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CNN Today

History Teachers Tackle the Complexities of Columbus

Aired October 9, 2000 - 1:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: The United States celebrates Columbus Day with mixed emotions. New Yorkers turned out in large numbers for today's Columbus Day parade. Italian-Americans use the holiday to celebrate their heritage, but many Native Americans view Columbus as an oppressor. One-hundred-forty-seven protesters were arrested when they tried to block a weekend parade in Denver.

As CNN's Bill Delaney reports, many history teachers find themselves caught in the middle of the dispute.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARY CALLAHAN, 5TH GRADE TEACHER: Interesting, that's interesting. A lot of different things.

BILL DELANEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mary Callahan's 5th grade class, Watertown, Massachusetts, her annual tackling...

CALLAHAN: All right, gang, let's talk about Columbus.

DELANEY: ... of the man, myth, and some say, monster -- Christopher Columbus.

CALLAHAN: They're out at sea for 37 days from the Canary Islands. And where do they land? Who knows where they land in America? This gets confusing -- where do they land? Columbus, Ohio?

DELANEY: Actually, of course it was the Bahamas, but that's the easy part, say teachers like Mary Callahan, when it comes to teaching the complexities of Columbus.

Former history professor James Loewen has written a book called, "The Lies My Teacher Told Me," in which he maintains virtually all textbooks and teachers still place too much emphasis on the heroic Columbus, the great explorer, evading Columbus the racist killer, who enslaved Indians, handed them over to his men for sex, and set in motion their annihilation.

JAMES LOEWEN, AUTHOR, "THE LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME": They would even take Indians from place to place with them as dog food, as kind of mobile dog food, and when they got where they were going for the night, allow the dogs to tear one of them apart and eat them.

DELANEY: This from the contemporary account of a priest, Bartolemy de las Casas (ph), who knew Columbus. Columbus' own diaries also extensively document his four voyages.

LOEWEN: As a result of Columbus coming to Haiti, we find that by 1555 -- which is what, 60 years about after he got there -- Haiti does not have any Indians left, except a few mixed people, partly Indian, partly Spanish, and it had had a population probably of about 3 million. That's complete genocide.

DELANEY: Columbus, too, was the new world's first slave trader, sending thousands of Arawak Indians to Spain. The African slave trade would largely originate to replace cheap Indian labor, dying off from the Spanish sword and European diseases.

Many teachers, like Mary Callahan, do weave the other Columbus into their classes. Her students learn Indian necklaces mattered more to the explorer than Indians.

CALLAHAN: He says, We can get the gold that they have. He wants to be rich. Columbus wants to be a superstar.

DELANEY: Some educators, though, say children could handle more.

HOWARD ZINN, HISTORIAN: It has to be done carefully, and you don't want to crowd into their minds horrible pictures of violence and blood. We want to -- don't want to do what the movies and television do to them all the time. And yet at the same time, we must not hide the truth from them, because if you begin hiding the truth from them, you know, at that early age, then it goes on and on.

DELANEY: On and on -- a degree of detachment from who Columbus really was, and, some say, to sugarcoat evil is to be less vigilant about it, to ignore the past to repeat it.

Bill Delaney, CNN, Boston.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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