I went through K-12 partly in Mexico and partly in the US. Children in both educational systems are taught at some point that certain products are native to the Americas and others arrived with the European colonizers.

Now I live in Germany, and I recently discovered that this is not a topic that is discussed in their K-12 classrooms. Asking around I was told the same is true in France and Ukraine.

They definitely discuss colonization, so I was wondering: why do they choose to skip the whole my-tomatoes-for-your-cows lesson?

I couldn't find a history-teaching tag or something related, but I hope this is not too off-topic.

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    I think this might be better answered by teachers rather than historians. At a guess it's because of time constraints - there's only so much history you can teach in the time given to history lessons and European schools will tend to prioritise European history over American history.
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 12, 2018 at 9:31
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    My point is that this exchange is also European history. I agree that teachers will have the answer.
    – suckrates
    Oct 12, 2018 at 9:44
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    "European history" is way too broad, and each country prioritizes "local" history. I am from Spain and, IIRC, in high school (let alone K-12) the first references to the history of Poland and Russia were from the Napoleonic Wars (and even then,with little detail; Russia was just explained as "broke the Continental System, Napoleon invaded, advanced and was defeated" and Poland "annexed by Russia after the Congress of Viena"); and the first references to Sweden to its implication in the Thirty Years Wars (and after that, I do not remember any more references until WWI or perhaps WWII).
    – SJuan76
    Oct 12, 2018 at 11:49
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    Note that I had to look up "K-12" to make sense of your question... I had never heard that term before. (I know what "K-9" means, though. ;-) )
    – DevSolar
    Oct 12, 2018 at 14:56
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    Possibly related to the fact that, from the perspective of historically European civilization in the Americas, both sides of that trade were important and thus it's important to talk about the trade, while from the European perspective it's not as significant that "we gave them cows", while they probably still mention "Tomatoes are originally from the Americas."
    – Tin Wizard
    Oct 12, 2018 at 19:42

2 Answers 2


This question is in part based on a premise that is between misleading and false.

In Germany schools do not choose to skip the whole my-tomatoes-for-your-cows lesson.

What is true is that there was usually not a big chunk in education dedicated to the columbian exchange exclusively. And the concept is so new for the slow moving German school system that the concept is still often named in its English, untranslated form: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbian_Exchange

Both factors may be responsible for people you asked giving a dismissive answer. They usually do not recognise the name of the concept and it didn't feature that big during their school education.

But German school kids do know where potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, maize and lots of other stuff they consume daily came from originally. This Kolumbus-Effekt has its part in modules called "Age of Exploration", "Age of European Expansion" and the like.

This can be shown by looking at the current curriculum for to-be-teachers:

European Expansion (until the End of the 18th Century) (Lecture) The beginning of the European expansion overseas is in the historical memory until today primarily and to this day the perspective of the heroic explorer dominates, not that of the man who all too quickly drafted concepts for subjugating the indigenous population.
The history of European expansion oscillates between the fascination with the unknown and the transfer of knowledge about foreign cultures and plants, goods and techniques on the one hand, and the subjugation, violent proselytizing, exploitation and even extermination of foreign peoples on the other. On the basis of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English expansion up to the end of the 18. century, the lecture will take up different perspectives on European expansion and colonialism, not least the already contemporary problematization of colonial rule in ethical-religious as well as international legal discourses.... (further see Digicampus)

Modul GES-3022 (= FB-GsHs-UF-Ges 07-FNZ): Geschichte der Frühen Neuzeit: Übung und Vorlesung Freier Bereich (= Epochale Zusammenhänge und wissenschaftliches Arbeiten – Frühe Neuzeit) –– Modulhandbuch Freier Bereich im Lehramt an Mittelschulen LPO UA 2012 Lehramt, University of Augsburg 2015

In the same year this was also part of the first year curriculum for students becoming teachers (commercial link).

This is often mentioned en passant during German school kid education and in class 7 usually covered in all states (Bundesländer). (Federated education system is not uniform across the whole country).

This can also be shown by asking pupils above a certain age whether they know about the content of this concept. Ask about potatoes geographical origin and you usually get either the right answer or proof for a failing education system. Both outcomes are possible.

German schoolbooks are now almost famously bad, but a recent study in the department of schoolbook research comparing German and Mexican schoolbooks concluded that overall both leave quite a bit to desire.

