When Europeans arrived in North America in 1492, they encountered an untamed continent virtually untouched by people. The few indigenous peoples encountered by early explorers were hardly worth reporting because they were stuck in a primitive state, unremarkable, without a culture, history or a future. This view, of an untamed continent almost entirely devoid of people, is a commonly held one…and it’s a myth. Well-meaning elementary and secondary teachers (and even some professors)—due to a combination of inherited assumptions, a paucity of scientific research, and the use of out-dated text books—have perpetuated this false view to students for decades.
As opposed to finding nothing remarkable, the earliest explorers (like Spain’s Hernan Cortez or Hernando de Soto) encountered crops, orchards, domesticated animals, canals, towns, and various other structures everywhere they traveled. Regrettably, though, the introduction of Old World diseases (measles and small pox) killed approximately 90% of the New World’s indigenous peoples over the course of two generations. By the third generation of European settlement, many of the people who’d seen the scale of indigenous civilization first-hand were dead; and by the fourth generation European colonists knew or remembered virtually nothing of the first-peoples who’d established such civilizations as the Mississippian or Powtitianna. So for all intents and purposes people born 1530 and later encountered a very different world than Columbus, Cortez, or de Soto.
Since the 1970s researchers working in a variety of fields have made progress challenging the notion of the “empty continent” hypothesis. For example, current archaeological research is pointing to the possibility North America was not settled once but multiple times even before the last ice age ended approximately 12 to 13 thousand years ago. I’ve taken the liberty of presenting some additional lines of evidence from Charles Mann’s seminal work 1491:
- Multiple migrations to the New World took place some 12, 20 and 40 thousand years ago, respectively.
- Technologically advanced civilizations, e.g. developing writing, numbers, agriculture, etc. existed in North, Central and South America, etc. of which only the most recent, e.g. Aztec, Maya, Olmec, etc. have been studied in any detail.
- Many ancient South American cities had larger populations than contemporary European (London, Paris), Middle-Eastern (Sumer) or Asian (Xi’an) ones.
- From the Atlantic to Pacific, from the Canadian Midwest to the southernmost tip of South America, etc. lands were molded and shaped significantly by human populations over thousands of years. Some of the largest man-made structures (earthen mounds ten stories high) were constructed by Mississippian societies in North America; and parts of South America were blanketed in canals and the great Amazon itself is thought to have been seeded by indigenous populations.
- The population of the so-called “New World” prior to Columbus was not in the tens of thousands but actually numbered in the tens of millions (estimated between 50-70 million).
- Indigenous peoples throughout North America established large towns, managed massive orchards, domesticated plants and animals (using methods European settlers would not have recognized).
The are several reasons why this new research isn’t filtering down in to classrooms: some educators find science intimidating; some become complacent with their learning or they lose the desire to learn anything further (I’ve had conversations with some older history teachers who continue teaching the same old tired narratives without any consideration to more recent scholarship); and some teachers are surprisingly uncritical tending to accept ideas transmitted to them by the parent culture at face-value. In my honest opinion, research isn’t making its way in to classrooms because the majority of teachers teach exactly the way (and the what) they themselves were taught.
So if an error is transmitted to a student, and if that student eventually becomes an educator (and the error is not addressed at university or through reading or dialogue), well, then the error is perpetuated in to perpetuity. Complicating things further is the fact far too many students uncritically accept what their well-meaning teachers teach.
Although most educators strive to be accurate and intellectually honest (and I’ve met some truly outstanding educators) we cannot preserve the integrity of the classroom by solely relying upon efforts at self-correction undertaken by educators alone. Students must take responsibility for their own learning, too (encouraged to look in to and test matters for themselves and rewarded, instead of punished, for either dissenting or asking teachers tough questions); moreover, teachers need to understand what goes on in the classroom is not about them; it’s about presenting students with the best, most accurate (current) information and letting students themselves decide how to use this information. Ultimately, any education worthy of the name must consist more in teaching students how to think as opposed to what to think.
