"She pretended that she thought the world was flat," my fifth-grader said, "and she told us to try to convince her it wasn't."
Map from this site
My first reaction was they still teach that? That Christopher Columbus was the only person who thought the world was round, and everyone else thought he was going to drop off the edge?
In Greek mythology the world was a flat disk, with a stream called Ocean flowing around it in a circle. Heracles, the larger than life hero, once rode in a cup underneath the earth from west to east, taking the same route as the sun.
No one attempted to explain what was "holding up" this disk (or what would be holding up what was holding up the earth, and so on). Depictions of Atlas bowed under the weight of a globe are modern fancies. Atlas held up the sky, which covered the earth like the roof on a domed stadium covers its playing field.
Ancient philosophers knew early on that the world must be round. Pythagoras and Empedocles envisioned a round earth, and Eratosthenes, in the 3rd c. BC, calculated the circumference of the earth geometrically.
By 1492, everyone Christopher Columbus would have had to convince to fund his voyage would have accepted the world as round-- though everyone also still believed our globe was fixed and unmoving.
But early American authors, including Washington Irving, had their reasons to change that detail and many others concerning Columbus' life:
It is not hard to understand the appeal of Columbus as a totem for the new republic and the former subjects of George III. Columbus had found the way of escape from Old World tyranny. He was the solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea, as triumphant Americans contemplated the dangers and promise of their own wilderness frontier...as a consequence of his vision and audacity, there was now a land free from kings, a vast continent for new beginnings. In Columbus the new nation without its own history and mythology found a hero from the distant past, one seemingly free of any taint from association with European colonial powers. The Columbus symbolism gave America an instant mythology and a unique place in history, and their adoption of Columbus magnified his own place in history.
Wilford, John Noble. The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, 252, quoted from here
Columbus was seen as the great American hero (District of Columbia, Columbia University, Columbus, Ohio, are all named after him, and the list goes on) who dared to go west, dared to explore when others would not. We told his story as it suited our mythological needs.
Elementary education is a curious kind of backwater. Though we may hear of new ways of doing math problems, more ethnic diversity in social studies, more writing across the curriculum, and above all more accountability, the almost 200-year old false version of Columbus is still being promulgated, at least at one school in the union.
But one may argue, with some effect, I think, that young students must be nurtured and brought along, and their best natures should be encouraged.
If the Columbus story inspires them to think outside the box, to have the courage of their convictions, and to boldly go where no one has gone before, it's worth it to tell his story that way.
No matter that the flat-earth version of the story ignores what we know to be true.
And it doesn't end with Columbus.
Do you tell your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, there is a Santa Claus, because it's good for them to preserve their childlike faith as long as possible?
When my children were that age, their mother and I never said anything one way or the other. We never gave gifts from Santa, though grandparents did. We never laid out cookies and milk for Santa. If our kids ever asked whether Santa was real, we always said, "What do you think?"
Instead of filling their heads with the North Pole and elves-- which the culture did just fine, thank you-- we emphasized the story of St. Nicholas, an ancient bishop whose feast day is near Christmas, and who was known to have an extraordinary gift of generosity.
I am big on faith, things unseen, and mythological truth. But as my banner suggests, I'm also interested in logos: the Greek word for story which has in its origins a sense of counting, or of accounting for what we can tell is really there, such as how many sheep are in one's flock. Without the reality that logos looks for, mythos, the mystery of things unseen, has no outline around which to fill.
Each year, our church has a Nicholas Fest, a worship service for children full of noise, balloons, and stories from Nicholas' life. Children are encouraged to leave their shoes at the door before the service. Afterwards, they return to find that "Nicholas" has left a few pieces of candy in them.
This practice reflects a kind of playful mythology that will indeed nurture children's faith. No one is making extravagant claims about naughty and nice or red suits or flying reindeer. There is a suggestion of magic, which we all love, but a stronger sense of care and attention, of simple generosity on which, with grace, the kids will pick up as they grow older.
Columbus and Santa Claus-- cherished stories, but starved of the logos which would make their mythos that much more robust.
icon of St. Nicholas from this helpful website