Everyone is taught about Christopher Columbus in elementary school, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Teachers taught students that he was the first to discover America, and a national holiday was established to celebrate his arrival. However, it is essential to highlight all aspects of history, not just the pieces we have always taught.
Back in my small hometown of Westerly, Rhode Island, there was one protest where teens and adults were involved in sharing their opinions about the local Christopher Columbus statue in the Wilcox Park. Around Columbus day in 2020, a group of young democrats made strong arguments against the statue remaining. It was a controversial topic as Columbus had done terrible things in the past but the town with deep Italian roots valued the explorer. The large American-Italian population that dominates Westerly, recognized Columbus as a representation of their heritage and affirmation of the Italian identity. One side felt that history was trying to be erased, while the other argued they were reshaping the way we teach it. Each group compromised after a year of protests and vandalism to the statue. It still stands in our park, although now encased in a fence. Some teachers now approach the history of Christopher Columbus from both sides showing the good and the bad of discovering America.
The controversy sparked by Columbus Day raised many questions about how and what was being taught in schools. Throughout the last 2 years of protests and activism, the conversation has morphed into the topic of “cancel culture” and the introduction of critical race theory.
Critical race theory originated as a field of legal study of how inequities shape societal and economic outcomes (BBC). Citizens believe that teaching critical race theory in schools has the potential to divide people by focusing on racism and gender. However, the concept is not to divide, but rather teach the entire spectrum of history and inclusiveness of all genders.
It is understandable that parents worry about the potential of having their children being taught about the racial gap at such a young age. But by teaching children about racism and equity they can have a more well rounded education.
“Critical race theorists believe that racism is an everyday experience for most people of color, and that a large part of society has no interest in doing away with it because it benefits White elites. Many also believe that American institutions are racist and that people are privileged or oppressed because of their race. While the theory was started as a way to examine how laws and systems promote inequality, it has since expanded.” (CNN News)
The demand for modification of standard historical teachings has led to a perception of cancel culture. However, expanding how we educate provides a broader understanding of culture and history. As an example, Nanci Fiore-Chettiar, a resident of Westerly, wrote to the local newspaper The Westerly Sun, “The statue stands in mockery of Westerly’s Native residents, whose ancestors were violently forced from their home. Today, our town barely remembers their contributions, despite Indigenous history in Westerly spanning thousands of years. The only references to their existence are the names we claim for our local beaches, often without knowing their true meaning. For this reason, I disagree with those who say that removing the statue erases history. On the contrary, this would be a step toward acknowledging how much history the statue has erased.” The higher level of detail we can provide children about all aspects of history will help to teach them about the contributions indigenous people made to America.