Almost all my high school students can recite the singsong rhyme,
In fourteen hundred and ninety two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Most of them—and most of you—can name Columbus’ ships, the Pinta, Niña, and Santa Maria. But since I began teaching in 1978, I’ve never had a student who could name the nationality of the people he encountered: the Taínos.
This fact hints at how the traditional Columbus myth, and much of the curriculum that follows in its wake, has conditioned children to accept without question imperial adventures like the Iraq war.
For many children, the meeting of Columbus and the Taínos is the first time in the formal curriculum they learn about the contact between different cultures—often as early as October of kindergarten year, around Columbus Day. In fact, it’s children’s first in-school exposure to the contact between different nations—to foreign policy.
From their earliest days in school, students are taught to identify with white Europeans: the explorers, discoverers, and conquerors. The people Columbus “discovers” are incidental to the main tale of heroism—there, but not there. With few exceptions, children’s books describe the arrival of Columbus in remarkably similar ways. Here’s a typical passage, from A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus:“Christopher Columbus and his men rowed ashore. He planted a flag in the sand and claimed the island for Spain. He named it San Salvador.”
Missing from this crisp description is a basic question: What right did Columbus have to claim someone else’s territory in the name of a far away empire? The book acknowledges that there were “natives” living there, so why couldn’t these natives keep their land? Why couldn’t the land be called what it had been called by its inhabitants for perhaps hundreds of years: Guanahani?
This celebration of colonial conquest is at the heart of the Columbus myth. Children learn that global inequality is a fact of life. The world is divided in two: the discoverers and the discovered, the rulers and the ruled, the civilized and the savage, the worthy and the unworthy. And later, as children will learn, the rich and the poor.
And what characteristics does Columbus possess that could justify the domination described in kids’ books? The books fail to answer this question directly, simply because they never raise it. Students are left to answer it themselves, albeit not consciously: Columbus was white, the natives were not; Columbus was Christian, the natives non-Christian; Columbus was armed, the natives un-armed. Whatever answers they may generate will endorse inequality: Some people in the world inherently have more rights than others.
This fundamental global inequality is the ideological underpinning of U.S. involvement in Iraq. As George W. Bush proclaimed in his January 2003 State of the Union address, where he justified the impending war against Iraq: “Once again, we are called to defend the safety of our people and the hopes of all mankind. …And as we and our coalition partners are doing in Afghanistan, we will bring to the Iraqi people food
and medicines and supplies—and freedom.”
According to this logic, “we” have the right to invade other nations when we decide they threaten us. We have a right to occupy other countries. We have the right to impose on them whatever form of government we choose—in the name of freedom, of course. We have the right to decide when others are ready to rule themselves, or not.
Today’s grown-ups learned imperialism with their ABCs.
And in learning about a world divided between a righteous, powerful “us” and an inferior, childlike “them,” youngsters also sometimes learned that there were different categories of “them.” Some Taínos cooperated with the Columbus occupation. But some didn’t. Here’s how one book, Meet Christopher Columbus, acknowledges the native insurgency:
[Columbus’] ships sailed on to the east. In a few days they came to a small bay. Some of the men went ashore to find food. Suddenly more than 50 Indians jumped out from behind the trees. They had bows and arrows. They attacked the men. The men fought back. One Indian was hit by an arrow. Another was badly cut.
The Indians were surprised by the bravery of Columbus’ men. They dropped their bows and ran away.
These were the only unfriendly Indians that Columbus’ crew ever saw.
Notice that the book calls the European invaders “men,” but refers to the Taínos simply as Indians. This is Taíno land, but instead the book portrays the Taínos as aggressors: “They attacked the men.” In this historical flip-flop, the colonial invaders bravely “fought back.”
Thus is born the friendly Indian/ unfriendly Indian dichotomy: The good Indians—think Ahmed Chalabi, Iyad Allawi—cooperate with the occupation forces. The bad Indians—think everyone in Falluja, for example—fight back. The savages. As President Bush said in a recent Saturday radio address: “Our troops know that they’re fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to protect their fellow Americans from a savage enemy.”
And through it all, God is on “our” side. President Bush: “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”
In children’s books, Columbus also seeks to share God’s gift: “When Christopher Columbus was a child, he always wanted to be like Saint Christopher. He wanted to sail to faraway places and spread the word of Christianity,” writes biographer Mary Pope Osborne.
Many of us began to encounter today’s justifications for U.S. intervention and domination when we were children. Civilized, Christian Westerners bring enlightenment to the unwashed heathens. Good Indians do what they’re told. Bad Indians fight back and get what they deserve.
These myths don’t help young people think clearly about the world. What’s worse is when a country builds its foreign policy on cartoon-like assumptions about social relations.