Critical ThinkingCultureEducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Teaching unsavoury history

Happy Thanksgiving/Columbus Day to our Canadian and American readers! Hope those of you who got the day off are enjoying the free time.

Speaking of federal holidays, reading The Oatmeal‘s latest comic on just how terrible Columbus actually was reminds me of an experience I had several years ago while taking my Year Abroad™ in Italy.

The powers that were decided that it would be a good opportunity for those of us studying there to take on positions as guest-speaker-TA types for English classes at the local high school, where we would offer our experiences (and accents) as North Americans in order to complement the usually UK-focused curriculum.*

In some respects it was a fun job, especially because it allowed us a peek into second-language instruction in another country and gave us the opportunity to see the way English is commonly taught in that part of the world. It was also interesting to see the wide variety in competence among the English teachers in the school, from the one whom I mistook for a native speaker to the one who couldn’t really carry a conversation with me.

Because we were encouraged to develop lessons on uniquely trans-Atlantic cultural phenomena, most of us took a class to talk about the Thanksgiving story. In my case at least, this also meant talking about the way the common mythology that surrounds these kind of cultural touchstones tends to leave us with a very distorted view of what the past was actually like (not to mention a very sanitised view of the impact of colonialism on native peoples).

To be honest, I’m not sure how much our lessons resonated with the students–most were primarily interested in the occasional spelling differences in the American readings we gave them–but hopefully at least some of them got the message that it is especially important to turn a critical eye on those events which are most sacred to the national psyche. Indeed, perhaps Columbus would have been a better choice for that particular lesson, as he is revered there nearly as much as here on account of his dubiously-attested Italianness.

How do you address these kinds of issues when they come up in class? Do you find students receptive to questioning historical narratives that are so closely bound up with national and cultural identity?

*This was, in fact, not such a great opportunity in the sense that we were not paid and received no credit for what amounted to a part-time job. I suspect that some money was changing hands in this arrangement, but none of it actually made its way into our pockets.

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Featured image: “Christopher Columbus arrives in America,” published by the Prang Educational Co., 1893, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!

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