Chicago Board of Education’s Moral Purists Re-Write History
Christopher Columbus’ legacy is complex, but worth preserving.
The ignorance of Americans over historical record has a long, rich history. An unfamiliarity with the past which any survey of high school pupils reveals stunning lapses in the most basic knowledge of global events, it is not uncommon to discover students today are more likely to have learned myth, conspiracy theory or outright invention over truth and fact in our modern classrooms.
But because the Chicago Board of Education seats one radical moral purist and four pitifully cowed members, in a 5–2 vote at the Board’s meeting on February 26, 2020, the October day set aside to honor Christopher Columbus, one of history’s most compelling figures, was unceremoniously expunged from the Chicago Public Schools. A man whose achievements were first observed in New York City in 1792 and a century later in 1892 by President Benjamin Harrison, Columbus was considered to be deserving of a national holiday by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. Since FDR’s proclamation, the second Monday in October has been reserved to celebrate Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the New World. Later, in 1968, Columbus Day was recognized as a federal holiday. However, thanks to an endless series of protests and intensive lobbying a resolution adopted at the Board’s February meeting discarded Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. A vote undertaken largely by Elizabeth Todd-Breland, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the purpose of the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day is found in the impulse of social justice mavens to sanitize history and force it to conform to modern moral benchmarks. The problem with the Board of Education’s decision to purge history, of course, is it completely disregards historical context.
A free society does not erase history.
Christopher Columbus was a Genoese mariner and one of the greatest seafaring technicians of his age. A dauntless navigator who was erudite in history, astronomy, and geography, Columbus availed himself of the advancements to high-sea vessels, particularly the full-rigged ship, to embark on a voyage which would eventually lead to our national origin. Although the journey was one of numerous expeditions led by European navigators in search of distant lands to open up lucrative trade routes, to the Progressive Left, the glint of Spanish armor on the shores of the New World in 1492 should be interpreted not as the first exposure between two different peoples, but rather the subjugation and enslavement of an indigenous population.
There is no disputing the fact Columbus’ arrival to the shoreline of Hispaniola portended adversely for its indigenous population. Columbus is accused of bridling technological superiority to overcome the population he met, inflicting cruelty on the indigenous population, enslaving them, and perpetrating genocide through the infecting of Western disease to which the indigenous population had no immunity. Those natives who did not succumb to disease became forced labor and were joined later by a workforce populated by African slaves. Eventually, a population of indigenous people in Hispaniola which numbered in the hundreds of thousands was reduced to a mere 500 after Columbus landed.
While these unpleasant truths have been uncovered only recently due in large part to the diligence of historians, for administrators overseeing Chicago’s education system to delete Columbus from memory is a terrible disservice to the man, his achievements, Italian-Americans, and the gains made as a result of his remarkable journey. Although the Progressive Left has defined Columbus a culprit and judge him the advance guard which brought unparalleled suffering, there are flaws to their theory. First, the spread of disease upon the indigenous occurred through no fault of Columbus’ own, and the spread of syphilis to Europe is attributed to indigenous people with whom Columbus came into contact in the New World. Second, and more important, advances in maritime travel and intense competition among European powers made travel to the New World predestined, and the events which followed Columbus’ landing in Hispaniola are just as likely to have occurred under any explorer sailing under a British, Dutch, or Spanish flag. More broadly, given the political inclinations of those preoccupied with cleansing a nation’s heritage over new cultural norms, it is fair to speculate other motivating factors to consign Columbus to the dustbin of history may rest with the Progressive Left’s obsessive hatred for capitalism and the fact Columbus’ journey was financed by well-heeled sponsors consumed with expanding commercial trade and anticipating explorers to return with riches.
An extraordinarily provincial action taken by the Board, to remove Columbus Day from the calendar ignores a real hazard: A post-factum application of modern ethical standards has no limiting principle. By the Progressive Left’s reasoning, if modern cultural norms have led us to dethrone individuals previously venerated for their role in history, a thorough review of numerous historical figures whose legacies are sanctified by the Left would lead to their removal from the public sphere. By the Progressive Left’s standard, no one should presume Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. or Bill Clinton are immune from banishment from the public square. Ultimately, all four, FDR, JFK, MLK, and Clinton, left complicated legacies, particularly in their private lives. In the #MeToo age, this is especially true.
History is filled with errors and imperfect figures. While there are some historical personalities whose behavior is indefensible and should disqualify them from any form of reverence, Christopher Columbus is not among them and is undeserving of the treatment meted out by the Chicago Board of Education. Moreover, to judge Columbus by modern standards of conduct rather than the norms under which guided his epoch is not only contempt of history, but smacks of totalitarianism over a search for the truth. Worse, in addition to the fact the Board of Education now resembles a revolutionary tribunal, the vote to end observation of Columbus Day confirms the politicization of our schooling system, a system which has abandoning challenging students in favor of indoctrination, and is exposing students to a very narrow range of viewpoints. All of this leaves students ill equipped for reality because of a warped Utopian vision foisted upon them in classrooms.
The simple fact is, there is a need for luminaries. We need luminaries not necessarily in a universal or symbolic way, but as ordinary human beings whose gift of daring and expertise confer enduring and uplifting narratives which inspire others. Figures who give us unique, rare or treasured moments in time, they, despite flaws, also give us someone to embrace and emulate. Luminaries are needed in schools, to teach us what we can and should be, and what to avoid becoming. One such hero is Columbus. A man deserving of a day reserved for his deeds, he is similarly worthy of statues, his name adorned on street signs, and buildings. Columbus, for his greatness and weaknesses, helps us understand our past, in both marvelous and unpalatable terms. For Columbus symbolizes more than boldness, innovation or the contributions of Italian-Americans to America, Columbus deepens our sense of the land we inhabit. Christopher Columbus’ journey led to the creation of the greatest Republic in the history of the world, the United States.