Core Knowledge, Magellan, and the Great Man Theory of History

I guess in honor of Columbus Day the Core Knowledge Blog has put up a list of questions about the Age of Exploration. The first question is this:

1. Who was the first explorer to circumnavigate the world?

The answer they list below is:

Ferdinand Magellan

This is going to sound like nitpicking, but this answer is wrong. Magellan, as I am sure the folks over there know, never circumnavigated the world, having died mid-journey. His crew, or rather, 18 of his original crew, did make it around the globe, but not him.

Is that nitpicking? I suppose people will say that it’s common to talk about expeditions under the names of their leaders in historical discussion, but that’s not the way the question is phrased. It’s not asking what the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe was — it’s asking who the first explorer to circle the globe was.

I tend to see this as a bit of a Freudian slip — for reasons I can grasp intuitively but find hard to express there is a strong link between the Core Knowledge people and the Great Man Theory of History. It’s no surprise that where you find a Core Knowledger getting the vapors it’s usually over someone forgetting the name of a 19th century President.

On their “Age of Exploration” quiz, the answers to ten of the twelve questions are the names of explorers. Not the nations the explorers were from, or the technologies that made such exploration possible. Not even how the various expeditions were funded, or who stood to gain. Certainly not the social context.

This is not accidental, although it may be unconscious. There is a persistent push in these questions that we must associate all achievement (and conversely all atrocities, I suppose) with the actions of individuals, and not the societies or institutions that produced them. Can someone explain to me how that is *not* a highly ideological stance?

It wasn’t Spain that first circumnavigated the world. It was *Magellan*. Through his individual gumption. Through the force of his character. Through his rugged individualism. Through his not-on-the-dole initiative.

[And he never took a hand-out except for, you know, that whole state funded venture]

Forget the backers of the expedition, the hundreds of men that died, the eighteen that made it, the Basque captain that finished the journey. Forget the societal context (Not! A! Fact!).

It was Magellan who first circumnavigated the globe. Even if it wasn’t.

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5 Comments on “Core Knowledge, Magellan, and the Great Man Theory of History”

  1. Good catch, Mike. The opposite argument would be that history is best learned as a narrative, and that requires a bit of foreshortening. Also “Great Man (or woman)” thinking is quite prevalent in every avenue of life. Cycling (as I understand it) is a team sport is a team sport, but we think Lance Armstrong wins the Tour de France on his own. Government policies are rarely if ever authored by the executive, yet we regularly ascribe them to the President.

    Your point about expeditions and explorations not being the work of a single man is spot-on of course. But that’s a lot of nuance for a simple quiz. Personally, I’d prefer to acquaint children with the broad outlines of history at an early age, and with increasing nuance and detail as the age and progress.

  2. [...] Ferdinand Magellan (Update:  Reader Mike Caulfield points out Magellan died en route and that it was his crew that deserves the credit for the feat) 2. A caravel is a small, highly [...]

  3. Larry says:

    I agree with your sentiment which seems so obvious to me, yet not to the educ. system…for e.g., why does my 13 yr. old still think of Columbus as the great guy who “discovered America” rather than a Nazi type co-conspirator who paved the way for genocide on the island of Hispaniola?

    And about Magellen…thanks for the reminder that the dude didn’t even make it around the world. Don’t historians “care” about facts?

  4. Mike says:

    Robert — thank you for coming back. As parent of two young kids, I agree that narrative is *the* model of understanding. In fact, I think many things we think are not narrative understanding when we get older turn out to be narrative underneath. So I’m all for great stories.

    I think it’s possible though to teach narrative and test synthesis, which is where (I suspect) we diverge. My five year old is fascinated by motivations — tell her any story and she wants to know why the actors in it acted the way they did. I just think a better quiz might be to ask why Spain gave Columbus money for his voyage — that allows you to teach using narrative and people, but also focus kids on the interconnections — and they get that, they really do.

    I guess I’d ask you, honestly wondering, why that’s so bad?

    Sorry for the late comment approval — I fight a war with spam, and don’t always get to these things in a timely fashion.

  5. Your quiz question is a fine one. My defense is purely one of reader engagement. When writing a simple quiz for Columbus Day, my intent was merely to invite readers to refresh their memories a bit. I wouldn’t presume that the ability to recall simple facts of history is a proxy for being well educated. But I do worry that too many of us in education have the attitude that there’s no reason to command any background knowledge in the Age of Google (this is a theme we return to over and over at the Core Knowledge Blog, which tends to obsess over the role background knowledge plays in reading comprehension, critical thinking, etc.

    All of this is by way of saying kids (all of us, really) should have an understanding of the motivations behind European countries mounting expeditions like Columbus’s. On of the great gifts off studying history is its sprialing complexity. The more you learn, the more you see.


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