Lies My Teacher Told Me About Columbus Are Being Taught Still
October 25, 2010 6:32 AM   Subscribe

My daughter's teacher told her Columbus thought the earth was flat and the usual story about falling off the edge of the earth. As far as I can tell this is just not true, and the teacher should know it. Should I bother asking about this? I know it's insignificant, but it bothers me to know she's being taught something that just isn't true.
posted by Blake to Education (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
The teacher is just trying to engage their students with exciting anecdotes imo... And now you can sit down with your kid and show her the story as you know it, which is good parent-kid time for you.
posted by Billegible at 6:37 AM on October 25, 2010


It's not really insignificant because if the world was flat he wouldn't have tried to sail the wrong way to get to India. Really, it just makes no sense.

Make sure your daughter knows first off. But hold off on letting the teacher know. Sometimes wrong information slips through the filter. If you heard it from your daughter, maybe your daughter heard wrong or relayed the story to you inaccurately.

If it continually comes up or your daughter is having answers marked wrong, then's the time to say something. But as for right now it might just be a good time to teach your kid that you can't believe everything you hear, no matter who it comes from.
posted by theichibun at 6:40 AM on October 25, 2010 [10 favorites]


I don't know how old your daughter is but does she have a textbook? It's possible she's just teaching straight from the (possibly boneheaded) book. If your daughter is younger it might just have seemed an easier way to get the story across than "Columbus discovered the new world, thus precipitating the death and enslavement of millions of people who had already discovered it."
posted by ghharr at 6:40 AM on October 25, 2010


One thing to keep in mind is that education is more iterative than linear, and it does make sense to teach simplified versions first, and then fill in with more nuanced details as children get older and more capable of understanding. However, I agree with you that teaching outright falsehoods is a problem, and it happens a lot.
posted by Nothing at 6:41 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


education is more iterative than linear, and it does make sense to teach simplified versions first, and then fill in with more nuanced details.

I can't have been the only one in elementary school who was more than a little aggravated to repeatedly discover that the curriculum was full of outright lies...because apparently those make learning facts easier.
posted by Phyltre at 6:47 AM on October 25, 2010 [9 favorites]


Maybe a better chance to show that the teacher doesn't always know what he is talking about.

It is nonsensical that Columbus thought the world was flat.

Ask your daughter, Why did Columbus receive royal warrant to sail westward?

Columbus intended to find a short cut to India. (Ferdinand and Isabella weren't giving away ships and crew and money to prove some theory - a short-cut to India would have made Spain kings of the world.)

For this shortcut to exist, Columbus needed - and must have believed - that the world was round.

Certainly in the 15th century some people may have imagined the world to be flat, but I would wager none of them were deep water sailors.
posted by three blind mice at 6:55 AM on October 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


I can't have been the only one in elementary school who was more than a little aggravated to repeatedly discover that the curriculum was full of outright lies...because apparently those make learning facts easier.

This happens throughout, though. Look, Newtonian physics is great, but it is basically a lie. I spent two semesters learning how to calculate current and voltages through a FET only to get into a semiconductor class and learn that those models suck and the quantum physics ones are much better. The Quadratic Formula will always work, but for many problems there are easier ways to do factorization.

The fact is that certain models are useful to an extent and once you reach that limit then you need to relearn things or at least modify your understanding. Learning is iterative.

So, the fact that Columbus thought he was going to sail off the edge of the earth, well..... It's not like it was an uncommon belief at the time. The lesson gets across that Colombus took a huge risk at the time and was literally in uncharted waters.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:09 AM on October 25, 2010


You don't mention what grade, but if you do mention it to the teacher the most likely response you will get is, "huh"? or a polite brush off. This is a teaching moment for both you and your daughter because over the years I found a lot of bullshit oversimplifications in history books and used that as a jumping off point for family discussions.

The thing I always hated about this is that it happened so often that my kids sometimes didn't acknowledge their teacher in the areas they were an authority. Some teachers are great at some things but not so good at others and often teachers that teach say, fifth grade, don't seem to get that their knowledge of the subject should be greater than what is in the textbook. The same teacher that might not put much of an emphasis on history may be a very nurturing helper to the struggling readers. Or be excellent at conveying math facts.
posted by readery at 7:12 AM on October 25, 2010


A couple of my fellow book reviewers and I have a proverbial Sack of Doorknobs ready for whenever we encounter someone who suggests that "in the 15th century, most people thought the Earth was flat." It is an annoyingly prevalent bit of nonsense.

