Adjunct Assistant Research Scientist, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan
ABSTRACT | From Hero to Villain: Stability and Change in Popular Beliefs about Christopher Columbus
During the second half of the 20th century, elites and activists increasingly turned away from idealized portrayals of Christopher Columbus, emphasizing instead the destructive consequences for indigenous peoples of his arrival in the Americas. Tensions over how – indeed, whether – to celebrate Columbus’s landfall intensified as the 1992 quincentennial approached. Still, a survey conducted in 1998 showed that few among the general population had adopted critical views of Columbus: most respondents continued to see him in positive terms as “the discoverer of America.” Public debate over Columbus’s proper place in history has persisted, however, and more recent surveys show evidence of change, particularly in the views of respondents too young to have participated in the earlier survey. We consider several hypotheses for the change in public beliefs, and find evidence for the impact of changes in school social studies materials. Although Columbus represents an encouraging case where schooling appears to have contributed to fuller recognition of the historical experiences of people other than white Europeans, it can equally serve as a vehicle for norms that convey racial or ethnic hierarchies, as shown by analysis of earlier school textbook content related to Columbus and American Indians.