Magazine Feature

Beyond Borders

Geography offers students a new perspective on our changing world.

Funny things can happen to you if you don't know your way around. Columbus believed the world to be half its actual size, so when he bumped into the New World he thought it was India. Later, the Spaniards who set down on Mexico's peninsula wondered where they were and asked the first "Indians" they met, in Spanish, the name of the place they had landed.

"Yucatán?" replied the Mayans, who, as politely as possible, were trying to figure out the identity of their guests. Ever since, tourists in search of winter sunshine have flocked to the "Who Are You?" Peninsula.

Without a knowledge of geography, says one teacher, "We are like a person who wakes up someplace not knowing where they are or how they got there." One result is that we naturally tend to place ourselves in the center, and the rest of the world recedes into insignificance. (Historians of mapmaking say that people everywhere tend to put themselves in the middle of their maps. Geographers have dubbed this tendency the Omphalos Syndrome, omphalos being the Greek word for "navel.")

Another problem is that when we think of unfamiliar places, we fill them with our own wild imaginings. Mapmakers of the Middle Ages decorated the vast lands unknown to them with gargoyle figures and added this warning in the margins: "Here Be Dragons." Even today, many North American children are capable of imagining that if you dig a hole to the other side of the world, you will find people walking upside down in China.

"Geography is our passport to the world," says Kim Hulse, a coordinator of the Geography Education Program at the National Geographic Society. For too long, she explains, geography has been unfairly characterized as being about rote memorization and state capitals. Actually, she says, "It's about how the world works as a system of interrelated peoples, about how regions and neighborhoods and cultures form bonds to each other and to the landscape around them. To understand geography is to understand how we connect."

Peggy Clay, a 2nd grade teacher in Florence, Ala., says that if you want to understand how this country was formed by the "warp and woof of many peoples," there is no better subject than geography.

To help her students understand the courage and pathos of Harriet Tubman, she takes them on a vicarious voyage on the Underground Railroad.

"We start right here in Florence, and we calculate how many days it would take for us to walk to freedom. We talk about the weather, we draw maps and discuss the terrain, we figure out how to navigate at night and how we might recognize a safe house. The students become deeply involved because now they can imagine themselves on that perilous journey. They can appreciate the fear the slaves must have felt and the hope that must have sustained them."

Ultimately, geography is about the connections between us more than it is about the borders that divide us.

"We also explore the Great Migration and the Trail of Tears, and we draw Venn diagrams [overlapping circles] showing what these movements of people had in common and where they differed from each other. Along the way, we learn about natural geography as well as about the social and historical geography of this country."

Jim McMahon, the "Map Man" who answers children's geography questions for Junior Scholastic magazine, says that one way children can learn about the geographic and cultural diversity of the nation and the world is to study maps that have been produced over the ages. "Maps show us how people think of the world, of their place in it and what's important to them. Even the ancient Paleolithic cave drawings contained maps, depicting places where game was plentiful."

Cultures from the ancient Babylonian to the early Eskimo have produced maps. "It can be instructive for kids to see how maps and mapmaking have evolved," McMahon says. "Students who understand that the first scaled maps were made by the predecessors of people who now inhabit Iran and Iraq, or that our knowledge of cartography comes to us via the Arabs, learn to respect Arab civilization and culture in ways they might not have before."

Geography can also help students gain perspective on their immediate surroundings. "What do we mean," McMahon asks, "when we say that so-and-so lives on the wrong side of the tracks or the wrong side of town?"

Secondary students, he says, can investigate their towns and neighborhoods for ethnic and socioeconomic divides. "Where are the borders? Who decided that this is where the Greek neighborhood would end and the Vietnamese begin?"

An ambitious teacher, says McMahon, could help students reach beyond their prejudices by asking tough questions. "Poorer neighborhoods are often more run-down, and kids make that association and blame the people who live there. But which neighborhoods get their potholes and streetlights fixed quickly? Which neighborhoods house the homeless shelters or the water and sewage treatment facilities? Locating and identifying the unofficial borders that divide us can help children see how artificial they are -- and, often, how harmful they are."

Ultimately, geography is about the connections between us more than it is about the borders that divide us. Perhaps the astronaut Story Musgrave put it best. From 370 miles above the planet, aboard the shuttle Endeavor, he said, "To look at the Earth from this perspective, to look at the contrast of colors, our home, a place where you really don't see national boundaries, you get a new perspective."

Making It Fit

Imagine peeling an orange and trying to make the peel lie flat. You couldn't do it without breaking or smushing the peel in some way.


Maps distort because they represent the curved surface of the Earth on a flat surface. This is called projection. Mapmakers have devised more than 200 different ways of projecting the Earth's surface on a flat map, but all of them distort in one way or another.


One technique is to slice the world into pieces, like the segments of an orange. The pieces are then arranged side by side and the gaps are filled in. This was the method used by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who produced a vision of the world that lasted for several hundred years. It was the one most schoolchildren were familiar with until about 20 or so years ago.


One problem with the Mercator projection is that it places Western Europe in the center of the world and greatly exaggerates the sizes of the northern European countries. During the Age of Exploration, appearing bigger and central made Europeans feel important. But later on, some people objected to having their countries depicted as smaller (and less important) than they were. On some maps, for example, South America was shown as smaller than Greenland, though it is actually eight times as large!


In the 1960s, Arno Peters developed a way of mapping the world that kept the relative sizes of the continents to scale. Too often, he and his followers argued, the more powerful countries were depicted as bigger than they actually were, and the less powerful and poorer ones as smaller. The problem with his map, called the Peters projection, was that the continents' shapes weren't terribly accurate. Strangely elongated, they looked like reflections in a funhouse mirror.


A sinusoidal projection (referring to the math that cartographers use to calculate its proportions) keeps both the shape and the size of the continents accurate, but only by cutting the oceans into odd shapes, like leftover pieces from a jigsaw puzzle.


A different kind of distortion comes from the way we decide to orient ourselves on maps. If you think about it, the world could just as easily be depicted upside down, as in this map of South and North America. How does it change our perspective to see North America on the bottom? Does de-familiarizing the world lead us to new insights about our place within it?

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