But yeah, teachers aren't always right! I think that's a salutary lesson for your child.

So, the fact that Columbus thought he was going to sail off the edge of the earth, well..... It's not like it was an uncommon belief at the time.

GAH! NO! It was a very uncommon belief at the time, and it was certainly not a belief held by Columbus or anyone who knew either jack or shit about navigation. See, this is why this is a problem--people repeat nonsense and other people believe the nonsense.

If this were my kid, I would go to the teacher in all pseudo-innocence the next time I saw them and say "Susie told me the funniest thing! She was convinced that you had told the class that Columbus believed the Earth was flat, and I tried to assure her that obviously you had said no such thing!" But I am kind of a jerk like that.

NASA's very patient page on how Columbus knew the Earth was round. Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, by Christine Garwood, is a really fantastic book; it's not something your child's likely to be ready for yet, Blake, but it might be something you might want to read and tell her stories about.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:19 AM on October 25, 2010 [18 favorites]


Your kid will always be told things are incorrect by teachers when she's at school. She'll also be told things that are incorrect by other students, aides, friends, TV shows, you, and just about everyone else. These accidents happen. As long as this doesn't become an ongoing issue and you fear that your daughter is being taught by an imbecile, calm down. I was an elementary school teacher and I used to make mistakes when I spoke. I was in front of those kids for 7 hours every single day, and I'm sorry to say that there were times when my mind blanked out for a minute or I misremembered a certain story or fact. It happens to all of us. I once told the story of Rapunzel but kept calling her Rumpelstiltskin. I once called millimeters milliliters over and over without realizing it until I gave the kids the test and realized I really fucked up. I once accidentally said speed travels faster than light in front of my principal. Now, I know those things were incorrect, but when you're a teacher and there are a thousand other things on your mind while you're teaching, sometimes you mistakenly tell kids something that isn't accurate even though you really do know the correct information.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:22 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


To add to readery's good (imo) response, this might be the time to encourage your daughter to think of teachers as guides to learning, rather than simply dispensers of "facts." Maybe you two could get an age-appropriate (and correct) book out of the library and learn about Columbus on your own. Make a model ship, or build a globe based on maps of the time, or some other project to emphasize that most learning is done not by repeating what you're told, but by individual exploration.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:24 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kids are not always the most reliable reporters of what was said and how. Unless you notice a pattern of misleading or untrue statements coming home from teacher, I'd leave this one completely alone.
posted by hermitosis at 7:30 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


This kind of thing drove my stepdad crazy. He was a geography major; by the time my sister was halfway through kindergarten he was so pissed off I think he would have fought for us to be homeschooled even without all the other stuff going on at the time. He was spending hours a week with her and a globe and an atlas - it's been almost twenty years and this story still comes up several times a year (more often than the same teacher's efforts to get my sister moved to special ed.)

It is very hard to manage a bunch of wiggly children, let alone do that while trying to educate them. Your daughter's knowledge about Columbus can be corrected easily enough. I don't know how useful it'll be to point this thing out to the teacher. Though next year, you could offer to run a special "Navigation, Maps, and the Size of the World in the 15th Century" fair for the kids in October. I bet the principal will love you for it.
posted by SMPA at 7:36 AM on October 25, 2010


Depends on the age, I guess. Although this is a pretty egregious piece of misinformation. I would do more research. Read the textbook, meet the teacher, ask her about it, etc. Then decide whether this is a windmill that needs yelling at.

This happens throughout, though. Look, Newtonian physics is great, but it is basically a lie. I spent two semesters learning how to calculate current and voltages through a FET only to get into a semiconductor class and learn that those models suck and the quantum physics ones are much better. The Quadratic Formula will always work, but for many problems there are easier ways to do factorization.

Part of learning is going through the history of learning. Failed model followed by better model followed by almost completely right model that is correct enough for anyone who isn't a particle physicist. Gotta learn how to use the right way (quadratic) before you can learn the shortcuts.

Chemistry is a great example. The old, rigid orbital model explains everything 99 percent of the public will ever need to know. Do the electrons really fly in orbits like the planets? No. But try explaining basic chemistry with probabilities and clouds to 13 year olds. Nice pictures explain it just fine.