In my own personal experience as a student, I never met a teacher who deliberately deceived students. (Although during my time as a substitute teacher in the late 1990s, I came across some strange ideas teachers wanted me to transmit to their students, e.g. aliens creating Egyptian pyramids and that human beings had only existed on earth for a few thousand years.) When I was teenager I rarely challenged my teachers (but I can say I did not accept everything they taught without qualification and I was fortunate in the time before Google to have access to a father who was a scholar in every sense of the word). I’ve asked my students why they’re reticent about openly challenging teachers; they tell me they don’t feel it’s worth the bother or the risk to question (not all take kindly to correction). In the great scheme of things, they’re probably right. I challenged a philosophy prof while completing my history degree. I didn’t care for the mark he gave me on an essay. So I went through the procedure of getting another professor to read it and give me a new mark; it cost me 50 bucks but I ended up with a higher mark following the second reading; however, my efforts led to my receiving an unjustifiably low final mark for the class. I remember one teacher I had back in high school; he was challenged by a brilliant but socially inept student named Jean Paul. The teacher responded by attacking the student saying, “Jean Paul, you might be brilliant but socially you are just a child.” I haven’t forgotten either experience (resolving never to do these kinds of things myself). In fact I require students to never uncritically accept anything I present in class and to likewise be willing to turn a critical-mirror on themselves and their own assumptions.
The problem remains some teachers continue to transmit incorrect information. Sometimes honest mistakes are made by simply getting a detail wrong. In 2013, my son Alec’s grade five teacher incorrectly communicated to his social studies class Canada had a total of 308 ridings. The number of ridings in Canada was 308 in 2010; however, the number was subsequently increased to 338 by an act of Parliament in 2011 in order to better reflect Canada’s growing population. Sometimes teachers literally change history to fit an ideology, e.g. James Keegstra, a teacher in Alberta in the 1980s, taught hundreds of students over a ten year span that the Holocaust never happened and that there existed a world-wide conspiracy of Jews to take over the world. He was only removed after a few bold students decided to challenge what Keegstra was teaching; it’s because of teachers like Keegstra that I tend to agree with a certain outspoken professor of history I had during my university days that “secondary teachers have far too much power.”
There are a several things teachers can do to at least minimize the possibility of transmitting inaccurate information or errors to students:
- Firstly, teachers should adopt the following definition for literacy, e.g. a literate person is one who knows what they do not know. More humility is in order in both teachers and students. Do not teach your pet ideas in class but present the scholarly consensus as it exists on whatever topic.
- Secondly, teachers should read widely and extensively and be willing to unlearn ideas that they’ve long believed to be true.For example, more often than not educators and students I encounter believe Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Church had a dispute about whether or not the earth was flat. In reality the dispute was not over a flat-earth but over how big the sphere of the earth actually was (the Church thought it was much larger than Columbus asserted). Why do people continue to believe in this historical myth? Because of Washington Irving. In 1818 Irving published his book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. This work was considered well-researched and authoritative; however, it suffered from some significant historical inaccuracies that uncritical readers accepted; and then these readers became teachers who transmitted the inaccuracies, and so on and so forth, and 200 years later Irving’s influence remains considerable. Fortunately it’s not that big of a deal that a lot of people think the Catholic Church believed the earth was flat. However, the damage done by Keegstra to the historical narrative is not insignificant because his views implicitly inspired students to embrace antisemitism.
Unfortunately, many teachers quit reading or learning after finding a job; they grow complacent and as the years pass their learning becomes more and more irrelevant and out of date. Educators have a responsibility to continue reading and continue learning. For instance, if a Canadian history teacher quit seeking out new research then they would not know about (or be capable of teaching students) that in 1942 the Canadian Government approved experiments to be conducted on First Nations children to learn more about the effects of malnutrition. These nutrition experiments only came to light in 2013. If a teacher earned their education degree in the 1990s or 80s, and if they didn’t keep abreast of current developments in the field of history, these nutrition experiments for all intents and purposes never occurred. (This is a problem in education I call “teaching through omission.”)
What can students do to avoid either self-deception or being deceived by others? They need to practice critical thinking and increase their own personal knowledge base through a combination of reading, contemplation, and conversation with more knowledgeable others (as the education theorist Lev Vygotsky asserted). Students also need to be willing to think about what they think about. This sounds a bit odd, this whole thinking about what one thinks about, but in technical parlance it boils down to something called meta-cognition (or the capacity of a person to be aware of the nature of their own thoughts).
When you think about what you think about you increase your awareness of the following:
- That the world isn’t black and white but is best understood through degrees;
- That our knowledge is not exhaustive but we can always learn more about a topic;
- That we frequently hold convictions about ideas or events far stronger than the available evidence warrants (Duning-Kruger Effect);
- That belief does not a thing make;
- That unlearning is as important to the process of education as learning is;
- Think critically by being willing to question not only others but also yourself and your own assumptions about reality;
- Understand that we are more likely to believe something is true because we want that something to be true;
In the great scheme of things, being intellectually honest and maintaining the integrity of what goes on in a classroom means being objective, i.e. we need to follow the evidence wherever it takes us irrespective of our most cherished beliefs.