Americans are celebrating Columbus Day Monday. Columbus Day is a federal holiday observed on the second Monday in October, marking the anniversary of arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas. Columbus, an Italian explorer sailing under the Spanish flag, led four expeditions to the New World, but never accomplished his original goal -- to find a western ocean route to Asia. Instead, Columbus ushered in a new era in world history by opening up the Americas to exploration.
Columbus Day became a U.S. holiday in 1971. It is generally observed by banks, the bond market, the Postal Service and other federal agencies, along with most state government offices and some school districts. However, many businesses and stock exchanges remain open. Kolowith's students learn about the explorer's significance — though they also come away with a more nuanced picture of Columbus than the noble discoverer often portrayed in pop culture and legend. "I talk about the situation where he didn't even realize where he was," Kolowith said. "And we talked about how he was very, very mean, very bossy."
Columbus' stature in U.S. classrooms has declined somewhat through the years, and many districts will not observe his namesake holiday on Monday. Although lessons vary, many teachers are trying to present a more balanced perspective of what happened after Columbus reached the Caribbean and the suffering of indigenous populations. "The whole terminology has changed," said James Kracht, executive associate dean for academic affairs in the Texas A&M College of Education and Human Development. "You don't hear people using the world 'discovery' anymore like they used to. 'Columbus discovers America.' Because how could he discover America if there were already people living here?" In Texas, students start learning in the fifth grade about the "Columbian Exchange" — which consisted not only of gold, crops and goods shipped back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, but diseases carried by settlers that decimated native populations.