The difference here, though, is that these models are not lies. They are just simpler models. It's OK to teach a simpler model, as long as it doesn't outright contradict
posted by gjc at 8:00 AM on October 25, 2010


Is it possible that the teacher told her that other people in Columbus' time were laboring under this misapprehension? Or was attempting to say this? It *could* be a combination of mediocre communication on the teacher's part and misunderstanding/misremembering on your child's...
posted by bardophile at 8:33 AM on October 25, 2010


There's more to this than just giving your own child the correct information or teaching her that teachers aren't always right and do make mistakes. There are probably many children in your child's class whose parents will never hear that the teacher gave inaccurate information or, if they are told, won't know or care to correct it. Whether you feel much of an obligation to your child's peers is up to you, but your action may be the only chance for them to hear the truth.

Think of it like a vaccine. Treating one person is not enough. To wipe out the disease, (nearly) everyone must be vaccinated. It is the same with foolish ideas like this one. The only hope for nonsense like this to eventually be relegated to the dustbin of history is for the truth to be taught to everyone.

And implicit in the teacher correcting himself or herself is that the rest of the class will also be exposed to the idea that teachers can make mistakes, which is a very important lesson.
posted by jedicus at 8:43 AM on October 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


The teacher may actually believe that though. I mean I wasn't aware that the whole Flat Earth thing is a Myth and no-one in Europe ever reallyt believed it.

Its probably in the text book

Wikipedia Says: "An American schoolbook by Emma Miller Bolenius published in 1919 has this introduction to the suggested reading for Columbus Day (12 October):

* When Columbus lived, people thought that the earth was flat. They believed the Atlantic Ocean to be filled with monsters large enough to devour their ships, and with fearful waterfalls over which their frail vessels would plunge to destruction. Columbus had to fight these foolish beliefs in order to get men to sail with him. He felt sure the earth was round.[21]

posted by mary8nne at 9:27 AM on October 25, 2010


I always corrected my kids' teachers. No sense letting ignorance go unchecked. In some cases, they weren't defensive and were glad of the updated information and in some cases, they were indifferent. I don't expect elementary teachers to be subject matter experts, but I don't expect them to just parrot whatever non-fact is in the handout, the workbook, or the text. I never did it in front of the class, and I usually just gave them a printout or a citation. What can I say? I'm a fact-freak.

But make sure the kid knows the truth, and don't let the kid be the messenger.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:44 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Remember that AskMe about what you spent your life believing that turned out not to be true? Well, this is mine. I was taught that at one time people thought the earth was flat, and that around the time of Columbus, people were starting to figure out otherwise, Columbus among them, and that Isabella was a bit of a forward thinker too, so she funded his trip, because his own king refused to fund a ship that would sail over the edge of the earth. I just now found out that people didn't actually think this. Huh!

But enough about me. Explain to your daughter that there is so much information in the world that even teahers can't keep up with it all. Then tell her what is true about Columbus.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:50 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Assuming you mean the teacher said that the world thought the earth was flat in Columbus' time, this is such a prevalent story in our culture that it comes up on AskMe all the time, just used as an example of "what people used to believe"... There are always a few people who try to correct it, but the fact that your child's teacher made this common error is not surprising, and you should expect many more people in your child's life to make similar errors along the way. It wouldn't be surprising if you have told your kid something or other that is a cultural myth.

I think the best you can do, as the kid grows up, is to instill in her the sense that people make mistakes, our information changes, and it's always worth looking into something a little further if you want to be sure about it. I'd say something along the lines of "question authority" but maybe not in elementary school :).
posted by mdn at 10:10 AM on October 25, 2010


I'm a teacher, and if I had a fill-in-the-blank for EVERY time I got a parent call about something their kid reported I said, I'd be ____ now. Kids aren't always listening to everything and don't make the most accurate reporters.

If you're curious, tell the teacher that your kid described blah blah blah, and you were wondering what her take on it was, because if anything, your kid has this erroneous historical impression.
posted by dzaz at 10:17 AM on October 25, 2010


I'm sure every area is different, but in a lot of this country, a grade school teacher may not have much (if any) latitude regarding what they teach. If the book says it, and they're required to "teach that book", that may be all they're allowed to teach. Sucks, but such is occasionally the reality.

Whether that's the case or not, I'm all for using this as an opportunity to educate a child on the idea that what they learn in school (perhaps particularly in history) isn't necessarily the whole truth of the matter. Or for that matter that anybody's version of history is likely to be the whole truth of the matter.
posted by nonliteral at 10:26 AM on October 25, 2010


The old, rigid orbital model explains everything 99 percent of the public will ever need to know. Do the electrons really fly in orbits like the planets? No. But try explaining basic chemistry with probabilities and clouds to 13 year olds. Nice pictures explain it just fine.


