Our Opinion: School Committee addresses Columbus, the myth and the man

As if the Pittsfield School Committee didn't already have enough on its cafeteria tray trying to provide a quality education to city students, a 567-year-old explorer refuses to exit quietly. At Wednesday's meeting, the committee stood by its January decision to rename Columbus Day "Indigenous Peoples Day" in spite of community pressure and a vocal group of Columbus supporters who showed up hoping to change its mind (Eagle, July 12). This debate had already played out in two City Council meetings.

Columbus exists in the public mind as both myth and man, and his legacy has been informed by scholarship revealing that the he was, like many great historical figures, flawed. We already know, for example, that Columbus did not "discover" America. That statement presupposes that the inhabitants of North America in 1492 only acquired legitimacy after they had been encountered by a "superior" culture. Second, that honor goes to Leif Erikson, whose voyage to North America preceded Columbus' by 500 years. Some aver that Columbus brought European culture and values to the Indies; others remind us that he also brought misery, disease and brutality. This, however, does not detract from his significance as a prominent historical figure.

Columbus Day and the man it honors is an emotional topic for many Italian Americans. Like so many other immigrant waves that swept ashore in the course of the nation's history, Italians began at the bottom of the social pecking order and through hard work and perseverance earned their piece of the American Dream while adding their particular seasoning to our cultural stew. The Italian influence on the growth of Pittsfield has long been evident in business, politics, education, sports, societal organizations and by other measurements.

It was natural that a proud Italian-American community would coalesce around a figure who would provide them with a cultural rallying point as well as furnish them with the dignity and respect that all segments of American society deserve. The Italian people have given birth to a pantheon of giants who furthered the march of world civilization: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Galileo and Vivaldi are but four. None, however, had the connection with American history — and therefore the ability to help the Italian American community assimilate — like the intrepid Genoese sailor.

Bearing all this in mind, those who view Columbus as a special part of their heritage should consider that Italian-Americans are no longer an outcast immigrant group. Like the Irish and Poles, for example, they have become completely assimilated into the American fabric. That, however, has nothing to do with showing pride in one's background, and Columbus Day will continue to be honored with festivities and parades as it has been since Franklin Roosevelt declared it an official national holiday in 1934.

The matter of what ought to be taught about the man and his history in the schools, however, is another story — and lies directly within the purview of the School Committee. Public sentiment notwithstanding, the School Committee has a responsibility to ensure that the truth is taught to the children entrusted to them — and the truth can often be awkward and inconvenient. Discoveries about Columbus' life and treatment of the peoples over which he ruled call into question whether he should be given special pride of place alongside George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as those honored by a school holiday. "Indigenous Peoples Day" is an elegant way for the School Committee to observe the historic nature of Columbus' landing on Hispaniola as part of the broader context of its impact on history.

The School Committee has been accused of engaging in "revisionist history," which is an accusation often leveled at those who would challenge established thought. On Wednesday, School Committee member Dennis Powell, who is also head of the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP, effectively responded to this accusation by observing that history was revised when the indigenous people who greeted European explorers were shunted aside as irrelevant.

In standing by its original decision to rename Columbus Day, the School Committee did not obliterate the holiday; it rightfully recognized its duty to separate myth from truth within the narrow boundaries of student instruction. Italian Americans who wish to honor a native son are still free to do so, any way they choose.


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