Christopher Columbus. (The Washington Post library)

Monday is Columbus Day, which usually means a redux of now years-long debate about Christopher Columbus’s legacy. This debate increasingly questions the traditional portrait of Columbus as heroic “discoverer” of the American continent and instead emphasizes his mistreatment of native populations and the long-term consequences of European colonization.

But recent research shows that this more negative portrait of Columbus is not most people’s impression of him. However, there are glimmers of change among the young.

In 1998, sociologist Howard Schuman and colleagues asked a representative sample of Americans to explain to a hypothetical 14-year-old niece or nephew “what Christopher Columbus had done.” The vast majority of respondents gave the traditional answer about Columbus discovering America. Only 6 percent said that Columbus didn’t in fact discover America or criticized his treatment of native populations.

In other words, even though the debate about Columbus was in full force by this time — Schuman and colleagues read 55 high school history textbooks and found a clear increase in critical portrayals of Columbus beginning with textbooks from the 1970s — it had not yet emerged in public opinion.

Now fast-forward to 2014. Sociologist Amy Corning and Schuman repeated the same question on another survey. They found two things. First, a larger fraction (11 percent) described Columbus in these less positive terms, although this is obviously still a minority.

Second, among the youngest cohort — those whose were born between 1990 and 1995 — the fraction describing him in the least-favorable terms (what Corning and Schuman call “villainous”) was higher: 20 percent.


The subject of Corning and Schuman’s book, “Generations and Collective Memory,” is how individual generations know about and perceive historical events in different ways — with lasting implications for society as older generations die and younger generations are born.

Their findings about Columbus may therefore signal future ambivalence about his legacy.