Andrew

Those other stories [accounts we read before] made it sound as if Columbus was the scientist who discovered the earth was round. But I think other scientists had figured out the world was round, like Galileo. I mean, didn’t he?

Teacher

I think, I mean, wasn’t Galileo born in the sixteenth century, after the Columbian voyages?

Andrew

Ok, but what I mean is that I don’t really think that Columbus was the first to prove the world was round. I mean, he didn’t exactly prove it. These others had thought it was round and he just proved you wouldn’t fall off the edge of the earth. They thought it. He proved it.

Sarena

Now, I sort of remember that many educated people believed the earth was round. Seems odd, that everyone believed the earth was flat but Columbus, doesn’t it?

As I orchestrated the class discussion, I intentionally prodded students to consider the story of the flat earth as a specific historical account that may or may not be supported by evidence and, like all historical accounts, one that emerged at a particular time and place:

So, did fifteenth-century people believe that the earth was flat? What evidence do you have? What evidence do other accounts provide? Was it possible that people at one time, say during the Classical era, had such knowledge of the world, only to forget it later? Why might the flat-earth story emerge? What purpose would it serve? Does it make a difference which version of the story people believe? Could it be that the view adopted throughout our culture is unsupported by evidence? When did it develop and become popular? Why?

The conversation in the class turned to the discrepant information students confronted, the discrepancies that resided at the juncture of their assumed ideas about the past and the presented evidence. The discussion about this specific case also began to call into question what the students generally believed about people in the past. “If people at the time of Columbus believed in a flat earth,” I asked, “what might explain how people at least 1,500 years before Columbus crafted globes or created (and resolved) problems about the earth’s circumference? Is it possible that at one time people had knowledge of a round earth that was ‘lost’?”



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