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Reflection 3: National, Prejudiced Geographic

Michaela's picture

This semester, my two field placements are non-traditional in the sense that they are not observational, but spaces in which I take on a role as a tutor or mentor to young students, which can be a daunting responsibility. One of my placements is at Oliver Elementary School, working with several members of Bryn Mawr’s Art Club to teach art lessons to 1st and 5th grade students in a school where funding for arts programs was cut years ago. The student coordinators plan and teach the lessons, and I, as one of several teaching assistants, supervise and help students with their projects once they’ve gotten their materials and directions.

            The focus of the curriculum that the Bryn Mawr coordinators have planned this semester is art as a profession, in a variety of fields. We have done projects that have put the kids in the shoes of advertisers, fashion designers, and, this week, cartographers. Miss Rose, as the kids call the student coordinator in Mrs. Dryer’s classroom, started the lesson with projections of several pictures of maps, of varied scale and magnitude. One was immediately familiar to me, and likely the rest of the classroom. The Mercator world map is something that we take for granted, having seen it, like Mrs. Dryer’s 5th graders, early and often. We don’t stop to call it into question, because why would we? The world is the world is the world. How could literally millions of people be wrong about something so fundamental?

            As it turns out, we are indisputably wrong. Although this issue has been covered in some areas of media and scholarship, we still rely on this incorrect map, and use it to teach impressionable kids like the students at Oliver. On the first day of my 11th grade AP World History class, my teacher showed us this video from The West Wing (see video below), to show us about the importance of a less westernized, more global framework. It blew my mind, the way one of the characters from the lobbying group suggests it would. This, compounded with the Gutstein reading on math and social justice, and our discussion in class around the passage that he devotes to this subject of erroneous Mercator maps, was most definitely on my mind when I was working with the kids at Oliver this past Friday.

            The Mercator maps show the global south as a great deal smaller, proportionally, than the global north, with, for example, Greenland and the entire continent of Africa taking up roughly the same amount of space when in reality, Africa is many times larger. Our guiding question coming out of all of the readings for last Tuesday, including the Gutstein, was how we can educate young students about social justice and oppression. This scenario at Oliver, in a classroom made up entirely of Black students, could have been an opportunity for me, Mrs. Dryer (who is white), anyone to step up and tell these students that the map they were looking at was wrong, and has been used to minimize the importance and power of countries like Africa, where many of them have ancestry. This map is part of the reason that people from the global south (and more generally people of color) have been subject to discrimination and oppression, and none of the white adults in the room (Mrs. Dryer and the four Bryn Mawr students, including myself) took it upon ourselves to say anything.

            Is it because we’re white? This map, like other displays of white privilege, is not necessarily a daily part of our lives, but it is something that we must acknowledge has given us undue advantage. Surely, feeling uncomfortable with addressing this privilege may make it difficult for white educators to dispute, among other things, this traditional Mercator map, for the sake of teaching topics of oppression and social justice to students. But, as we have discussed in class, and as I have ruminated on, discomfort with white privilege doesn’t cut it when it comes to education. Our discomfort must shift to anger if we want to productively teach and acknowledge what we are dealing with, in terms of social justice.

            I think the goal of these lessons, carefully planned by the Bryn Mawr coordinators, is to show these young Black students, from low-income backgrounds and in a school that recently narrowly escaped being on the list of Philadelphia school closures, that they have career options that involve things that they enjoy, like art. While the intent is positive, how practical is it? Because we as educators and mentors in this classroom never told them, these students probably do not realize how wrong the Mercator map is. But, in order to succeed in the fields that we’re discussing, like cartography, must they accept these prejudiced artifacts, symbolic of an oppressive world? What role can social justice pedagogy play? If these students had an art teacher like Gutstein, they might be learning about these professions through a very different lens than the one that we are teaching them. I very much respect what we as Bryn Mawr students can bring to this classroom, which includes passion about learning and teaching as well as encouraging, personal relationships with students. But if we are (however unintentionally) reinforcing the prejudiced Mercator map, what else might we be, by default, teaching these students which goes against our wide-eyed, social justice centered idealism?


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