Columbus in the Classroom

How do we teach Columbus to a new generation? We go inside the classroom of Julian Hipkins, an 11th Grade History Teacher in Washington D.C., as he teaches students a revisionist interpretation of Columbus, inspired by Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.

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BRIAN: For the final part of our Columbus Day show, we’re going to turn to the place where a lot of people first hear the name of the great explorer, the school classroom.

JULIAN HIPKINS: Columbus is going to start. So Columbus is up front. The jury’s in the back.

ED: Now what you’re hearing is a bunch of 11th graders getting ready to do a little more than just read about the story of Columbus. Desks are set up in a long rectangle. At one end, a jury. At the other, a sort of a witness stand. The students here are about to put Christopher Columbus on trial.

JULIAN HIPKINS: The first two minutes roughly will be your time to say why you are innocent and who is guilty. And then the jury will be able to ask questions.

ED: This is Julian Hipkins. He’s a history teacher at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., which serves mostly black and Latino students. The trial he’s organized is based around Columbus’s voyages. It’s a sort of who done it. The class has to figure out who is most responsible for the decimation of the Caribbean Taino Indian population.

And it’s not just Columbus on trial . It’s also his men, the king and queen of Spain, and the entire system of colonialism itself. Even the Tainos are on trial for not fighting back.

JULIAN HIPKINS: So jury, as you’re going along, start thinking about percentage guilt. All right, Columbus, let’s go. Begin.

ED: Members of the jury question Columbus and several of the students who make up his council. And while speaking, they wave around incriminating documents like excerpts from Columbus’s journal.

MALE STUDENT: You ordered your man to chop off their hands if they didn’t come up with the amount of gold in three months. You also ordered your men to spread terror among the Tainos. What do you have to say about that?

ED: A very defensive Christopher Columbus says he gave those orders in response to violence instigated by the Tainos.

STUDENT AS CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: Sir, it was after they killed 39 of my men!

ED: Once the defendant steps down, his men are grilled.

FEMALE STUDENT: You were never given orders by Columbus to rape woman specifically, or to set dogs on children, so why did you do all of that as well?

ED: But they just pin it back on their boss.

STUDENT AS CREW MEMBER: We might have done those things. But in a way, we need a good loyal leader to lead us. And in a way, he just unleashed us into this land and we just misbehaved, which was on our part. But at the same time, we need guidance.

ED: The arguments ping pong back and forth. Students representing the system and then the Tainos take turns defending themselves . When Queen Isabella takes the stand, she says that it was all supposed to be a straight business operation.

STUDENT AS QUEEN ISABELLA: We gave him money for a voyage, for spices and gold. We didn’t give it for him to shed blood and kill all those people.

ED: The teacher, Julian Hipkins, says this way of teaching about Christopher Columbus forces students to think critically.

JULIAN HIPKINS: The thing I like with the trial is that it’s not so black and white where this person was responsible and this person wasn’t responsible. It’s much more complicated than that. You can have a lot of people responsible for one act in some way, shape, or form.

ED: And 16 year-old Destiny, who played Queen Isabella, says this story of Columbus is very different than the history she learned in elementary school.

DESTINY: It was like he had three ships. The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria and stuff. And he went on a couple of voyages.

And I knew there was a little song. It was some type of song they sang. I mean, I didn’t really know much about him.

ED: Finally, the verdict is read. Though nearly every defendant has pointed the finger back at Columbus, he doesn’t get most of the blame. It’s actually pretty evenly spread around.

CHRISTIAN: Columbus himself, 25%. Columbus’s men, 20%. King and queen, 30%. Tainos, 10%. And the system, 15%.

ED: Christian, the student who read the verdict, stresses that history wasn’t the only thing that went into those numbers.

CHRISTIAN: We tried our best to decide our ruling based on what the groups gave to us. Not based on our background knowledge, but what was presented to us. And because of that, some of the groups’ arguments weren’t really strong. So it didn’t help them very much to prove that they weren’t guilty.

ED: So Brian and Peter, I think it’s important to realize that this exercise we just heard is an exercise that’s used in lots of classrooms. And it was inspired by Howard Zinn’s bestselling book from 1980, A People’s History of the United States. In that book, he says we need to focus on the injustices of the American past, rather than just its great men.

