First off, let me say that I don’t think you need to start a U.S. history course with Columbus or discovery. If you teach middle school, chances are students have discussed this more than once in elementary school. And if you teach high school, there are all sorts of reasons why the topic fits better into world history courses. More importantly, if you want to make it at least to Vietnam, you don’t have time.
However, there are some interesting ways to use the topic as a way to think about larger issues. So if you want to start your U.S. history course with Columbus, try some of the ideas below:
1. Many (dare I say most?) students will know that the Vikings “discovered” America before Columbus and many will chime in that it wasn’t a discovery at all because the Indians were here first. But the very important point remains that until Columbus’s voyage, few people in Europe or Asia knew about America. So you can use the quotation below as a springboard for discussion about the significance of Columbus’s voyage:
“Columbus discovered America, not literally, but significantly.”
(quoted in Roderick Nash & Gregory Graves, “Christopher Columbus,” in From These Beginnings: A Biographic Approach to American History. New York: HarperCollins College, 1995.)
2. Building on the idea above, what is “significant” about Columbus’s voyage? Answer: the Columbian exchange. Think of the revolutionary impact on world trade this “exchange” had. From things as mundane as the introduction of tomatoes to the Old World (hard to imagine Italian cuisine without tomato sauce, but before 1492, there would have been none) to the more significant: the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade and the impact of diseases like smallpox on the indigenous American population. For more info, check out these two links:
The Columbian Exchange from North Carolina Digital History and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
3. Tie to today. U.S. Census uses 5 main categories by which Americans identify themselves: Caucasian (white), African American (black), Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic (can be white or black—many students don’t realize this even if they are themselves Hispanic), and American Indian. These 5 categories are—of course—problematic and filled with complications, but consider the extent to which they were established in the early 16th century, following Columbus. Compare to earlier perceptions of “race” and ethnicity: click here for a list of peoples that may be a good starting point for this.
4. Another way to tie to today: discuss the evolution of Columbus Day as a national holiday. How did it start? Why? What do different groups say about it now? Here is a link to an article in American Scholar that provides interesting background about how the day became a holiday. It’s probably too long to use with students, but provides good background for the teacher to use. You could follow up with a writing activity/debate/discussion about the use of a controversial figure (Columbus) to foster civic pride.