The Grey Area Around Columbus Day
A hot button issue in current events lately has been the focus on how historical traditions can be widely accepted by the public, yet still have a history of extreme discrimination against certain groups. People are debating the removal of Confederate statues, the practice of standing during the national anthem is being challenged, and Columbus Day, a holiday whose title celebrates that of the infamous explorer, is being contested for its insensitiveness.
Often the holiday is celebrated without question. As children, many of us can remember learning about Columbus incompletely, reading simple picture books or doing quick lessons that stemmed from one point of view. The implications behind the holiday were never really stressed, and the whole topic had a casual air to it, accompanied even better, by the chance of a day off from school. In an environment that strives toward political correctness in addition to looking at all aspects of historical reflection of any kind, it seems as though Packer continues to sweep the controversies of this holiday under the rug, just as many of us remember people doing when we were younger.
It is no secret that Columbus Day is under especially heavy public scrutiny this year following the demonstrations in Charlottesville and the requests to have Confederate statues removed, but that does not mean that this is the first time we have questioned Columbus Day as a holiday celebrated across the United States. When someone first spoke out against the celebration of what many consider to be genocide, enslavement and discrimination, it was 1893, over a century ago. It may seem unfathomable that people have been against the holiday’s title essentially since it was created, and yet we are still debating its removal, or renaming, in 2017.
The title of the holiday has caused so much controversy that many people do not even recognise the holiday as “Columbus Day,” but rather choose to call it “Indigenous People’s Day.” This is a nod to the thousands of indigenous people that were killed and enslaved when Columbus and his men came to the Americas. This new name seems to be a compromise between either completely removing the holiday, and ignoring peoples protests about it; so why doesn’t Packer choose this alternative? Grace Warner (‘20) agrees that Packer would benefit from referring to the holiday as Indigenous People’s Day in the school calendar.
“I think that they should change the name because, although a lot of people disagree with this, words and talking can change a lot more than we think,” she said.
When asked about his personal views about the holiday, Jose De Jesus, Head of the Upper School, said that although he did not fully agree with the celebration of Columbus Day, he did acknowledge the different influences it has on various cultures within the U.S, including the Italian communities who often hold Columbus Day Parades. At Packer “no one has really raised, in terms of any kind of concern, the point of doing something different than we do, which is to take the day [off],” he added.
“I think we are a community that will listen, especially if there is a sense of real concern about how we think about that holiday. I think it could be a conversation that may lead to action… So maybe there’s a chapel, looking at different perspectives, maybe there’s a way for us to think about it, that we haven’t necessarily,” he said, in response to how we should be approaching the holiday in the future.
As a part of the tenth grade history curriculum, teachers and students unpack the different forms of bias behind the encounter. They look at viewpoints that range from those who criticize the celebratory aspect of the ‘holiday’ to those who venerate it, attempting to widen the lens in which students view the events of history. Within the class they discuss, amongst other things, how one historian, Eric Foner, argues that historical events are nearly always remembered and told from the perspective of the victor. This applies to how Columbus Day only celebrates the experiences of the successor, and how his discovery benefitted him. However, shouldn’t we be focusing on remembering those who were brutally killed by Christopher Columbus for the sake of his discovery? This class is a source of conversation that Packer has instated surrounding the holiday and what people feel about it; however, having a place to talk about the growing concerns of the holiday was not directly in mind when planning the curriculum.
“I think when we created the unit, we weren’t thinking explicitly about the holiday… We definitely are encouraging students to think critically about the Columbian encounter, and then by extension, having Columbus Day,” said Dr. Strauss, an Upper School history teacher. In regard to how Packer addresses the holiday, and whether it should be doing more to allow students to speak about it, Dr. Strauss added, “I think that there’s a place in the classroom for that conversation to start … if the community wants to have, or reconsider, why we have what we call ‘Columbus Day,’ and commemorate it, I think it requires a larger conversation.”
It seems increasingly ironic that the holiday appears to only be discussed in the tenth grade classroom. If anything, this year is one in which we, as a community, should be addressing these issues head on, both inside and outside of the classroom. We should not have to rely solely on a history curriculum to educate ourselves on the current implications that holidays like these have on our community. Although teachers may hope that the students who pass through the 10th grade history course will develop a deeper understanding of the issues behind the holiday, it seems as if, at least for this year, a grey area has formed around addressing the topic as a whole, and the holiday was just left in passing.