his life critically.
Some aspects of Columbus have grown over the past 500 years to mythical proportions. Like the story of Georeg Washington chopping down the cherry tree and saying he couldn't tell a lie. The story about George WAshington and the cherry tree is made up as are many facts about Columbus.
One thing we have to look at interms of history is that Columbus is a product of the times he lived in. Slave trading was a reality of those days as was the Spanish crown and I believe the inquistion.
Columbus was unsure at what he discovered in the New World and he thought he had reached the East Indies which was his original goal. He didn't realize till later voyages that he discovered a new place.
The disaeases Columbus brought were not understood in the scientific principles of today. They did kill off much of the Native American population but the Euro peans also took a few new diseases back with them.
I am not trying to justify all of the wrongs Columbus may have done but I believe that Columbus should be taken in the context of the world in which he lived. If we do not learned from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
We need to take Columbus in this context. All the myths about him are not true but probably some of the new interpretations are not either.
Columbus is traditionally given "credit" for discovering the New World. It can be argued that he didn't. After his voyage at sea of a few months they were glad to reach land. We need to acknowledge his discovery but also look at the different interpretations of waht that discovery led to. We also need to look at to exploration involves risks and both intentional and unintentional consquences.

Jim Burke said...

Hard to believe I'm agreeing with you again, Ed, but I can see many good reasons for moving Thanksgiving to the second Monday in October (as it is celebrating Canada, I believe) and simply eliminating Columbus Day altogether.. As I recall, FDR moved Thanksgiving day back a week so to providing more "effective" shopping days before Christmas; thus, encouraging the increased commercialization of a sacred holiday . . . corrupting even the Pagan rituals of milleniums ago.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all in favor of more holidays. We need more. Let's just celebrate the right things. How about Explorers Day or Future Day or Kindness Day . . or Reconciliation/Forgiveness day? Any good ideas for improved holidays?


P.S. And, oh yes, we definitely don't want to eliminate Halloween. It has such potential for creativity and for contemplating the human soul and mind?

Jim Burke said...

As both Neil Postman and Joseph Campbell (Of Myths to Live By fame) would make clear, a group of people (in this case, a nation) need myths (legends, stories) that give meaning or creates a glue for the group to operate effectively. It could be argued that Columbus Day forms a part of the American myth. Postman in The End of Education < > argues that our our old stand-bye myths (or narratives) served us well at one time, but no longer are effective. He argues that we need new narratives for the 21st Century and throws out some possibilities.

See < > for a summary.

Holidays could connect to these new narratives (myths, gods, etc.)

Laura Richter said...

I think that is is very difficult for our students to understand history in context but I do know that if we structure history projects to encourage the formulating of historical questions and the examination of primary sources, students are much more motivated to learn and find the process to be relevant to their own lives. John Dewey’s ideas form the foundation for this model of teaching and learning, as he deemed “worse than useless classroom instruction that failed to address problems already stirring in the childs experience”. Jerome Bruner too advocated for discovery learning as an approach to instruction through which students interact with their environment-by exploring and manipulating objects, wrestling with questions and controversies or performing experiments. Through self-motivated exploration, not only do students find historical research relevant, they come to more fully understand and remember key concepts. Providing an environment where students will learn to think like historians, and successfully interact with historical knowledge through the development of acute critical thinking skills… skills that will also make them better problem in all other arenas of their lives, is critical. Beyond developing skills, it is important to provide learning experiences that will foster a sincere desire to know people, places and events of the past and through this discovery redefine for themselves their own humanity or to understand just what it is that connects them with those past lives. There are so many examples like your Columbus study that cause students to struggle ...moral dilemmas so to speak, but this is allll good. They question, they examine primary resources, they discuss and analyze as they attempt to make meaning from it all.

Ed Latham said...

Laura, you make some good statements supporting the merits of individual discovery and I am completely in support of that as well. My difficulty with the whole Columbus thing was that none of the adults I talked to were ABLE to give me another point of view at all. All the teachers and my relatives were all chanting to the same tune. Jim's post about myths in our society being the glue helps to support the "Why" so many people just jump on a good story and run with it. There have been many studies/discussions about how much of what we teach in school is really relevant to life today rather than post WW2 periods. I think my post was addressing our continued practice of glorifying Chris vs Explorers in general as George suggested.
Another purpose of the post was to indeed spark conversation on more worthwhile holidays and Jim I love the idea of Thanksgiving moving earlier, but that would of course throw off the NFL schedule {grin}. The concept of "Exploration Day" is a grand one that has TONS of possibilities! Oh so many good chunks in these posts.

How about the purpose of the national holidays? Is there a set criteria? Thanks to the "After School Rock" series way back when I know how an idea becomes a bill then a law, but how about a holliday? Is there a proceedure to remove a holiday? Who does it? So many questions...Guess the little three year old in me needs some breakfast as a distraction :)

Laura Richter said...

I totally agree...we need to have multiple viewpoints ...especially with controversial content matter.

George Crawford said...

I came across the link below on Applelinks, a Mac website and discusses briefly the history of the Canadaian Thanksgiving and Columbus Day. It is interesting. Ed's point is
well taken about the myth of Columbus Day but so is ther history of the holiday too.

George Crawford said...

I came across the link below on Applelinks, a Mac website and discusses briefly the history of the Canadaian Thanksgiving and Columbus Day. It is interesting. Ed's point is
well taken about the myth of Columbus Day but so is ther history of the holiday too.
Entire URL Below