Another Day, Another Reminder of How Bright Kids Are
I was in Orange, CT yesterday speaking at a middle school. The 8th graders had been studying exploration, so I was talking about The World Made New. One point we make in that book is no one knows how many people lived in the Americas in 1491, and there are debates among low and high counters (this is discussed in some detail — but in a highly readable fashion — in Charles Mann’s 1491, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1491:_New_Revelations_of_the_Americas_Before_Columbus)
I was hoping to stimulate their curiosity to give them a sense that there are major unsettled questions in history that remain open for them to solve.
Just before I went into the problem of figuring out the pre-contact population, I asked if they knew by what percentage the native population is thought to have declined after 1492. One girl immediately got it right, 90%. But then two hands shot up: two boys asked, if we don’t know how many people there were, how can we know the death rate?
I have read a bit about this, and, as I recall, it is a hotly contested matter of interpretation too. There are bits of evidence from the mix sixteenth century in Mexico where the Spanish gathered some form of records, and we have extrapolated from there. But I first felt caught and foolish. Not only are the kids thinking about the challenging of incomplete information, they are challenging the information I passed along. I realized that I should not be using the 90% number as if it were settled, but need to show how unstable it is, too.
I can only say again, these kids are smart, smart, smart — and the more we expect that intelligence from them by inviting them to think with us, the better.