Boston schools change maps in effort to emphasize global south

The new Gall-Peters projection maps more accurately depict continents' sizes

Boston Public Schools is using a different world map in an effort to decolonize classrooms.

The school system is changing world maps for certain grades from the traditional Mercator projection to the Gall-Peters projection, which more accurately represents the size of continents in the global south.

The initiative is a joint effort between the district’s Social Studies Department and its Office of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps in an effort to increase cultural proficiency across academic disciplines, said the school system in a statement.

The key differences between both maps are the size and shape of the continents.

“The Mercator projection is actually a map for sailors — it was designed for navigation in the sixteenth century,” said John Pickles, a UNC geography professor.

The Mercator map was used during the Cold War because it showed the most powerful regions, North America and Europe, as the two largest geographical areas, Pickles said.

“What it did in particular was marginalize the geographical importance of the equatorial regions,” Pickles said. “So what the Peters map does, it will give students a better sense of the relative importance of the global south.”

Pickles said the Mercator map was used politically by many newspapers and magazines and probably in schools to focus the attention of the students along the larger land masses.

Changing maps, however, has not just been a recent issue, Pickles said.

“For 20 years, geographers and others have been shifting away from Mercator to a whole series of other maps,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be Peters maps — there are all sorts of other maps that provide different representations of the world."

Most of the controversy surrounding the decision has to do with how the map is perceived, said Jeremy Crampton, a geography professor at the University of Kentucky.

“It comes down to a conflict between what you understand the map to be doing,” he said. “Is the map a way of representing the world, or is it a way of intervening in the world?”

Pickles said he believes changing to the Gall-Peters map would promote increased cultural proficiency.

“If you change the maps, you change children’s perception of the world,” Pickles said.

But Crampton said some of his colleagues are somewhat opposed to the Gall-Peters map.

“Their understanding is that a map should be non-political," he said. "And the Peters map is a political instrument."

Crampton also said the issue of decolonization is not so black and white.

“People would benefit from knowing a little more about the history of both of these maps,” he said. “They can’t just decolonize by changing the maps. It’s much more complicated than that, but it’s a good step for the future."

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