Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Columbus Day Revisited and Student Ambivalence

Just finished up a class that began with a discussion of conflicting views on Columbus Day. Most of my students expressed the general, “it’s just a day off” attitude and that none of them were out enthusiastically celebrating European contact with the New World. Why could there be much controversy? To be fair, not all students held this view as the student that asked the question in the first place, self-identified as Puerto Rican, expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of celebrating Columbus and his achievement. Most of the those students that seemed uninterested in the question were part of the generic Whiteness that defines so much of “normal” experience. It’s not that the quasi-silent majority was a group of pro-Columbus partisans, but more that even examining the holiday was equivalent to arguing over the existence of Santa Claus (a recent post on Living Anthropologically refers interested readers to how Columbus continued to serve as a symbol for American immigrant groups to negotiate a white identity).

But it is an important discussion. I then proceeded to express the sentiments that I included in a post from last week that a simplistic, even mundane, celebration of Columbus masks the terrible history that unfolded in much of the New World after his landfall. From my impression of the response of many (but thankfully not all) in the room, I added the following post script based on my hypothetical psychic reading of their thoughts:

Dude, that happened 500 years ago, get over it. It’s no big deal anymore

I am confident that some were thinking this, but wouldn’t publicly say it in class. I wanted to give voice to such an opinion, however, so that I could respond directly. My impersonation of this sentiment must have resonated, as at least half of the room chuckled. Much of that chuckling (another good blog title, Much of that Chuckling) seemed to me to have stemmed from agreement.

My counterresponse was that no matter the time or place, destruction of peoples and cultures was always a big deal and that I clearly want to impart that belief to my own children so that they won’t have be part of a similar response when they’re sitting in a classroom talking about Columbus Day in 17 years. And while history is always complex, Columbus does symbolize the beginning of the end for many indigenous American societies. I was happy to see that my sincere counter response seemed to be met with nods of understanding.

At a larger level, episodes such as these continually remind me what a tough crowd anthropologists (and sociologists) play to in introductory classes (or in the Florida state house). And since I teach at a community college, that’s about all I get. We’re often faced with students that haven’t critically thought about their society or history. They fail to see themselves as part of a collective social experience, in which past actions and processes matter in the present and future. They’re so fully embedded in the culture of individualism that absolves them of any role in a system of unfairness or injustice. According to this view, only individuals who consciously intend to do harm are implicated in or have any responsibility in the perpetuation of structures of inequality.

Even though it’s tempting, I try not to become discouraged. Instead, I see introducing my students to critical examination of their society, culture, and history as a primary social goal of my classes. In all honesty, I won’t be too upset if my former students don’t quite remember the ins and outs of anthropological theory or various kin terminologies. But, if they do step back and think about the larger context--and potentially their own participation and responsibility--of a particular social or political issue, I’ll count that as a success.

No comments:

Post a Comment