Recently my oldest son saw a reference to Columbus, and he didn't really know who he was. I was surprised at this, since I'm sure we must have talked about him at some point, but no, my boy didn't recognize his name either in English or Spanish. After my initial shock, and after mulling it over for a while, I guess I'm okay with this.
First of all, my son hasn't even turned seven yet, so if there is some historical figure he doesn't recognize right now, I just explain it to him, and over time he'll presumably get to know a good chunk of the characters from the historical cast. This is what I ended up doing for Columbus, who I described as one of the first Europeans to come to America. And I think that's fitting--Columbus is just one more part of the cast. My boy doesn't yet know who Napoleon is, or Louis XIV, or Shaka Zulu, or probably even Gandhi. This is not because he isn't learning history, and certainly not because I'm hiding "real" history from him in favor of an alternative, politically-correct history, which is usually how a certain brand of conservative caricatures any departure from an orthodox account of history centered on powerful white men.
My son does know Malcolm X, and Archbishop Romero, and Simon Bolivar. He knows the story of the Pilgrims (both the sappy Thanksgiving legend and a more nuanced version of the early New England colonies). He knows about the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, about the Maya pyramids, about Spanish colonial rule, about the American Revolution and Colombian independence. He is getting an understanding of slavery and the Second World War and Civil Rights and the Cold War. So my boy is definitely getting a robust dose of history--there's just a lot to cover, and after seven years of life he's just at the beginning of things.
It's natural that my family's framing of history should start and focus on the US and Latin America, and Columbus is just one small part of this history. Columbus is taken by many as a symbol of the Discovery of America, but if you conceive of American history as starting in 20000 BC and continuing to the present, Columbus didn't really discover anything. His symbolic role is more a part of a mythical, Eurocentric vision than any real factual account of history. Even if you take the more nuanced and historically accurate view that the contact between America, Europe, and Africa (which admittedly started with Columbus for all intents and purposes, Vinlanders notwithstanding) was probably the most important event in the history of modern America (and maybe the world, for that matter), Columbus is again just a symbol, and as such no better of a symbol nor a more important of a player than Cortes or Pizarro or any other number of explorers and conquistadors.
The fact that my son does know Simon Bolivar and Francisco Morazan, but not yet Columbus, is for me a triumph of the educational systems he's passed through, not a failing. In the Latin American countries where we've lived, Columbus Day is called Dia de la Raza, and celebrates all of Latin American history, with a heavy emphasis on indigenous cultures. Likewise, the history he's seen in school talks a lot about the Spanish colonial period and the independence movements. This is something that I feel is missing in the standard US history curriculum, which sort of jumps from Columbus to the Pilgrims, then on to the American Revolution. The entire colonial period in North America, from Jamestown to the Revolution, is a 170-year blur. I know that there is a whole narrative out there that alleges that activist/progressive teachers and school administrators are neglecting "real" US history in favor of politically-correct vignettes, and thus impoverishing our children from the "correct" knowledge they need to have. One's treatment of Columbus is often seen as a litmus test for this--you are either a dippy Liberal that reviles him, or a redblooded patriot that venerates him? I would argue against either of these extremes. Columbus is just one in a long list of important people in American and world history.
I would argue that more emphasis on the long pre-Contact history of the Americas, plus a bigger focus on the colonial period (a la what seems to be the norm in Latin American school curricula) would in fact enrich US curricula, not impoverish them. Kids will learn eventually about Columbus and Washington, I guarantee you. But instead of rehashing tired old legends year after year, it would be great if they received a cumulative construction, a new piece every school year, of the entire breadth of our hemisphere's rich history, from the Siberian hunters that settled our land to the new immigrants that are redefining it in the 21st century.
I know that my children will get a healthy dose (perhaps an overdose) of the officialist history centered on powerful white men like Columbus. They'll definitely get to hear about him and Washington and Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and that's good, because not only are they important figures, but this style of history is part of the cultural currency that we're all expected to have. But since I know that they'll hear plenty of this stuff, I make a point to expose them to the stuff they might not see in school or TV or even in lots of history books. African and Asian empires, grassroots popular movements, peasant and labor uprisings, black American scientists and inventors. Expanding their knowledge base to include these oft-neglected parts of history represents an enrichment, not an impoverishment.