Down with Columbus Day, up with a new ‘creation myth’ for America

Mallard Creek Elementary students display a poster on Columbus’ 1492 voyage.
Mallard Creek Elementary students display a poster on Columbus’ 1492 voyage.

Columbus Day is a perfect occasion to reconsider our nation’s creation myths. Each year at this time we face a choice: Will we use this day to empower ourselves – students, in particular – by delving into the complexities of our country’s past, or will we let nostalgia overshadow the truth?

How we answer this question is key to the success of many students.

A growing number of teachers recognize the possibilities here, and have started to complicate the traditional “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” line about this day. Some school districts, such as my own in Maryland, no longer take the day off in Columbus’ honor. Some cities and districts, such as Seattle, are opting to observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of honoring the person who helped initiate several centuries of genocide against them.

But for our country as a whole, the day remains on the calendar. An effort to declare Indigenous People’s Day narrowly failed in Oklahoma City. And the debate over Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been a yearly observance on Fox News since at least 2010, when a commentator declared that it was time to “Take back Columbus Day.” This backlash falls in line with similar assaults on Mexican-American studies in Arizona, slights to the Civil Rights movement in Texas, and attacks on Advanced Placement U.S. History in places like Jefferson County, Colo.

Such a backlash goes beyond being just another frustrating manifestation of the culture wars; it’s a threat to our students’ success.

Stephanie Coontz, a historian who writes about the dangers of nostalgia, found that white Americans who lived through the 1950s and 1960s were more open to the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movement if they recognized that their positive memories were made possible by unjust social arrangements that harmed other people.

That ability to be open and to adapt is exactly what students need to successfully navigate the 21st century world. Teaching a fuller story of our shared past is not only common sense, it’s part of what’s necessary to ensuring that students are prepared for the diverse and dynamic world they will inherit.

Two resources for parents and teachers committed to a fuller creation myth for all people in our nation: Zinn Ed Project and Teaching for Change.

Sabrina Stevens is Midatlantic Regional Fellow of the Progressive Education Fellows.