Check the nearest map. Does Greenland look like it’s close in size to the entire continent of Africa? Does Antarctica seem to sprawl enormously across the south of the world? Does Alaska look as big as the continental United States?
You’re probably looking at a Mercator projection—the map currently used in most U.S. classrooms. It projects the contours of the spherical Earth onto a flat plane in such a way that the landmasses toward the north and south are stretched out and appear larger than they really are.
In Boston Public Schools, however, teachers got a new style of map this month that represents the relative sizes of the world’s landmasses more accurately. The Guardian reports that the district is hopeful that the new maps will help shift students’ and teachers’ perspectives about the world around them. The idea is that by opting not to center and exaggerate the size of Europe and the United States and diminish the size of Africa and South America, students will gain a more balanced view of the relative significance of continents and their histories.
The Mercator maps will remain in classrooms, which allows students to make comparisons between the two projections. Teachers reported to the Guardian that students were surprised by and interested in the introduction of a map. One teacher described young people “questioning what they thought they knew.”
Projecting a round world onto a flat piece of paper poses an inevitable challenge and requires mapmakers to make decisions about how to make the translation.
In addition to stretching out landmasses that are more distant from the equator, the Mercator projection is generally centered around Germany—which is, in fact, significantly north of the equator.
A Mercator projection map, via emapsworld.com:
But the new projection that’ll be used in Boston schools, the Gall-Peters projection, is arranged so that all of the continents and landmasses show up proportionately. In the process, some shapes are distorted. The projection is also centered around the equator, which makes Africa appear more central and Europe appear further north.
The Peters projection, via www.petersmap.com:
Boston administrators told the Guardian that the hope is that the new map will help foster a less Eurocentric view of the world.
Boston Public Schools’ assistant superintendent of opportunity and achievement gaps, Colin Rose, said he hoped Boston would be a model for other districts. “The Mercator projection is a symbolic representation that put Europe at the center of the world. And when you continue to show images of the places where people’s heritage is rooted that is not accurate, that has an effect on students,” he said.
The debate may call to mind a familiar TV show: Season 2 of “The West Wing” featured an episode in which representatives from a group called “Cartographers for Social Equality” petitioned for a bill that would require that the Peters projection be used in every public school. They also make the argument that the Mercator projection’s literal Eurocentrism fosters bias.
In the early 1990s, the National Council for Social Studies published an essay arguing that maps should be taught as a means of communication—but points out that historically, maps that aren’t the familiar Mercator projection didn’t sell in the U.S. A 2003 lesson from the NCSS includes a series of upside-down maps and encourages teachers to let students experience the shifts in perspective that come from looking at a different map projection.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.