This week marks the midpoint of the semester, the eighth week of the semester, and the end of orientation for first year students - an important milestone for all students and faculty on campus. Early progress, or midterm, grades afford an opportunity to measure progress and address any issues early enough to make significant improvements. It is also a perfect time for a couple days off – Fall Break. This break is an appropriate time to reflect on the first seven weeks of the semester and assess what is necessary for a successful remainder of the semester. Even longer term thoughts should also be entertained such as which courses would be best for next semester and if you are undeclared or uncertain, what is the right major. Shortly after classes resume we will begin registration for the spring 2014 semester.
On the first day back, Wednesday, October 16, an academic fair will be held in the Carey Center during mid-day. This is an opportunity to learn about all the majors and minors offered by Saint Vincent. If you are undeclared, not sure if your major is right for you, or just looking for a possible minor or second major, this is a chance to browse all the possibilities and speak with faculty and students in those programs. Study abroad, the honors program, and other academic programs will represented. I encourage all students, especially first year students, to stop by the Carey Center Lounge Wednesday.
Monday also marked the Columbus Day holiday. Columbus Day was declared a federal holiday in 1934. The Catholic men’s service organization, the Knights of Columbus, lobbied for its establishment. The Knights' picked Christopher Columbus as their namesake when the organization was founded in 1882 to reinforce the fact that Catholics have played an important role in settling the Americas from 1492 forward. As an aside, the Knights of Columbus have strong ties with Saint Vincent. Many of the monks, lay faculty and staff (including me), and students are members. Saint Vincent College’s Knights of Columbus chapter turns four years old this academic year. The Saint Vincent chapter holds their meetings in the Faculty and Staff Dining Room in Placid Hall. Stop in to view the chapter’s charter and the awards on display. The much older Latrobe chapter is named for Saint Vincent College Chemistry Professor Daniel P. Nolan. Collectively, the Knights of Columbus do millions of hours of service work around the world each year. If you are interest in joining let me or any other member know.
Christopher Columbus was idealized by early authors such as Washington Irving. Many historical texts propagated errors, exaggerated Columbus’ virtues, and ignored troubling facts. For instance, Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus began the unfortunate untruth that before Columbus’ voyage scholars believed the earth was flat. In fact, scholars knew not only that the earth was a sphere, they also knew it’s correct diameter thanks to the brilliant work of the Greek astronomer, cartographer, and mathematician, Eratosthenes, in 200 BC. Ironically, scholars were critical of Columbus’ attempt to reach China and India by sailing eastward instead of westward was based on the accurate circumference of the earth. After all, Columbus’ journey would have been doomed had the American continents not existed – the Chinese coast would have been over three times further than the distance covered to the Caribbean islands that Columbus stumbled upon. India and China were still half a world away, over ten thousand miles east, from Columbus' errantly named West Indies. Perhaps one lesson to learn from Columbus is that, occasionally, starting a journey for the wrong reasons can still lead to incredible discoveries.
Further complicating matters, Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas. The Norwegian Leif Erickson sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland 500 years earlier around 1000 AD. Over the past forty years, Columbus’ life and legacy have undergone increased scrutiny. Jared Diamond’s wonderful study, Guns, Germs, and Steel, details the geographic factors that went into Europeans, personified by Columbus, “discovering” the Americas instead of Native American discovering Europe. It also chronicles the devastating consequences of European diseases and technology, particularly weapons of steel, had on the indigenous people. In a short period of time, entire civilizations were wiped out by poxes for which indigenous people had no immunity and guns and swords, technologies for which they had no equal. Some US states and cities have elected not to celebrate Columbus Day opting for Native American or Indigenous Peoples Day.
Columbus Day may be the most contentious federal holiday. Perhaps the best way to spend Columbus Day is to embrace the complexity of Christopher Columbus’ legacy. A single perspective on the story cannot provide complete understanding. One may rightfully celebrate the spirit of exploration and discovery that caused three ships to sail across the Atlantic into the unknown and recognize that this courageous act marks a historic milestone setting the stage for the nation and world we live in today. At the same time one can reflect honestly on the consequences that this journey, subsequent colonization, and exploitation had on those who for thousands of years called this land, which would be renamed the Americas, their home. Only through these multiple perspectives can we discern the complete picture and learn from history to work to avoid repeating it.
Dr. John Smetanka,
Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.