25 November 2007

Columbus and the Flat Earth

Many of us were taught in elementary school that Columbus sailed west to reach the East because he understood the earth to be a sphere in contrast to many others of his day. In this version of the story, the near mutiny that Columbus had to quell a few weeks into the voyage was rooted in the belief of his sailors that they would soon sail off the edge of the earth. This notion is easily disputed--even for those with bad textbooks and worse teachers--as soon as students gain access to Google,, and a few of the sites to which they offer a portal of access. Google "Columbus and flat earth" and nearly every site in the first page of hits affirms that such assertions are nonsense. A few of these sites blame "liberals," "evolutionists," and "the modern mind" for using the notion to present a caricature of faith-based knowledge and of religious adherents.

Patriot's and People's Histories

It thus comes as no surprise that Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, authors of A Patriot's History of the United States, assert, "He [Columbus] did not, as is popularly believed, originate the idea that the earth is round" (4). Unfortunately, they do not stop there. The two sentences that follow this clear declaration seem to undermine its truth:
As early as 1480, for example, he read works proclaiming the sphericity of the planet. But knowing intellectually that the earth is round and demonstrating it physically are two different things.
Schweikart and Allen,
Was Columbus seeking to demonstrate the proposition of a spherical earth to skeptics back in Spain? Readers might easily get that impression from Schweikart and Allen. The next paragraph mentions Columbus's "managerial skill" in quelling mutiny after they "passed the point where the sailors expected to find Japan" (4). On the other hand, at least the alleged fear of falling off the edge of the earth finds no support in their text. Their weak effort to contest the myth come closer to its perpetuation than most other survey texts.

Although the authors of A Patriot's History are a bit circumspect when commenting on the relationship between their text and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, their title stimulates the urge to make comparisons. How does Zinn address the flat earth myth? other informed people of his time, he [Columbus] knew the world was round and he could sail west in order to get to the Far East.
Columbus would never have made it to Asia, which was thousands of miles farther away than he had calculated, imagining a smaller world. He would have been doomed by that great expanse of sea. But he was lucky.
Zinn, A People's History, 2.
A Question of Bias

Schweikart and Allen are clear and honest with respect to their agenda:
...we remain convinced that if the story of America's past is told fairly, the result cannot be anything but a deepened patriotism, a sense of awe at the obstacles overcome, the passion invested, the blood and tears spilled, and the nation that was built.
The reason so many academics miss the real history of America is that they assume that ideas don't matter and that there is no such thing as virtue.
It is not surprising, then, that so many left-wing historians miss the boat (and miss it, and miss it, and miss it to the point that they need a ferry schedule). They fail to understand what every colonial settler and every western pioneer understood: character was tied to liberty, and liberty to property. All three were needed for success, but character was the prerequisite because it put the law behind property agreements, and it set responsibility right next to liberty. And the surest way to ensure the presence of good character was to keep God at the center of one's life, community, and ultimately, nation.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot's History, xi-xxiii.
Who is more fair in their treatment of Columbus, Zinn or Schweikart and Allen? Which account is more accurate? Does a fair account prove to be an accurate one?

A Liberal Artifact (circa 1992)

Schweikart and Allen call to memory the Quincentennial celebrations and protests:
The five-hundred-year anniversary of Columbus's discovery was marked by unusual and strident controversy. Rising up to challenge the intrepid voyager's courage and vision--as well as the establishment of European civilization in the New World--was a crescendo of damnation, which posited that the Genoese navigator was a mass murderer akin to Adolf Hitler.
Schweikart and Allen,
Ward Churchill might have made a comparison along these lines, but he is hardly representative of the academy as a whole. Of course, in the early 1990s lots of things were said regarding Columbus and the impact of his journeys. In the cacophony of utterances were the ramblings of a graduate student at Obscure U:
Christopher Columbus was a tolerable geographer who knew, as did most educated people in his day, that the earth was round. He was also intensely interested in a particular academic debate (although his interest in the pursuit of gold was at least as important as his interest in the pursuit of knowledge; it is often argued that he was equally interested in the pursuit of souls). Experts disagreed as to the size of the earth. Columbus was among those who agreed with the smaller estimates; in fact, his estimate was almost the smallest anyone had ventured. As it turns out, his opponents were right. Because of his inaccurate calculations, when Columbus made landfall in what became known later as the Caribbean (another misnomer, resulting from a fear of cannibalism) approximately where he expected, he thought he was just east of India, Thus the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas have been labeled Indians ever since.
James Stripes, "An Introduction to the Cultural Word Wars," in Introduction to American Indian Studies Course Packet (Kinkos, 1992), 101.
This liberal artifact clearly puts forth a point of view at odds with the one in A Patriot's History, but consistent with A People's History. But it also bears striking consistency with the points made in the conservative Practical Homeschooling Magazine by Rob and Cyndy Shearer in 1998, available online. I hardly think that Schweikart and Allen include the likes of Practical Homeschooling Magazine in their lists of evidence of liberal bias in education.

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