because they thought the world was flat and he would fall off the edge. How could that be a good investment?


Well, he didn’t know much geography because he thought he was going to India, that’s why he called people Indians, right?

The only hint of surprise for students was that no account mentioned the “discovery” of a people and a new land. Mark brought up this point, telling us, “Columbus thought he discovered America, but there were natives living there.” Concerning the story of the flat earth, students were confident that the flat-earth belief was a real obstacle to Columbus and other explorers.

However, most contemporary historians no longer regard this to be the case. This story of the pre-Columbian belief in the flat earth therefore provides a wonderful opportunity to explore both the details of life in fifteenth-century Europe and larger issues concerning the relationship between historical accounts and the events they attempt to represent. Columbus, most historians today argue, was hardly alone in believing the world was round; indeed, according to recent historical accounts, most educated or even partially educated Europeans believed the world was round.12 The elite, for example, did not resist Columbus because they thought he would fall off the earth’s edge; rather, they thought he had underestimated the size of the earth and would never be able to sail so far in open water (a quite reasonable concern had there not been an unanticipated land mass upon which Columbus could stumble).

Yet my students believed with unquestioning certitude that people prior to Columbus thought the earth was flat. Schooled by their culture and entering the history classroom filled with specific stories about historical events we were studying, they were hardly historical blank slates. The flat-earth story is a part of the national, collective memory. Adults regularly use it as metaphor to describe the ignorance or superstitions of the masses. “Belief in the flat earth” is shorthand for any idea that blinds people to seeking and seeing the truth. My high school students understood and could use this flat-earth metaphor. And like most people, they did not see that this story of the fifteenth-century belief in a flat earth was simply an account of the past and not the past itself. For them, the flat-earth belief was an undisputed feature of the event. Whatever distinctions students had made in our earlier lessons between events and accounts, they had not yet realized that those distinctions were relevant to their own beliefs about the flat-earth story. When faced with a story of the past that they themselves held, students returned to their presumptions that the past is a given, an unwavering set of facts that historians unearth, dust off, and then display.

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