• Allison Lee Pillinger Choi

Primerrily talks Columbus Day (and Complexity) with Our Kids

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

In 2020, Christopher who?


In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation honoring the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day -- the second Monday of October -- a national holiday. Since then, in the days leading up to this holiday, classrooms were known to teach young students about the famous Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus. The lesson went on to discuss his three ships commissioned by the Spanish Queen and King: the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. From my childhood, I recall crafting art projects depicting these ships glue-stick'd over a sheet of ocean blue-colored construction paper.


Fast forward to today, when my kids have not been introduced to a person by the name of Christopher Columbus, for whom a federal holiday suspends their school schedule. I imagine this omission in curriculum largely has to do with the controversy tied to his expedition. Given the current woke trends pushing for a “cancellation” of this European explorer, I have to think that teachers are either woke themselves or unwilling to risk crossing the woke line. Whichever the case, have my kids experienced the consequence of woke’s dismantling classical education in Western Civilization?


At the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, historian James Brown analyzes the historical and current-day Christopher Columbus controversy: How did Americans go from naming a national holiday in his honor to denigrating him? “Countless factions were inspired by the courageous explorer. His name would grace the U.S. capital district, innumerable localities in North and South America, sailing vessels and spacecraft, [an Ivy League University,] and a media empire. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the Columbian Exposition, minted commemorative coins of both Columbus and his patroness, Queen Isabella. Hers was the first U.S. coin honoring a woman—a fact ignored by progressives.” And then today, the holiday is commonly known for the controversy and woke campaign to rename Columbus Day as “Indigienous People’s Day.”


Well, no, we say this does not mark the beginning of the end of our kids’ exposure to classical international and American history. . . because we are teaching them. We can teach them the good, the bad, and the ugly. . . in that order, and when the age is right. At my kids’ ages -- preschool and early elementary school -- I’ll be reading them, for instance, the Columbus Day (1492) Poem:


In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain

He sailed by night; he sailed by day; He used the stars to find his way.

A compass also helped him know how to find the way to go.

Ninety sailors were on board; Some men worked while others snored.

Then the workers went to sleep; And others watched the ocean deep.

Day after day they looked for land; They dreamed of trees and rocks and sand.

October 12 their dream came true, You never saw a happier crew!

“Indians! Indians!” Columbus cried; His heart was filled with joyful pride.

But “India” the land was not; It was the Bahamas, and it was hot.

The Arakawa natives were very nice; They gave the sailors food and spice.

Columbus sailed on to find some gold to bring back home, as he’d been told.

He made the trip again and again, Trading gold to bring to Spain.

The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.


I understand that the woke would be outraged by this poem. The woke might scream, “Where are the callouts of the racism, the oppression, the murder?!” No doubt, Christopher Columbus was not a blameless “Boy Scout.” I know this. I know this even though I was taught at a young age about Columbus’s 1492 bold adventures and unknown risks. I know this because at an older age I was taught about the uglier side of history -- when I was cognitively developed enough to digest complexities, compartmentalize concepts, as well as process nuance and “shades of gray.” I was able to understand that good and bad traits are not necessarily mutually exclusive.


Reflecting on my own childhood experience, my mom and dad’s parenting styles, and what makes sense to me in my own parenting style, I value the general approach of laying a basic foundation first. For example, we have a reason we first teach primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, before we teach shades like maroon, teal, and chartreuse. We have a reason we first teach “1, 2, 3” and “A, B, C” before we teach “1½ , 2.75, 3.14159” and sounds of long A and short A (ă and ā), phonetic B and silent B (boy and climb), hard C and soft C (/k/ and /s/).


To really drive home the point, we have a reason we first teach our kids that we (i.e. parents, grandparents, etc.) are the bee’s knees before they understand all of our faults. Well, sure, we are pretty awesome, but we are not without flaws, misdeeds, regrets, and room for improvement. For example, we are typically on our best behavior in front of our kids. I’d like to think that I always say my “pleases” and “thank yous” to everyone, but I make extra sure of it when they are with me. So with time, they will emulate my good behavior and polite etiquette. Then with more time, as they become aware of my “less ideal quirks,” they will learn where and how to do better.


In short, with a basic foundation of knowledge, we then look for the stage of cognitive capability for when our kids can build on that, chip at it, and peel at it. At that point they can analyze the composition and decide what they want to do with that intricate system of knowledge. As this approach is applied to how our kids, over time, will learn about Christopher Columbus: we hope they are inspired by his adventurism, risk-taking, and boldness, and that they are aware of the many ways history unfolded after his voyage. We also hope that they will learn from his exploitations, better understanding values like treating others from any background with respect, civility, and dignity.


Put another way, at Primerrily we like to give credit where credit is due (e.g. Columbus did discover the New World for most Europeans and catalyzed an age of cross-Atlantic exploration). At the same time, we find value in offering constructive criticism with purpose where and when it’s due (e.g. We will teach our cognitively developed kids how Columbus and his crew exploited indigenous cultures). We will also teach context, not to excuse the behavior, but to explain that we live within our times and need to consider historical figures by their period of history.


Application of context is relevant not only to Spanish barbaric conquistadors and America’s slave-owning founders, but also to people of nearly all cultures throughout history. In the case of indigenous people, we will teach our kids about the wonderful contributions made by Native Americans and others of indigenous culture; for example, the Aztecs and Mayans’ developments in agriculture, architecture, art, astronomy, calendars, and mathematics. Our kids will later become aware of these cultures’ reprehensible practices involving human sacrifice, cannibalism, and slavery. As noted in National Review, Contrary to the simplistic picture painted. . . [indigenous cultures] were as assorted as those of any other peoples in history. While it might be true that some such cultures fit the nomadic, tranquil image pushed by the revisionists, not even close to all of them did. Which leads to an inevitable follow-up to those who would eliminate Columbus Day in favor of ‘Indigenous People’s Day’: Which ‘indigenous people’ do you have in mind?”


This practice of giving credit, offering constructive criticism, and teaching context is not only relevant to Columbus Day, but to all people and institutions of complexity. Horrible atrocities which are part of our nation's history -- slavery at the forefront -- is a stain . . . a cruel, sinful stain that can never be removed from reality of the past. Again, it is a stain -- it is not a fire that burns and incinerates the good that our country has done for Americans and the world since 1776.


For these reasons, Primerrily celebrates the significance of Columbus’s voyage. We also appreciate the imperfect man who made the year 1492 one for the history books. At the same time, we lament those who were the victims of institutional exploitation, oppression, slavery, and genocide. We believe we can do some bit of justice by understanding the complexities of history, building on the good, and improving from the bad.


We wish you a happy Columbus Day. May you and your kids learn something new about Christopher Columbus, as well as all the significance, consequence, and complexities of his voyage.


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