So what do you guys think? Should we be teaching history by doling out blame for the darkest moments in our past?

BRIAN: This is, I think, a creative, and in my opinion, effective way to get a bunch of high school students engaged with material that’s got to be pretty distant to them on the surface. How do you get high school students all excited? Well, ask them to make some judgments about people.

PETER: Brian, I think you’re right about the excitement of in effect, having history, you make the decisions about what history is. And that is empowering. That is engaging.

But it reminds me of something that we do as historians, and have always done, and that we need to reflect on a little bit. And that is this revisionist impulse, which is the beginning of good history. That’s the idea. What do we think we know, and let’s challenge it.

Now revisionism goes way back in American historiography and I think the word is used in the 1960s. But by 1980, when Howard Zinn wrote The People’s History of the United States, this is in effect a summa, a big statement of revisionism. And rather than framing the question who made America, the question is what bad things happened to the people who are the real Americans?

So it switches the terms from nation making to the costs of nation making. Because at the end of the day, it’s the people who are the nation. So that’s a flip of perspective that I think’s really important. And I think it raises fundamental questions about what we do and how we think about somebody like Christopher Columbus.

ED: I have written that I want revisionist history the same way I want revisionist surgery. [LAUGHTER] I want people to be using the latest technology, the latest ideas that they have.

PETER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ED: And so Peter, revisionism actually begins in the 1930s for the Civil War as when it’s called.

PETER: Uh huh, right.

ED: And this seems so strange to us. The original revisionism was the Civil War was a remarkable waste of life because the condition of African Americans is still so bad.

PETER: Yes, yes.

ED: And so then it comes back in the ’60s. It does what historians really like to do, which is to think about where did we go wrong? Where did things change?

Here what I worry about, Brian, and go back to your endorsement of it, is how do we then move beyond vicarious judgment into a sense of vicarious participation? That we are all implicated in these systems.

And I think the kids in this story recognize this! They say it’s the king and queen. It’s the system, they call it. And they’re refusing to say it was just Christopher Columbus and his flawed character or whatever. They’re saying hey, we’re all implicated in this system.

BRIAN: Yeah, they even attributed a little bit of blame to the Indians.

ED: Right, right. So maybe the kids are smarter than we are?

PETER: Well, I think the great value of this exercise in judgment and revisionism is that it exposes the implicit and unexamined assumptions of moral goodness in the conventional narrative, the celebratory narrative.

ED: Right, right. That’s great.

PETER: I mean, it is a moral story, a story with a moral. That is the way we’ve been taught about those three ships and the founding of America. What a great thing that obviously was. And I think if we recognize that this highly judgmental attack on the conventional story about Christopher Columbus makes us think about how Columbus has been justified and how he functions in our national mythology, then maybe we can rise above simplistic moralizing to a more complex engagement with multiple narratives.

BRIAN: Yeah, I would just add to that, Peter. Although the assigning percentages is a little bit gimmicky–

PETER: It doesn’t happen in court. [LAUGHS]

BRIAN: So even though it’s a little bit gimmicky, I do think it’s a nice way to invite the students, and in fact, students of history, to think about the way different actors in history really connect with each other. Because often, they were acutely aware of many of the other actors involved in the story.

PETER: I think it’s important to remember too that Columbus was a national hero pretty recently into the 20th century. A hero for Italians, a hero for Roman Catholics, a hero for all Americans when he was incorporated in the national myth as we’ve heard in this program today.

It’s useful to get back to the empirical questions and ask well, what did happen? And then to assess this and also to assess the way we’ve made judgments over the centuries. There’s a lot at stake in this.

And it doesn’t really matter whether Christopher Columbus was a good guy or a bad guy. What matters is the way we think about the story we tell about ourselves. And it’s a story that is constantly in revision. And it’s because we’re constantly asking ourselves that question, who are we? Where are we going?

BRIAN: And that is where we’re going to leave things for today. But as always, there’s plenty more for you to explore online. Pay us a visit at to see the articles and books that shaped today’s show. You can also find all of our past shows there, along with a link to our free podcast.

PETER: Once again, that’s at We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Don’t be a stranger.