To help students frame this problem more sharply—as well as to begin revealing the core historiographic debate—students read selections from the work of two contemporary scholars, Daniel Boorstin and Stephen Jay Gould (see Box 4-3). In one excerpt, Boorstin argues that the Middle Ages was a “great interruption” in the intellectual progress begun in Classical times, describing this interruption as an era when people were “more concerned with faith than facts.”13 On the other hand, Gould rejects the idea of a great interruption in European geographic knowledge, pointing to a story of continuity rather than discontinuity of ideas.
I used these excerpts strategically, for I wanted to provoke an in-class discussion and move the class toward framing an instructional/historical problem that would guide our study of European discovery: “Did people in 1492 generally believe in the flat earth? If not, when did the story of the flat earth arise? Who promoted that account? Why would people tell stories about the flat earth if the stories were not supported by evidence? What historical accounts explain European exploration of the Americas? How have historians changed those accounts over time?”
In thus problematizing the Columbian account and framing these questions, I sharpened the larger historiographic questions we were using to structure the entire course and the specific curricular objectives for the unit under study. In investigating these questions and analyzing the shifting and competing interpretations of exploration and explorers, high school history students also worked toward mastering the key content objectives for this unit of history. For example, while grappling with issues related to the nature of historical interpretation and knowledge, students had to study the context for and impact of European exploration from a number of perspectives. Historical knowledge—facts, concepts, and processes—shaped almost every feature of the unit, from the framing of the problem through the questions we employed during discussions. Students learned historical facts in the context of these large historical questions, and once they understood the questions, they saw they could not answer them without factual knowledge. The old and false distinction between facts and interpretations or between content and process collapses here. How can students learn about the accounts of the past—the growth of the flat-earth story, for example—without studying the knowledge and ideas of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europeans, the features of the waning Middle Ages, the emerging renaissance, tensions between the orthodoxy of the church and new scientific ideas, or the new mercantile impulses that promulgated reasonable risks in the name of profit? As students studied the development of the flat-earth story, an idea of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, they also worked with facts about early American national growth, conflicts with Britain and France, and Protestant concerns about Irish immigration. In trying to understand how