top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Kids don’t know geography — even with new maps

Boston Public Schools are putting “anti-racist” maps in second-, seventh-, and 11th-grade classrooms. What schools really need is a better geography curriculum, writes Kevin Mahnken on The 74.

Projecting a spherical object onto a rectangular plane is tricky, writes Mahnken.

Most schools use the popular Mercator project, which exaggerates the size of lands farther from the equator.  Northern Europe is magnified; its former colonies are not. Britain “looks nearly the same size as its former colony of India,” for example.

North America appears larger than Africa, complained Colin Rose, Boston’s assistant superintendent of opportunity and achievement gaps, who called the popularity of the Mercator projection “one of the most insidious examples of how schools perpetuate racism” and pledged to “decolonize the curriculum.”

Boston schools will use the Peters map

Boston has chosen the “more culturally proficient” Peters map, designed by historian Arno Peters in the 1970s.

However, Peters’ “arguments are largely bogus,” Dr. Matthew Edney, director of the University of Wisconsin’s History of Cartography Project, told Mahnken.

Peters equal-area projection “distorts the shape of geographic formations in the same way that Mercator distorts their size,” Edney told Mahnken. Also, “it’s ugly, right?

Edney recommended better equal-area projections “from Johann Lambert’s 1772 azimuthal projection to a pseudocylindrical variant like Eckert IV (his personal favorite), ‘or even the trusty Mollweide‘.”

A “popular app called The True Size Of, allows users to click on a given state or country and drag it around a Mercator map,” writers Mahnken.

As it travels southward, Alaska transforms from a colossus off the Pacific coast to a midsize South American country; France shrinks to fit within the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“It doesn’t matter what 2-D map projection you choose, you are going to make tradeoffs, and those tradeoffs will make it suitable for some studies and unsuitable for others,” wrote the app’s co-creator, James Talmage, in an email. The “larger lesson” is that “any data, even data so seemingly fundamental as points on a map, can be manipulated (even by people with noble intent). Question everything.”

Maps don’t teach geography, says Edney. “You get to know the geography of Asia not by memorizing the maps and place names, but by studying the history of Asia and where things come up in history and cultural studies,” he said. “That’s the kicker: More social studies, more geography within social studies, to reinforce understanding of the world.”

5 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page