I have read bloggers and editorialists complaining for years about our children being taught that the New World was an Eden invaded by white racist males… and I always took it with a grain of salt. Maybe that happens in the schools of Chicago and Oakland and Seattle—surely not here in my back yard!
I was wrong. My eighteen-year-old freshmen are fully persuaded that Columbus was a slaver and genocidist who anticipated Adolf Hitler. I wonder if I might dare to point out a few disparities off the cuff?
Columbus didn’t play the demagogue, stirring the masses up against a defenseless minority in their midst. He traveled a very long way at great personal risk and blundered into a situation whose parameters he was wholly incapable of measuring beforehand (or even, for the most part, after the fact).
Hitler vigorously encouraged the development of advanced weapons possessing unheard-of lethality, such as the V1 and V2 rockets and the ME 262 jet fighter. It is possible that his team of scientists even succeeded in producing a small thermonuclear blast experimentally before the success of the Manhattan Project. Columbus was attempting to pioneer a lucrative trade route. He hadn’t the slightest notion of bacteriological warfare, of course; and to hold him personally responsible for spreading smallpox and other diseases unknown to the New World is as preposterous as blaming the sun for skin cancer.
Hitler’s imperialism started at home and worked outward. His aggressions were fully planned and systematic. Columbus—and indeed, the later conquistadors (who admittedly were no choir boys)–scarcely knew what part of the planet they were on. Their numbers were few, their technology not so very superior to bows and arrows, their situation entirely cut off from the restraining cultural forces of Europe, their diet uneven, their health fever-ridden, their morale inclined to the paranoia of castaways. Many of them behaved badly, perhaps most of them; but they weren’t being wined, dined, and sycophantically placated like the German chancellor.
For the record, too, the Aztecs and the Maya practiced human sacrifice on a vast scale, some of it indescribably brutal. Hitler’s victims hadn’t been piling up the hearts of young virgins, ripped from childish ribs as they were still beating, for hundreds of years. Frankly, a “civilization” that tolerates such things, and even considers them holy acts, richly deserves to go defunct.
We always get history wrong, though we may make a much more sincere effort to understand than one sees in American public schools today. We weren’t there: we can’t know exactly how it was. What bothers me more about the attitude of my freshmen than their wealth of misinformation is the ease with which they self-righteously condescend to their elders and to the past. Where is their “life experience”? Why do they so readily sit in judgment upon centuries of human struggle? Why do they offer so few traces of humility? Who has made them this way?
Of course, the answer is “we who are their parents”. These children haven’t been well raised. The true deficit in their education—far greater than a diet of “fake news” (from which we all suffer)—is the mature adult’s reluctance to pass snap judgments on complex situations. They will judge us harshly, too, I suppose—these smartphone whiz kids; and we, at least, will deserve it.
But what will their own children say of them for buying up solar panels that left a clear trail of cancer villages behind in Third World nations? How will their own children judge them for creating and bequeathing a world so electronically artificial that its inhabitants forgot basic manners and couldn’t forge ordinary friendships? What will those of the next generation who aren’t aborted say about this one for ignoring an Aztec-level slaughter of innocents—not to appease wrathful gods, but to indulge in carnal pleasures without incurring inconvenience?
You see, my dears, you also can be made to resemble Cortez and Pizarro.