Knowledge and “Christopher Columbus”

Knowledge and “Christopher Columbus”

By Alan Carl Nicoll

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

Vespucci map
First map to show the name “America”

From my Prison Diary, {7/7/08} The worst way to wake up in the middle of the night, if you want to go back to sleep, is with an idea. Here’s this morning’s (4:59 AM): The first thing to know about knowledge is that it ain’t.

“Columbus discovered America in 1492.” This paradigmatic bit of knowledge was taught to me in the innocent 1950s (were they “innocent”? Or was this just another of the Lies My Teacher Told Me?).  It might still be taught this way somewhere in the U.S., perhaps in a few schools in Tennessee or South Carolina as required by state law, but a likelier formulation might be, “In 1492, Columbus began the genocide of Native Americans.” Both statements are false in the sense that they are ambiguous half-truths, political opinions stated as history, or history fed to children with a political pill of jingoism or “liberalism” within, as medicine is given to dogs.

Indeed, Columbus did something of very great importance in 1492—and before and after, depending on the details one wishes to emphasize—but to formulate a statement of just what it was he did is a process fraught with implications and consequences that need to be understood. History “as she is taught” cannot be value-neutral. Facts do not speak for themselves.

“Columbus discovered America in 1492,” to the ones who were taught it in the 50s may yet seem innocent enough to them, but this statement is controversial in many ways. Frinstance:

“Columbus”—is this the name by which he was known in his time? Shouldn’t it be “Cristofero Colombo” or something like that?

“discovered”—what about the Vikings? The Africans? The Egyptians? The Phoenicians? The “Ancient Astronauts”? And, most importantly (I think) the Native Americans?

“America”—what, the United States? Or shouldn’t it be “the Americas” or “North and South America”?

“in 1492”—just how sure of this date are we? What is the evidence? By what calendar should we measure? What about the Chinese-American students, shouldn’t “their calendar” be given due respect?

Are these minor quibbles? Some, yes, but mostly they are part of what constitutes a mature understanding of what is commonly called knowledge, facts, and truth.

So much for this morning’s bright idea, which I’ve previously explored many times, most recently as “everything you know is wrong.” Fuller treatment should consider, in addition to history, science, economics, and the old chestnut about statistics. For this I lost an hour of sleep? Phooey.

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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