Memory  /  First Person

Middle Schoolers Take on Columbus

A lesson on contextualizing history.

I teach middle school. In many communities across the United States, parents and students are uncomfortable with the history I teach. Holding fast to histories that professional historians have long abandoned, they believe the purpose of “traditional history”—or perhaps more aptly put, consensus history—is to create a unifying underpinning that brings us together as Americans. They point to the villainization of Christopher Columbus, or Founding Fathers treated with disdain for having owned slaves, as interpretations that cause young Americans to grow up unpatriotic, and undermine the traditions they hold dear. 

These parents are correct in believing that the consensus history they grew up with is no longer in vogue. My courses strive to contextualize the past and help students to understand complexities—not renounce them. This includes complex people, of which history is chock full. So, is there a way to teach middle school history without either “vilifying” individuals or glossing over the thornier parts of their legacies? Absolutely. My students proved it last year, during our lesson on Columbus. 

I teach at a private Christian school that is culturally and politically conservative. While that fact makes approaching figures like Columbus tricky, it is unthinkable not to deal with these topics from a historical perspective. And there are real upsides: while providing a realistic presentation of the past without seeming to “brainwash” my students can feel arduous, it also allows me a unique perspective not found in most secular education.

The vast majority of my students are raised by their parents to have a Biblical worldview. This came into play as they reckoned with the legacy of Columbus. To begin, I asked the students if they believed the following statement to be true: “Christopher Columbus should be honored with statues and Columbus Day should be a national holiday.” Around 90 percent of the class agreed. I followed up: “Do you know that some people want to change the name of Columbus Day, while some are arguing to take down his statues?” I asked the class why they think this is happening. One student, half-jokingly, said that liberals hate America, while another said that Columbus committed some “bad acts” against Indigenous people. “Well, let’s find out!” (It takes real effort to get an apathetic group of preteens excited.)