Fifth Grade, Take Two

school myths

Fifth grade was great, but some of the stuff we learned back then was not so great. Or accurate.

Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice.

Actually, lightning doesn’t care. Just ask Roy Sullivan, who was struck seven times, and the Empire State Building, which is struck dozens of times a year.

“We have five senses.” Nope. For those who have occupational therapy experience, senses like proprioception and the vestibular sense will mean something to you, and some scientists claim we’ve got as many as 21 senses altogether.

“We only use 10 percent of our brains.” Nope again. On any given day, just about every region of the brain is used.

You’re probably starting to feel super-jaded, with so many time-tested “facts” falling one by one, but here are some more: Bats are not blind, Vikings never wore horned helmets, and a 1994 double-blind study says sugar doesn’t make kids hyperactive!

But from the mix, the most pervasive urban legends are those we all learned in history class, those one-line snippets of information that carry as much truth as saying vitamin C cures colds. (And nope again.)

So which pieces of data tucked neatly away in our minds are actually false?

Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned

At least the burning part is right. In 64 C.E., a fire broke out in Rome’s slums, fueled by strong winds and an ineffective fire-containment system. Hundreds died. Thousands were left homeless.

As for Nero, he certainly had a whole slew of odd — and murderous — habits. But as for his fiddling skills, history is silent on that account. And that’s probably because the fiddle wasn’t invented for about another 1,600 years. Truth is, Nero was 35 miles outside of Rome as the fires raged, and he did return immediately to begin relief measures, and for all we know he bawled his eyes out the whole ride there. But Nero was a mostly unsavory character, so people were quick to cast aspersions, even back then.

This is not the only piece of Roman history we’ve got wrong. There are a whole bunch more. Romans didn’t really wander about in togas — they only wore these heavy drapes for fancy affairs, like births or deaths.

Julius Caesar probably did not say, “Et tu, Brute?” at his death, although historians at the time were conflicted on this account.

And the emperor Caligula may have fed his dear, beloved horse oats mixed with gold flecks and built him a marble stable, but he doesn’t seem to have actually given the beast a job as consul, as some historians suggest.

But Romans did eat a lot of pizza. At least some things we can count on, although pizza was tragically devoid of tomato sauce at the time. (It would take Europeans arriving in the Americas to introduce tomatoes to pizza — a long-awaited union.)

Medieval People Thought the World Was Flat — and Then Columbus Came Along

Poor medieval folks. They’ve been maligned by just about every subsequent generation as the most backward, illiterate, diseased lot ever to parade across the world stage.

Okay, some of this is true. Medieval people bore their fair share of parasites. Baths were … sporadic, to say the least (although some historians like to point to all their public bathhouses, which suggest otherwise). Alcoholic beverages were plentiful (and that’s not because medieval water sources were all diseased. People just liked ale and beer. And it gave them an energy boost — medieval Gatorade, if you will). And medicine consisted of the “four humours” theory and lots of leeches.

But overall, medieval people were ingenious and productive. They left us a long legacy of nifty stuff we still use today, like capitalism (sort of; the very, very beginnings of what would become capitalism) and labor unions to protect against capitalism (sort of; the very, very beginnings of labor unions — called guilds). And the university. (Ever hear of Oxford and Cambridge?) And architecture. And banks (sort of). And eyeglasses. And the heavy plough. You’re getting the idea.

As for the flat-earth myth — overall, no. We did not need the great Columbus to enter the scene and prove the world was round. Greek and Roman academics had written about it, and anyone who considered himself a medieval scholar knew this too. So nobody was all that impressed when Columbus set sail and didn’t fall off the edge of the earth and get eaten by monsters.

And can we talk about the “Columbus discovered America” thing?

Christopher Columbus actually “discovered” the Caribbean Islands, not the continental Americas — though these islands are considered part of North America — and did not set foot on the mainland in his lifetime. And he actually never realized he had discovered anything! He died assuming he’d reached the East Indies, just as he had intended.

