chapter  10
22 Pages

The Representation of Christopher Columbus in High School History Textbooks: A Content Analysis


Christopher Columbus has been a durable and changeable symbol of the Americas.1 In the case of the United States, the special district where the nation’s capital is located is named after him, as is the goddess Columbia, a nineteenth-century figure who symbolizes the American nation.2 The Columbia River in Washington State bears his name, along with one of the country’s great universities. Ohio’s capital is similarly named after Genoa’s most famous son. Understanding the representation and depiction of Columbus in the consciousness of the people of the United States is therefore a useful undertaking for the twenty-first century, where historical assumptions are being questioned in light of social changes that have occurred in the last 50 years. The purpose of this study is to conduct a content analysis of the representation of Christopher Columbus in US secondary education history textbooks from the 1870s to the present. In our research we trace the representation of Columbus in textbooks from 1875 to 2003. Selecting this broad period allowed us to see changes in the representation of Columbus corresponding to the development of modern American history textbooks. As recently as 30 years ago, high school and college American history courses began with Columbus’ voyages to and discovery of the “New World.” Native Americans or Indians (as renamed by Columbus) were thought to have very little to do with American history and the subsequent creation of contemporary American society.3 The relatively recent growth of ethnohistory has shifted the focus from Europeans to pre-Columbian Americans so that there is a marked change in whose history is told. Nineteenth-century historians presented exalted biographies of the explorers who came from Seville, Paris, Amsterdam, and London and who laid claim to the North American continent. Early twentieth-century historians featured the establishment of the colonies in Santo Domingo, Quebec, and Jamestown, and more current inquiries discuss the lives of Taínos, Cree, and Iroquois before the events of 1492. Views about Columbus’ discovery and encounter with the New World range from benign amusement to uncontrollable rage. Alfred Crosby suggests that Columbus “was the advance scout of catastrophe for Amerindians.”4 Nowhere was this more clearly the case than the recent 500th anniversary celebration of Columbus’ voyage of discovery. Summerhill and Williams maintain, for example, that, “the 1992 Quincentenary succeeded because it failed.” Planners set out to celebrate an imperial past but found themselves confronting difficult questions about the “rise of colonialism, the destruction of native American societies, and the disruption of biological habitats throughout the globe.”5 For Latin Americans, especially, the quincentenary did not call for a celebration but a mourning for the loss of native cultures, languages, and lives that resulted from events following Columbus’ voyage in 1492. As a result, quincentenary celebration or commemoration organizers worldwide acknowledged these concerns and dubbed the event “The Columbian Encounter.”6 Part of our interest in this study was to see if a similar trend developed as part

of a “Columbian discourse” in the United States-a discourse reflected, at least in part, in the content of high school American history textbooks. Our model of discourse, as in the term “Columbian discourse,” is very specific and is based on the work of the French social theorist Michel Foucault (1926-1984). According to Foucault, the corpora of text that are connected in a genealogical system and give rise to knowledge is a discourse. He maintains that the modern individual is produced by the disciplines and discourse of institutions.7 A discourse works to generate knowledge and power by the imposition of a model through a body of work (texts, textbooks, periodicals, political speeches, drama, and popular literature) that functions to redirect beliefs, concepts, ideas, and notions. Fundamental to this study is the assumption that textbooks play an important role in the generation of discourse. Compulsory education ensures that most citizens of a country have been exposed to history textbooks and the quasi-official accounts of history found within them. Michael Apple maintains that textbooks embody “the visions of legitimate knowledge of identifiable groups of people.”8 The 1988 report on US history textbooks published by the Council on Interracial Books for Children suggests that the textbook

even if it is despised, boring, or not read in full, or later forgotten in almost every detail-stamps an indelible imprint on the minds of students. The imprint is the imprint of “truth” . . . [t]he stamp is the stamp of authority.9