What use are facts if they aren't factual according to our current understanding? Am I the only one who thinks it'd be easier to learn our current best understanding of a field than to learn the all previous iterations and almost-good-enough failed models? Isn't that history rather than chemistry (or whatever the subject is)?

And that goes double for history...if it didn't happen, don't pretend it did just so we can preserve iterative instruction. OP, I don't think there's a desirable way to ask the teacher what exactly was said and what its truth value was intended to be. Normally I'd consider that more than marginally rude and overbearing. But really, I think it's your responsibility to ask. A history lesson is only as good as its weakest facts, by my reckoning.
posted by Phyltre at 10:30 AM on October 25, 2010


In addition to speaking to your child's teacher to find out what was said in class, you might also want to check out her textbook. I recently read this article about a history professor in Virginia who was horrified to find various inaccuracies in her child's elementary school history text. In particular, the text claimed that thousands of Southern blacks fought with the Confederate army, and that there were two black battalions under Stonewall Jackson.
Such claims are generally rejected by American historians, but espoused by pro-Confederate groups attempting to downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War.
Most historians agree that African Americans did not fight in any organized way for the Confederacy, and certainly their numbers were not in the thousands.
“While it is true that there were isolated instances of African Americans taking up arms for the Confederacy,” Sheriff said, “they were usually body servants who had accompanied their masters to the front and who, in the heat of battle, picked up arms to protect their masters and themselves.”
According to Sheriff, the Confederates did not even allow black soldiers in their ranks until 1865 — a full two years after Jackson’s death.
The best part is that the author, who is not a trained historian, says she got her information from--you guessed it--the internet. Yup.

If your child's textbooks have inaccuracies, and the teacher is teaching from the text...well, that could be problematic, and someone needs to point it out to the teacher, principal, and school board.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:39 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I always appreciated when my mom went to the teachers to inquire about misinformation that I was taught.

Depending on the teacher, she had a few different diplomatic approaches, which certainly acknowledged the possibility that I was mistaken about what I thought I was told.

Obviously, teachers with whom we had a good relationship were easy, she could call them and say "I was concerned that desuetude said she learned [incorrect fact] in school. Do you know where that's coming from, because I know that [incorrect fact is actually thus.]

I had one teacher who tended to be very defensive. I think my mom went with something like "desuetude said that she learned [incorrect fact] at school, and I was concerned that she's not picking up the material." Sooooo, it turns out that if the teacher is convinced that that textbooks are infallible, there is no reference source in the world that will convince her that Mesopotamia was mislabeled.
posted by desuetude at 11:55 AM on October 25, 2010


Very good, thanks everyone. Many good answers. All I have to go on is what my daughter told me, and I tend to believe what she says actually happened. Her memory is way better than mine, and she rarely misses a thing. It's hard to pick a "best answer", so many good points.
posted by Blake at 12:07 PM on October 25, 2010


There's a book about this kind of thing, and probably many more but this is what I know of:

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
by James W. Loewen

I've found it on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and in the library.
posted by DisreputableDog at 12:23 PM on October 25, 2010


This happens throughout, though. Look, Newtonian physics is great, but it is basically a lie. I spent two semesters learning how to calculate current and voltages through a FET only to get into a semiconductor class and learn that those models suck and the quantum physics ones are much better. The Quadratic Formula will always work, but for many problems there are easier ways to do factorization.

The fact is that certain models are useful to an extent and once you reach that limit then you need to relearn things or at least modify your understanding. Learning is iterative.

So, the fact that Columbus thought he was going to sail off the edge of the earth, well..... It's not like it was an uncommon belief at the time. The lesson gets across that Colombus took a huge risk at the time and was literally in uncharted waters.


This is an extremely charitable view of the situation. The view that Columbus was a flat-earther is not a model for expanding understanding. It's just downright incorrect, stupid, and nonsensical, as has already been covered.

Newtonian physics isn't a "lie" any more than other types of approximation, like summing areas under a curve using rectangles to make it easier. Math teachers don't claim that the sum of the rectangles actually equals the true sum, and are completely clear about that if they're teaching well. Simplified models are effective teaching tools and their limitations are easily understood. Nothing similar is happening with a claim that Columbus was a flat-earther.
posted by odinsdream at 1:46 PM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure folks are still reading this question but I'll just throw in my aside on this as it's a common misconception of education and heresy that we continue this idea of the "flat earth."