But even if you’d want to claim he discovered America, Icelander Leif Erikson showed up 500 years before him in what is now Newfoundland, Canada. Not to mention the Native Americans, who were here for thousands of years before that.

So let’s get it right: Columbus was the first southwestern European to visit the Bahamas. He does get all the credit though, because he opened the floodgates to European settlement and conquest of the Americas.

But back to the Middle Ages. How exactly did this somewhat-enlightened era get smacked with the “Dark Ages” slur that has filtered down to schoolchildren everywhere? What did these poor folks do to be labeled backward flat-earthers?

Not much, except live and die a few centuries before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when a bunch of self-congratulatory “thinkers” would give themselves an ego trip by officially bringing the world out of “the Dark Ages,” those darkish old days when people thought the world was flat and needed a hero named Columbus to come along and prove them all wrong.

Magellan Circumnavigated the Globe

Sometimes you’ve just gotta feel bad for the guy who came in second. Like Buzz Aldrin. He just hates being called the second man to walk on the moon.

And Juan Sebastian Elcano.

See, you don’t even know who he is. And his story is a whole lot worse than Buzz Aldrin’s, because Buzz actually was the second man on the moon. But poor Juan was actually the first man to circumnavigate the globe, except somehow everyone’s got that story wrong.

Magellan never actually made it around the world.

Sailing from Europe in 1519, Magellan traveled across the Atlantic, around South America, and through the Pacific, but then he was killed in the Philippines. That makes it about a half-circle. (Impressive, but not circumnavigation, unfortunately.)

So who actually made it back to Spain? Poor Juan. Whom nobody has ever heard of. Him and 17 other sailors out of the original 260 crewmen.

But wait. There’s more.

Maybe Juan wasn’t even our man, because Enrique, a slave whom Magellan had seized during an earlier trip to the East Indies, is technically the first person to have circumnavigated the world. Traveling with Magellan on this circumnavigation mission, when the expedition reached the Far East by traveling westward, Enrique was technically back home, making him the first guy to go all the way around the globe, while the rest of the gang were only halfway there. (There are all sorts of stiros to this story, but some historians like to give Enrique the honor.)

Juan and Enrique will have to fight that one out.

“Father, I Cannot Tell a Lie. I Did Cut It With My Hatchet”

So did George Washington really cut down his father’s cherry tree?

This one has been immortalized in all sorts of forums, ranging from history books to The Marvelous Middos Machine. The story, originally recorded in Minister Mason Locke Weems’ biography The Life of Washington (1806), goes like this:

Little George got a hatchet for his sixth birthday. Because that is what parents gave their children for birthday gifts in the 18th century. (At least it beats Teddy Roosevelt giving his son a rifle as a birthday gift with a warning not to tell Mrs. Roosevelt.)

Well, George apparently liked to “hack away at his mother’s pea-sticks,” among other things, and one day he gave his father’s “beautiful, young, English cherry-tree” quite a thwacking. His father, catching wind of the mischief, summoned Georgie before him and asked what the young scamp knew of the incident, which is when the latter purportedly looked his father in the eye and said …

Truth or myth? No one’s sure. Weems, who first wrote the account, claims he got it from an older woman whose name we do not know, whom he says was friends with the family. Being that Weems was a minister and particularly preoccupied with spreading virtue, and being that he only mentioned this story in the fifth edition of his biography on Washington, the story is somewhat suspect.

But Washington is already such a mythologized figure, what are a few more tall tales flung into the mix? (And by the way, while he did have life-long dental issues, his dentures were not actually made of wood.)

Washington may have been the first president to be immortalized in fables, but he certainly wasn’t the last.

Runner-up in the American presidential legends department is Abraham Lincoln — Honest Abe, who most certainly did not own slaves at any point in his life (although his wife’s relatives did) and who didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope (or on a train either, for that matter).

school myths
Etching of Napolean Bonaparte engraving from 1852. Photo by D Walker.

