There's nothing like a map to help explain the world. But some maps do a better job of it than others.
Which is why Boston's public schools have adopted new world maps for some of their classrooms. And, the district claims that it's the first public school system nationwide to make the switch.
The new maps replace the traditional, rectangular maps made using the 16th-century Mercator Projection method that was introduced back when Europe ruled — and exploited — much of the world. Mercator world maps emphasize the colonial-era Atlantic Ocean trade routes and distort the relative sizes of continents so that, for example, Greenland appears to be bigger than Africa. (It's not.)
Other distortions inherent in the Mercator Projection display a kind of territorial superiority. Simply put, predominantly-white countries are huge seeming, while nonwhite-majority countries are rather small, in comparison.
Social studies classrooms in Boston are now getting maps drawn using the Gall-Peters Projection. These maps are designed using configurable, equal-area map projection to display the Earth's surface. In other words, these maps show countries, continents and oceans according to their actual size and location. So, in that sense, they better represent countries (and global cultures) in less developed parts of the world, which tend to be underestimated in many world maps.
That's the main reason Boston educators are introducing these maps.
“Eighty-six percent of our students are students of color and many, many of them have parents, grandparents that are from places on the map that are underscale or distorted,” says Hayden Frederick-Clarke, the director of cultural proficiency for Boston Public Schools. “We wanted to create the opportunity for the students to see themselves in an appropriate fashion and counter the narrative that many of these places are small, insignificant and not necessarily important to the world and its history, its functions and its glory.”
The most glaring distortion on the Mercator map, says Frederick-Clarke, is the size of Africa. "Greenland looks about the same size as Africa, the United States looks like it's comparable in size, and we know that is absolutely not true. Africa's 14 times larger than Greenland. In addition to that, Mexico is smaller than Alaska on the Mercator map, that's also quite backwards. Mexico is actually very much larger. There are problems with Brazil. Europe, and more specifically Germany, are near the center of the map, we know that not to be true."
Frederick-Clarke says Boston social studies teachers now have a map that better reflects the reality, and in turn, the diverse student body. “Many of [the students] are from the Caribbean, many are descendants of Africa. We didn't want to tell them, 'Where you are from is small and insignificant.' The marginalization of some of those places in the history books is already a glaring problem, so we didn’t want another add-on.”
He hopes the new maps will help inspire many classroom conversations and shake up the way kids and teenagers see the world.
“From my own experience as an instructor, people enjoy the truth, and people, especially classroom teachers, generally want to give the best and most authentic product that they can, and I do not anticipate anything other than surprise and awe and arguably a push to do more of these things to uncover some of the things that we accept as true, but, when we dig a little bit deeper, there’s a more complicated story.”
But some critics of adopting new maps might look at this initiative as another battle in the culture wars and insist that map, is a map, is a map. No map is perfect, anyway. So, why all the fuss?
To which Frederick-Clarke responds, “When we hang up maps for our students, the navigational utility of the Mercator map does not lend itself to a representation of the world. When our instructors, our schools, hang up maps, we are hanging them up not for our students to sail from Boston to London, we are hanging them up to say this is what the world looks like. With that intention in mind, and with that specific goal, it necessitates that we be truthful and give accurate representations. I can guarantee you that 999 times out of 1,000, these maps are hanging up in classrooms just as depictions of what the world looks like ... sailing is not what we purport to teach kids.”