Grade School Mythbusters: Christopher Columbus Edition

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” but not because he wanted to defy any maniacally tyrannical flat earthers. That this falsehood still endures in countless textbooks is both remarkable and (if you’re like me) completely maddening.

You see, there were no serious flat earthers in Columbus’ time. None. Everyone with much education knew that the world was, is, and ever shall be, round. In fact, everyone had known this about the earth for ages.

It’s as simple as that.

So why is it that my daughter’s homework today read “On Columbus Day, we remember a sailor named Christopher Columbus. During his time, people thought the world was flat.”? Half the books I found in the library echoed the same refrain, despite the fact that this bit of historical fluff has been disproved over, and over, and over…

Why has such a silly idea found such remarkable staying power? The various answers to that question are nearly as infuriating as the myth itself. There are several theories.

Some believe Washington Irving’s 1828 mostly fictional biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus is at fault—with a little help from Charles Darwin. Jeffrey Burton Russell writes of this,

The silliness [of Irving’s book] would probably have faded away but for the appearance of something else no one expected: the theory of evolution. In the early 19th century, the notion of slow geological change gained strength, and by mid-century Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace introduced the idea of biological evolution. Scientific doubts raised at the time are perfectly understandable in the context of the age. But other objections came from Christians who insisted on taking the entire Bible literally, which medieval Christians had not done. These anti-Darwinists assumed that the creation story in Genesis was supposed to be a literal, scientific, and physical account of the beginning of the world, and because they believed the Bible to be without error, they had to reject evolution. Evolution’s supporters, who apparently believed Irving’s tale, claimed that evolution’s opponents were just as stupid as medieval Europeans who allegedly thought Earth was flat. From there, the Flat Error found its way into textbooks, stories, and even a few encyclopedias, where it fit so nicely into what else we know most of it false about the Middle Ages.

Other explanations share the same theme, but vary in assigning blame. Here’s Phyllis Schlafley’s take:

The myth that people of the 15th century believed that the earth was flat was popularized by 19th century atheists in order to use science in their war against religion. What better way to discredit religion than to attribute an obviously false idea to religious people! This myth can be traced directly to two very influential 19th century books: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science by John William Draper (a physician) published in 1874 and History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White (the first president of Cornell University) published in 1896. Both men used the flat-earth myth to help spread their arguments against religion. These books started the false and dangerous ideology that there is a war between science and religion, and that science is the only source of truth. The flat-earth myth did not appear in schoolbooks before 1870, but nearly all textbooks included it after 1880.

The attempt to make Columbus into a hero of the battle between science and religion is particularly ridiculous. Columbus was a deeply committed Christian whose own writings prove that his desire to carry the message of Jesus Christ to faraway lands was the primary motivation of his historic voyage to the New World.

Was Columbus, as Schlafley says, really “a deeply committed Christian?” The answer to that depends on who you ask—just as the answer to nearly every question about the man seems to vary depending on the answerer. Certainly he wrote in his diaries of his faith and of his desire to share the Gospel with the native peoples he encountered. He is also thought to have been something of a greedy, genocidal kidnapper who paved the way for a lucrative and destructive slave trade—even his contemporaries found fault with him there.

I’ll part ways with Schlafley and give Columbus’ Christian sincerity a resounding “maybe”.

By the way, my library search did turn up a few non-flat-earther-myth-endorsing gems, suitable for very young children. You might take a look at the homework your child brings home this week, and then inoculate her with a few of these:

  • Christopher Columbus: Sailing the Sea of Darkness by Eric Arnold (This volume is highly rated by my Kindergartner for its depiction of sea monsters, the possibility of which was apparently the most exciting part of Columbus’ voyage.)
  • Scholastic First Biographies: Let’s Read About… Christopher Columbus by Kimberly Weinberger (Light on detail, but good for the very young. Best line in the book: Columbus never did find all of the gold he wanted. But we remember him today as a brave sailor. And we honor him for his mistake!” Well, yes, come to think of it, we do.)
  • Christopher Columbus by Rae Bains. (We didn’t get through all of this one. I guess there weren’t enough pictures of sea monsters—but it looked like a decent resource for the 8-10 year-old crowd).
  • A Book about Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross, illustrated by Syd Hoff. (This book deserves to be read simply because it was illustrated by Syd Hoff. Enough said.)
  • A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus by David A. Adler. (Not much detail, but the pictures are nice and there is a map inside. Maps are cool.)