ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Today is a holiday - Columbus Day. Observing Columbus Day used to be a pretty simple, jolly business.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS")
FATS WALLER: (Singing) Mr. Christopher Columbus sailed the sea without a compass.
SIEGEL: With apologies to Fats Waller, Christopher Columbus is no longer just the heroic mariner who sailed the seas and discovered a world new to Europeans. And he's not just a figure of pride to Italian-Americans. He's also the initiator of an encounter between Europeans and native peoples that strikes many in retrospect as genocidal.
Well, this poses challenges for Lawrence Paska's organization. He is executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, the people who teach social studies. Mr. Paska, welcome to the program.
LAWRENCE PASKA: Thank you very much for having me.
SIEGEL: In social studies classrooms across the U.S., how are, say, middle school students today taught about Christopher Columbus? Who is he?
PASKA: There is no national curriculum for social studies, so every state determines for itself how it's going to approach the teaching of Columbus and the teaching of other explorers. We talk about it from a Eurocentric point of view. We tend to talk about Columbus who came to the Western Hemisphere. Here's what happened as a result of this interaction. And then we move on to the settlements that started and the colonies that began.
SIEGEL: This year, your organization approved a resolution - I'm quoting - "in support of teachers working to provide more accurate learning opportunities for students that emphasize the sovereignty and self-determination of indigenous peoples and nations past, present and future." It seems as though social studies teachers are getting behind some counterbalance to merely the story of the explorers and seeing things from their perspective.
PASKA: That's correct. So for example, we may be talking about the Trail of Tears or forced relocation in many state curricula. We're not talking so much about the societal contributions of indigenous peoples throughout American history. Or we may not focus as much on modern American-Indian issues and their impact in the legal issues that we're currently facing today.
SIEGEL: Is there a risk in, say, celebrating Indigenous Peoples' Day, which is what some cities in America now do, or teaching Columbus from that perspective of romanticizing indigenous peoples? That is, of ignoring the fact that there were wars that the Mayans fought, there was - it wasn't an entirely serene, peaceful continent, and given some skills at navigation, those people might have done similarly elsewhere.
PASKA: This goes back to the complexity of human interaction. So what we want to encourage is that we may move from a model of saying, let's teach about great individuals to let's teach about complex questions like, what happens when cultures meet? And let's ask that question at elementary, and then let's keep asking it throughout school so that by the time kids are graduating high school they understand that cultural interaction means sometimes wars happen.
But at the same time, every group has a role to play kind of in that cultural interaction, that when someone's exploring and settling there may be others who were there before. And this is what their perception was. And this is how they've survived and thrived today.
SIEGEL: Thinking back to the days when you were a student, is this particular unit taught very differently today than it was back then?
PASKA: It's becoming more so. The goal for all of us as social studies teachers is not the laundry list of explorers in the fill-in-the-blank chart, but it's the focus on inquiry. So asking a question like New York asks in grade four of does where you live matter and using that question to say, let's talk about who lived here, who lives here now, and what is the relationship between people and their land? And let's talk about that through the context of explorers, of present day and of future.
SIEGEL: Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, thanks for talking with us today.
PASKA: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF TULPA'S "THE BIRDS AND BEES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.