It might be that some less well known plants are not all present with their origins. While anecdotal, the experience reported in the question is still a nice example of a failing school system and/or forgetfulness. They really should all know this, basically. The potato at least is always – as early as kindergarten – mentioned as coming from America, first used as an ornament, but essentially mistrusted as food. Then Prussian king Fritz II planted a highly guarded garden to lure the peasants into stealing the plant. Yes, this is another anecdote that is also essentially at odds with known dates of first cultivation. But it was indeed Friedrich who ordered planting potatos. Usually the anecdote and the real story are told in school:

In Prussia, Frederick II had great difficulty in getting the cultivation of potatoes accepted. On March 24, 1756, he issued a circular order to his officials and thus the first of the so-called potato orders with the order "to make them understand the benefits of planting this plant and to advise them to plant the potatoes as a very nutritious food before the end of this early year". It is said that Frederick II literally had his farmers beaten into potato happiness. It is sometimes described that the king achieved the desired success by having a potato field guarded by soldiers and thus tempted the farmers to steal the supposedly valuable plants for their own cultivation. Whether he really took this measure is not certain; in addition, this action is also attributed to Antoine Parmentier. (WP)

A recent master-thesis that covers this for historical textbooks used in Switzerland schools looks at Wilhelm Oechsli: "Lehrbuch für den Geschichtsunterricht in der Sekundarschule. Allgemeine und Vaterländische Geschichte. 2 Bände. Zürich: Verlag der Erziehungsdirektion: 1883. (Franziska Basler: "Darstellung Christoph Kolumbus’ in den Zürcher Geschichtslehrmitteln seit 1872. Heldenhafter Entdecker oder brutaler Eroberer?", Master-Thesis, PH Zürich, 2015.) Some of the assertions and conclusions in the old book might look of course quite horrendous today. But again, the content of this concept is covered in there.

One phenomenon left might then be that without having a Begriff – the "columbian exchange" – those asked may be unable to begreifen (~to grasp) what is being talked about.

As the focus seems to be mostly on plants (in schools, as shown above) I'll bet the farm that with most Germans quite an interesting conversation could be held whether the horse went either to or came from America. Karl May and Hollywood had much more influence on knowledge about that than any schoolbook.

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    I should have explained that my evidence is anecdotal. At an informal cooking course that was attended by around 7 Master/Phd students and 7 other people with at least an undergraduate degree (all German), I gave out a questionnaire to find out if they knew where the ingredients originated. Everyone failed miserably and told me they never discussed the topic in school. The curriculum you linked to is proof that this is at least mentioned. I guess schools in the Americas just emphasize that topic more. Thanks for your answer.
    – suckrates
    Oct 12, 2018 at 11:26
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    Thanks for the potato edit. One group of people that definitely missed that lesson is Pegida, with their "Kartoffeln statt Dönner" signs :)
    – suckrates
    Oct 12, 2018 at 12:39
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    @AlvaroFuentes Oh that is spiralling so fast from meta-level to next. Kartoffel is indeed used as an anti-imperialist derogative for bio-Germans. Currently it seems quite difficult to estimate whether Kartoffel is a Geusenwort or somewhere else on the dys/euphemism treadmill. Next those you mentioned will display signs – in full earnest – saying: "Deutsche, kauft deutsche Bananen." Oct 12, 2018 at 12:50
  • I'd say they should be able to get the origin of potatoes, tomatoes and paprika and mais (corn) right, also tobacco. With cacao, vanilla and ananas or soy, coffee or bananas many would be guessing the continent of origin (I think). In terms of animals: lama should be clear, that there are alpakas, vicunhas and guanacos as well is less known. Also I wouldn't bet on German pupils knowing that those are all camels, or that there is one type of antelope in NA. OTOH, racoons are in their current population density are discussed in newspapers, so I'd expect everyone knows they are from America. Mar 7, 2019 at 2:28
  • Nutria and muskrat are similar, but less well known. The other way round, sure, the guess would be that Europeans brought pigs with them, just like horses and cows. But that there were no wild boars in America (as opposed to bison)? There are also false friends lurking, at least for those who know that guniea pigs and capybaras are from America (German Wasserschwein = "water pig") The horse is discussed more prominently in school, I think. At the same time, don't expect them to be able to properly distinguish between roe, red and fallow deer (not to start about old vs. new world deers) Mar 7, 2019 at 2:45

This is not true about Ukraine. From the early childhood I knew that potato, corn, tomatoes, cocoa, tobacco and squash came from America as a result of Columbian exchange. We also knew that the Europeans introduced horse and many other species in America. (I was educated in 1960s though).

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    I also get the feeling it's a generational thing. Thanks Alex.
    – suckrates
    Oct 12, 2018 at 13:12

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