The reason why many of us believe that Christopher Columbus refuted the idea of a flat earth is entirely false. Indeed it comes from a rather notorious and fictional pseudo-biography of the man from our very own Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame) who in his novel created a dramatic vignette of Columbus arguing the round earth against an entirely fictional tribunal of the church. No such event happened and indeed there is no evidence that the church ever held the belief or taught that the earth was flat. Actually, all evidence and documentation suggests quite the opposite. The church was well informed of Greek mathematics before it's existence, and studied the stars themselves. However, because the novel was the equivalent of a best seller in both the Americas and Europe, the erroneous notion of the church teaching the "flat earth" spread.

That being said, most educators do not have the means, the information or the texts to refute this commonly held notion, and most primary and secondary texts do not care or take care to update this misnomer, so we're stuck with a false rumor created in the last couple of centuries.

There are so many good sources for educational misinformation, but for this one in particular might I suggest a cozy evening of Netflix watching Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) in his Medieval Lives. It's very entertaining and enlightening, fun for the whole family.
posted by eatdonuts at 3:07 PM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, this is just one (probably not even the first) of the many, many lies your daughter will be taught in school. If this bothers you, you might want to consider homeschooling instead. Otherwise you're either going to have to learn to accept it or be prepared to fight a lot of futile battles with a lot of petty tyrants.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:15 PM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I totally agree with Jacqueline (right above me). Erroneous (or dubious) 'facts' that your daughter might be taught in school might be taken directly from the text (think of all those broadly believed facts that we were taught.. and our parents were taught.. and their parents were taught), or it could be the teacher's mistake. This certainly won't be the last time that your daughter will be taught something that just isn't true. Unless a particular teacher seems to have a habit of messing up the facts, it's probably not worth challenging the teacher. Personally, I think it's fantastic that your daughter is talking to you about what she's learning in school, and now she should be learning one of the most important lessons in life: everything you learn in school is not necessarily true. Or, more broadly, it's important to keep an open mind and take almost everything you're told with a grain of salt. To some extent, that can be depressing, but take it as a positive: the earlier she learns to question what she learns and educate herself, the better she'll be. Instead of complaining to the teacher about tired old anecdotes that have passed through every lazy text book, talk to her about history (or science or whatever the subject might be).. get some books from the library or find a website. Get her excited about delving beyond the text and going beyond educational cliches.

.. This doesn't improve, because by the time you get to high school and college, students also get professors' biases presented as True Facts, which you often can't challenge unless you want to flunk the courses.

(Anecdotally, my family always encouraged me to talk about what I learned in school and ask them questions. My Dad was a scientist and would often design little mini lessons that would go beyond what I learned in school, and we went to the library every week. And this was before the internet, so now self-educating has to be easier than ever. I feel so lucky that my family not only took interest in my education but that the most priceless education began when I left school for the day. Honestly, I think what I learned at home and in books was far more exciting and valuable than all the tired busywork I had to endure at school.)
posted by Mael Oui at 8:35 PM on October 25, 2010


Seriously? You want to pick a fight with the teacher, principal, superintendent, and/or school board over a tiny matter like this? You want your child to learn from this that "my teacher lies, my Daddy told me so"? You want her to become the social outcast of the class? You want to give the teacher another ulcer? Does your fascination with The Truth As You See It outweigh all these?

Will this be your reaction when the teacher says anything that doesn't agree 100% with what you believe? As mentioned above, it's time to consider Home Schooling. Then the teacher will always agree 100% with you, because the teacher will be.... you!
posted by exphysicist345 at 9:58 PM on October 25, 2010


You want your child to learn from this that "my teacher lies, my Daddy told me so"? You want her to become the social outcast of the class? You want to give the teacher another ulcer?

Or the child could learn critical thinking and inquiry, and to not blindly accept one version of "history" as objective truth, even if it's proffered by an authority.

(Bonus points for the teachable moment about people who regard any disagreement as an incident requiring insults, accusations, guilt trips, etc.)
posted by desuetude at 10:15 AM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


desuetude, I'm all in favor of critical thinking and inquiry and not blindly accepting anything — I just think elementary school is a little early for it.
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:32 PM on October 26, 2010


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