Napoleon, Napoleon

So much to thank the man for.

Like those endless battles we had to study in grade school; Leo Tolstoy’s 1,200-page War and Peace; and putting the island of Elba on the map. But best of all, he ushered in a bold new century where people did not wear wigs, so men did not need to look like they were graying and elderly while still in their teens. (Although, here’s another myth busted — not that many people wore wigs in the 18th century. They were too expensive. As they still are in the 21st century.)

Okay, so there’s some good Napoleon stuff, but there’s a lot we wouldn’t necessarily thank the man for, like embroiling Europe in bloody battles for many years. But Napoleon’s critics definitely got him wrong on some other accounts.

For starters, the man never converted to Islam, although he did suggest it to the muftis in Egypt as a means for getting the Egyptians to recognize him as a legitimate ruler. But after he was told it would require him and his men swearing off alcohol and undergoing circumcision, he backed off that plan. In the end, the muftis worked it out and issued a fatwa accepting Napoleon as leader, without conversion.

And the Sphinx certainly did not lose its nose to Napoleon’s men practicing their cannon fire. Seems the nose was lost long before the French came to town, as drawings from the early 1700s indicate. Oh, well. It was a clever story, though. One theory goes that actually, one helpful soul, a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, broke off the nose because Egyptian peasants were worshipping the statue. (He was trying to keep them from idol worship, but it got him executed for vandalism. Wonder if New York would like to take that one under advisement for its many graffiti artists.)

And finally, most egregious of all, Napoleon wasn’t so short! The poor guy’s been mocked for his height above all else, giving rise to speculation that he liked being painted on horseback to hide the fact. But apparently he was something like 5’6” or 5’7”, a perfectly ordinary height for a man. (If you’ve ever visited some centuries-old palaces or museums and have wondered why the beds looked so small and the doorways were so low, it’s because people were definitely a few inches shorter back then than they tend to be today.)

How did the myth of Napoleon’s height come into being? A number of ways. It seems Napoleon’s enemies caught wind that his friends used to call him “le petit corporal,” which was actually a term of endearment, not an actual physical descriptor. But these enemies seized on this nickname for use in anti-Bonaparte propaganda. Also, Napoleon surrounded himself with big, hulking soldiers, so that didn’t exactly help matters. And another possible cause for confusion is that the French inch and English inch were not the same at that time.

But at least the horseback part they got right. Napoleon did have a beloved gray horse named Marengo who marched with him into battle and suffered eight different wounds over the course of his service.

There’s a lot of information out there. Our decade is just swamped with material from credible sources, questionable sources, dubious sources and teenage-blogger sources. So here’s to being cautious consumers of “facts.” Toads don’t give us warts, cracking our knuckles will not give us arthritis, and not all information is created equal.

More Mythbusters


➵ Thomas Edison didn’t really invent the lightbulb; he just improved upon it so it could be commoditized. Later, he started the Edison Electric Illuminating Company to provide electricity to run those bulbs, which was eventually purchased by Consolidated Gas. Over time, the two morphed into the company known today as Con Edison.

➵ Marie-Antoinette, poor thing, never said, “Let them eat cake” about the starving Parisians. It was most likely her aunt by marriage who made that cavalier comment. But Marie was a hated foreigner, so the fact that one of her biographers makes a strong case that she was actually a kind-hearted, benevolent, charitable woman did little for her “save my head” campaign.

➵ Albert Einstein wasn’t really bad at math. He was a “pick and choose” sort of student, so for subjects he labeled as not worth his while, he just didn’t apply himself — which is why he failed the language, botany and zoology sections on his university entrance exam (at age 16).

➵ Pocahontas’s name wasn’t Pocahontas. This was a nickname, which meant “playful one” or “misbehaving child,” but somehow, she’s gone down in history that way. Her real name? Amonute.