For decades, geography teachers have relied on a more than 400-year-old map that grossly distorts the size of the world’s landmasses — the byproduct of trying to depict a sphere on a flat surface and, perhaps, of Colonialism.
The world maps that have hung on school walls in Boston and around the country portray North America as larger than Africa (but it’s not) and Alaska as more mammoth than Mexico (also untrue).
But now, social studies classrooms throughout the Boston Public School system are getting an upgrade some 448 years in the making. On Thursday, about 600 elementary, middle, and high school classrooms received new 24-by-36-inch laminated maps – yes, paper maps and not high-tech, satellite images – in an effort to show students what the world really looks like. The district is swapping out conventional maps for those that more accurately depict the dimensions of continents and countries.
The map exchange is part of the district’s effort to “decolonize the curriculum” within the next three years, said Colin Rose, assistant superintendent in charge of the Boston Public Schools’ Office of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps. A goal of the office is to eliminate structural bias and inequality within the school system while ensuring that what students learn in the classroom is culturally competent.
“So this is about maps, but it isn’t about maps,” Rose said. “It’s about a paradigm shift in our district. We’ve had a very fixed view that is very Eurocentric. How do we talk about other viewpoints? This is a great jump off point.”
The previous map, created in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator for navigational purposes, warps the sizes of continents and countries. Africa is three times bigger than North America, for example, but appears smaller on the map. On the Mercator map, Greenland looks massive compared with Africa, which is actually 14 times bigger than the island. And while Alaska appears to eclipse Mexico, the country’s 49th state can actually fit inside of our nation’s neighbor to the south with room to spare.
The replacement map shows countries’ true proportions to one another. Created by German historian Arno Peters and introduced to the world in 1974, the Peters Projection map has been adopted for use by the United Nations.
This map literally changes how people see the world, historians and geographers say.
“It maintains the sizes of places. It challenges the conventional way of looking at the world,” said Vernon Domingo, a geography professor at Bridgewater State University and a member of the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance.
But, Domingo and others say, maps do more than show the physical size and shape of landmasses. They also represent the historic and political battle lines of the world.
“Most of the early world map projections that lasted were created by North Europeans,” Domingo said. “And so, their perspective was from the northern hemispheric perspective, but a Colonial perspective as well.”
Casey Cullen, a history teacher at Westborough High School and the president of the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies, said he often quotes noted scholar Ali Mazrui by telling students, “Geography is the mother of history.”
“The story starts from where we start,” Cullen said. “If we’re going to try to tell the tale of people from other nations and where they come from, we need to be as accurate as possible.”
He said what Boston doing is “unique,” in that he’s heard of individual teachers in Massachusetts using the Peters Projection map, not an entire school system. The advent of technology has many classes abandoning traditional maps that roll down from the blackboard, opting for Google maps or virtual tours, he said.
The idea to add the Peters Projection map to Boston classrooms came about this summer when Rose hired Hayden Frederick-Clarke as the director of cultural proficiency. Frederick-Clarke came up with a short list of changes that would help make a school system that is about 74 percent black and Hispanic more culturally competent. Things, Frederick-Clarke said, he deemed as “easy wins. If we had the political will to do them.”
Replacing the Mercator map was at the top of the list, he said, because the map “is, in my mind, one of the most insidious examples of how schools perpetuate racism.”
So on Thursday, 600 freshly laminated maps, which cost a total of about $12,000, were distributed to Boston principals and headmasters.
The maps will be distributed by grade and area of study: second grade classes because the curriculum teaches cultures from around the world; seventh grade because students study world geography; and 11th grade because world history is taught.
The goal is not to toss out all the old maps but to use the new ones to compare competing narratives about the world, said Natacha Scott, the district’s director of history and social studies.
“One of the things we teach students is, to become good historians, they must question and analyze,” she said.
The maps, she added, will help them do just that.