I have loved reading about American history for almost as long as I can remember – and I can remember my third birthday. I was reading biographies of Lincoln and Edison and history articles in the World Book long before fifth grade. Then on the first day of fifth grade I brought home a large textbook called, creatively enough, American History. I was so excited, I read many, many pages of it that first night.
I may have skipped the first part about the explorers, though. It didn’t seem so interesting to me simply to learn a list of names to associate with certain places on the maps. In my school district, we studied American history again in eighth grade and then in eleventh grade. Each time it was the same: I knew that I would enjoy the text and the class as soon as we got past the explorers.
By my third year of college, something had changed. I don’t remember if I had developed a new interest in Cabot and Cartier or if I just thought I needed to get over my aversion. But in 1978, I took as a history elective a course on the age of European exploration and colonization. My hopes to enjoy the textbook were dashed early, though. The professor announced on the first day of class that the best book on the subject, by Samuel Eliot Morison, had sadly just gone out of print. One day three or four years ago, as I was putting together the list for my third (now current) ten-year reading plan, I remembered that first day of class in college and feeling cheated by the publishing industry, and, finding that the book had made its way back into the marketplace, I made sure to put Morison’s The Great Explorers on my plan for the first year. No reason to wait longer than thirty-nine years to right a Great Wrong.
The excellent book was worth the wait. Morison sailed to many of the places he wrote about and could explain from personal experience the conditions of particular harbors and the intricacies of the maneuvers Magellan & Co. made in their travels of discovery. He drew not just dissociated names but living characters from journals, financial logs, and contemporary histories, and he presented a story that far transcended the mere placement of names on familiar shorelines.
But the part that interested me most was, ironically, the story of those shorelines. Eliot presented them in what for me was a new way. And because of this fresh approach, I am now prepared to announce What’s Wrong with the Way American History Has Been Taught – at least in fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades in Hazelwood School District in the 1960s and 70s. The problem is that my school books showed me those names on maps whose outlines were familiar to me. By contrast, Eliot showed me the maps drawn by contemporaries of the explorers themselves, and they looked quite different from what I’m used to seeing. John Cabot thought that Newfoundland was a peninsula of Asia, and a map drawn from his notes shows it as a large promontory projecting southward from the eastern end of Asia. Maps incorporating Columbus’s discoveries showed the islands he reported as parts of the Japanese archipelago. To put these sailors’ names on maps drawn from our position in time misrepresents their thinking and purposes and, most importantly of all, the way their adventures shaped the advancement of knowledge. We see two continents and then draw explorers’ names on shorelines. They saw shorelines and eventually had to learn to draw continents behind them.
To my mind, the most amazing discovery – the most monumental and yet frustratingly short-sighted – was that of Verrazano. His trek up the eastern coast from what are now the Carolinas to Canada proved that the lands Columbus and Cabot and Cartier and Frobisher investigated were not peninsulas and islands of Asia but parts of a New World, a new continent between Europe’s western reaches and Asia’s eastern bourne. But, amazingly, all along the Outer Banks, Verrazano believed he had discovered a very narrow continent. He never once sailed through the breaks to see if any land lay beyond but simply assumed that he was seeing a new ocean, what we would call the Pacific, just over the dunes.
What I would like to see is a computer animation of the changing view of the global map from 1492 to, say, 1592. I’d like to see Asia sprouting peninsulas like an amoeba extending pseudopods that break off to form new amoebas. To see islands popping up in the ocean like quantum particles appearing from nothing. To see the ocean divided as Verrazano’s journey extends a few scattered islands into a continent. To see the Earth grow larger as America extends south and west to meet the discoveries of Magellan and Drake. I’d like to see it, so I may have to draw it and program it myself. Maybe by the time my grandchildren are in fifth grade, they can learn about this era the right way.