OPINION: Stop Celebrating Columbus Day in Schools

Sugar-coated history has no place in American education.

stop celebrating columbus day

Today students across this country will take part in “adorable” yet historically irresponsible activities around Christopher Columbus (clothespin sailing ship, anyone?). However uncomfortable the real history might make us, and regardless of apparent permission to go on doing things as we’ve always done, educators have a responsibility to teach accurate history. And that means it’s time to stop celebrating Columbus Day in schools.

This is not revisionist history

When anyone suggests ditching Columbus Day, folks say they want to rewrite history or only present one side. Frankly, history has been one-sided for a long time. It’s only now that the other side is getting a turn that people are complaining. This has recently happened to the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning initiative that places slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of our national narrative. Seemingly in answer is the new 1776 Commission, which would teach kids that American history begins with the Declaration of Independence. Our roots are much deeper, and to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. It is, in fact, revisionist history.

You can still teach about Christopher Columbus

No one is telling you not to teach about Christopher Columbus. He is certainly a towering historical figure who changed the world. But positioning him solely as an intrepid explorer is intellectually dishonest, and our students deserve better. Because the man who helped prove the world was round also enslaved native people, imposed torture as governor of Hispaniola, and brought disease that would decimate the native population. His “discovery” paved the way for slavery and genocide. Is it a bleak view? Perhaps, but it’s the truth. And as far as undermining his legacy, well, he did that himself.

Ask the people most affected

I’ve lived abroad in a country named by Columbus himself, and I can tell you he’s no hero there. And he’s not someone the first peoples of this country want to celebrate either. Megan Hill, citizen of the Oneida nation, told the Harvard Gazette, “For Native people in the U.S., Columbus Day represents a celebration of genocide and dispossession. The day celebrates a fictionalized and sanitized version of colonialism, whitewashing generations of brutality that many Europeans brought to these shores.”

Flip the script

Celebrating Columbus Day commemorates European colonization of the people who were here first—thriving societies going back thousands of years. Traditional history curriculum teaches that this was land waiting to be settled, and we must move to a collective understanding that it was taken by force. You can begin to do that by recognizing the experiences and contributions of native peoples in your classroom. Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in school instead of Columbus Day won’t fix this entirely, but it’s a good start.

How do you feel about Columbus Day in schools? Come share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, Teaching President’s Day in a Socially Conscious Way.

OPINION: Stop Celebrating Columbus Day in Schools

Posted by Kimmie Fink

Kimmie is an editor at WeAreTeachers. She has 13 years of classroom teaching experience and a master's degree in curriculum and instruction.

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