This Monday, our nation will celebrate Columbus Day, a federal holiday that often seems to be of particular controversy at Columbia (which is ironic, of course, considering our school's name). However, a contrarian spirit—that desire to question and critique things which others accept wholesale—is one of Columbia's most endearing values, and it still applies to Columbus Day. Discussing and debating Columbus Day often includes both analysis of the man himself and of what he signified as a European in the New World.
The problem, however, arises when disagreement with the celebration of Christopher Columbus takes the form of closed-minded protests and provocative demonstrations, such as the anti-Columbus Day "die-ins" last year, or the Native American Council's repeated calls to "take back Manhattan" (which seems to be dog-whistle for "The U.S.'s existence is contemporarily illegitimate"). Public protest is as valuable a social tool today as it was for Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., but remaining cognizant of its limitations in a setting as necessarily committed to academics as a university is essential.
One such limitation is exemplified well by the literally indelible ink or paint used to prepare a protest picket sign—a picket sign, and more importantly the ideas it can present, do not and cannot evolve through the course of the protest. The fruitful evolution of an idea, political or not, always requires an interlocutor—some person or persons with which the idea can be discussed, debated, and hopefully improved. To us, the question of whether Columbia cancels classes for the holiday is not nearly as important as whether our community members take it upon themselves to address issues in such a dignified way.
Looking back on the historical role of figures like Columbus is always challenging; how we choose to remember the past with nuance and accuracy is difficult but necessary. One cannot deny that the colonization of the New World by Europeans led to much suffering and death for the continents' indigenous peoples, whether by disease or wars started at times by both factions.
But to look back and see only such negative consequences is an insufficiently narrow perspective; one must also be willing to consider the positive effects of European explorers. For example, the drive to use the resources of the New World led to the enslavement of Africans, but the consequential societal development in Western Europe would later lead to nations like Britain unequivocally ending their participation in and approval for slavery (something that existed unchallenged in many societies around the world for millennia) for purely moral and ethical reasons.
Our point here is not that the relative prosperity and quality of life we see in much of North and South America absolves European colonialists of any malice or inhumane acts, but that the resulting spread of European civilization has, in many ways, been a force for good. With that being said, we argue that a comprehensive, civilized, and sincere academic discussion of such issues should be embraced by both the Columbia and national communities.
It is oversimplifying and unintellectual to categorically mark Christopher Columbus as a "good" or "evil" man in the history of our nation and our world—no historical figure is without flaws of character or action, and indeed the morality of some of Columbus' actions and judgments are questionable at the least. But what can we as a society expect from a man of the 15th century? Must we discount all historical figures who come from before an arbitrary date of acceptable social norms?
CUCR firmly believes that Columbus Day is a holiday worth embracing not primarily as a day for provocative demonstrations, but as a day to remind us of the need for serious and level-headed dialogue on the topic of European colonialism. In one of the great ironies of history, Columbus "discovered" a land that had already been quietly inhabited for thousands of years, but Columbus was not just a conqueror—he was an explorer, exploring the world around him not unlike how we students are encouraged to explore all manner of subjects, academic and otherwise. His brave act of sailing near blindly across the sea in the hopes of finding something new changed the world and unquestionably led to us, the community of a great Western university on a small island at the mouth of a mighty river, being who we are today. All things considered, we think that is definitely something worth celebrating.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in biochemistry. He is the Director of Operations for the Columbia University College Republicans. This piece was written on behalf of CUCR. To see other pieces from this Scope, click here.
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