This post originally appeared on Global Citizen.
In the last 500 years, a certain kind of map has been used to teach children about our planet. But public schools in Boston have made a big change — and it might alter the way you think about the world.
It’s about power.
Most might recognize the old map from faded school textbooks. It’s called the Mercator projection. In 1569, Gerardus Mercator built a whole world drawn along colonial lines — literally. The biggest economic powers were given the space on paper to flex their border biceps.
The problem? It’s nowhere near to scale. Europe is not the center of the universe — Mercator just moved the equator. North America is nowhere near that big — although it might feel that way if you watch the news. In reality, South America should be twice the size of Europe. Greenland should be 14 times smaller than Africa and three times smaller than Australia, whilst Alaska appears three times larger than its actual big sibling, Mexico.
The Mercator projection vastly exaggerates aged imperialist power, at the expense of developing countries and continents like Africa that are shrunk to inferiority. There’s a reason why the Northern Hemisphere is associated with wealth and significance — it’s because it’s literally on top, permanently etched into our subconsciousness as superior from our earliest encounters with learning.
But there is another map. A map that laughs in the face of the old world order, that is scaled without topographical bias, that actually tries to tell the truth. Say hello to our survey savior: the Gall-Peters projection.
More commonly known as the Peters projection, it was published in 1974 by Dr. Arno Peters. It’s an “equal-area” map, borrowed from the work of 19th century Scotsman James Gall, which means it accurately scales land according to surface area, creating a far more balanced reflection of what the world really looks like. It’s totally free of colonial bias.
All new maps bought by public schools in Boston will be Peters projection. According to Colin Rose , assistant superintendent of opportunity and achievement gaps for Boston public schools, it’s “the start of a three-year effort to decolonize the curriculum in our public schools,” to draw away from the cultural whitewashing of history in places of education.
“Eighty-six percent of our students are students of color,” said Hayden Frederick-Clarke, director of cultural proficiency for Boston Public Schools, in an interview with WBUR . “Once students feel like the school isn’t being truthful, there’s a tendency to shut down and reject information.”
No map is perfect — a two-dimensional reflection of a spherical world will always be flawed. Even the derivation of the world implies vulnerability; it comes from the Latin “mappa ”, meaning “napkin”, to describe the surfaces first used to draw them. The Peters projection is not without its blemishes either — it can appear stretched, since there’s just not enough land to effectively translate onto a flat map.
If you’re still not entirely sure what on earth we’re talking about, let The West Wing explain:
“In our society, we unconsciously equate size with importance and even power,” says one of the cartographers in the video. “When third-world countries are misrepresented, they’re likely to be valued less.”
And the problem extends way beyond the classroom. Incredibly, even Google Maps is stuck on the Mercator projection. When the internet has inherited internal bias, a bad idea can spread like an epidemic. The whispered notion that the West is somehow bigger and better than the rest of the world persists, subtly, sneakily, until suddenly world leaders can transform the invisible precedent into rhetoric that swivels between patriotism and nationalism in reckless lurches.
Every journey starts with a map. But if you set off on the wrong foot, misdirection can become misadventure. It’s easy to get lost. The hard part is making sure nobody else follows in your footsteps.