Social Education 55(5) pps. 301-303
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

World Maps, Worldviews, and World History

Gerald A. Danzer

How can social studies teachers capitalize on the growing interest in the age of the discoveries as the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage approaches? How can educators help students grasp the great transformation wrought by the transatlantic encounter? In the first place, we must pay some attention to the worlds that were left behind. What images of the earth were current when Columbus set sail? Can our students make discoveries themselves, bringing to light those views of the world that were lost with the rise of modern cartography which proceeded hand-in-hand with the exploration of the globe? Why not make 1992 a year for looking at the world with fresh eyes? How can the cartographic images of fifteenth-century Europe help twentieth-century Americans see the earth in new ways?
These are questions that gradually emerged in a dialogue between teachers and scholars associated with the World History Project sponsored by the University of Illinois at Chicago. A professional paper emerged from that discussion supplying background information on five types of world maps that appeared in print before 1492. The intent of this effort was not to develop a series of specific lesson plans using these maps but to provide information about the maps for teachers to use as they saw opportunities to integrate these "little discoveries" into their history courses.

Research on the maps was sponsored by the Transatlantic Encounters program at the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois. National Endowment for the Humanities funding for this program also led to a series of slide sets with commentaries for use in college classes. Cartographic Images of the World on the Eve of the Discoveries appeared as Newberry Library slide set number eight in 1988. I have used some passages from this publication, with permission, in the present series of articles.

A world history approach provided a perspective for this project. Thus, we attempted to find the roots of early printed maps. Well-known manuscript traditions carry the story of several of the maps back to the late Roman Empire and early Christian times, and some scholars have suggested links with a celebrated map produced in Rome by Caesar Augustus. Our approach pushed the search for origins back even further, to the earliest surviving world map from the Mesopotamian tradition. Thus, this series begins two thousand years before Columbus and posits an enduring conventional image of the earth.

World Maps, Worldviews
One important aspect of a social education is the mental map of the world that students construct over the years. The resulting image is usually vague in many particulars, uneven in quality, and downright messy when people are called upon to reveal it in public. It is a composite image growing out of a variety of educational experiences over the years, both in and out of school. It is part of that fundamental matrix into which we place much of the information we receive about the world beyond our immediate experience. Our various mental maps of the earth also have some things in common. The images are strongly conditioned by our culture and serve us culturally and socially in a variety of ways; each represents a view of the world we share with other members of our society. This shared image is one of the ways of thinking that binds us together as a society. Learning a common world map is thus part of a social education.

However, each mental map of the world is unique in some way. No two individuals will take a pencil and draw exactly the same map. This series will focus on world maps as cultural documents with agreed-upon distortions, shared biases, and ethnocentric points of view.

In much of Western civilization, the Mercator projection, modified and adapted, has been the generally accepted standard map for several centuries. It remains today the one map of the world that can be purchased at the local drug store, found in the morning newspaper, or viewed on the evening newscast. A leading contemporary map publisher, asked why other projections were not made readily available to the American public, remarked that the American public will not buy other types of world maps. Even those printed as promotional pieces, to be distributed free for advertising purposes, are successful only when the world is cast in Mercator's familiar grid. Insisting that our image of the world follow one particular shape has created a stereotype in the guise of an accurate, mathematical map.

Nevertheless, a world map based on Mercator's projection is a fundamental pedagogical tool. Cognitive psychology insists that individuals depend on these patterns of perception to help them process new information. Constructs help organize learning and guard against perceptual overload. Thus, valid personal, social, and cultural reasons exist for the use of Mercator's projection as our commonly accepted map of the world. But how did our predecessors view the earth before Mercator developed his projection in the age of the discoveries?

In the pre-Columbian era several competing theories about how the earth actually looked existed side-by-side. The voyages of exploration settled the matter, and, over the course of several centuries, produced a standard map based on a single worldview. It took many interim maps, however, to get from the traditional cosmological images of the fifteenth century to the accurate modern depiction. Certainly one of the great achievements of the age of discovery was the standardization of a worldview and the creation of one accepted world map.

Maps, however, are never free of subjective elements, cultural conditioning, or individual bias. Cartographic images of the world current in Europe in 1492 attest to this fact and a careful look at these antique documents might help us understand that similar limitations affect all maps, including the scientific charts of the modern age. Moreover, pre-Columbian cartography introduces the fascinating topic of how knowledge proceeded from the known to the unknown. What did people in the Western tradition think about when they first heard about the New World? What was the cultural context out of which the new authoritative world map was created?

Worldviews, World History
This series of articles on European cartographic images of the world on the eve of the discoveries is designed for teachers of world history and geography. It should have some value for the secondary school curriculum as well, but its purpose is not to supply social studies teachers with a series of ready-made activities for their world history or geography classes. Rather, it is addressed to the teachers themselves as students and as scholars. In one way it may be considered a modest contribution to liberal education, which forms the matrix for all professional development.

These articles intend to provide teachers with some sense of the larger themes and understandings that might inform their conception of world history as a field of study and as a high school course. The maps and commentaries should serve them in three distinct ways. First, they should offer some help in that difficult job of coming to terms with the concept of world history as the development of the human community. The drawing of a world map, after all, is a kind of acknowledgement of shared human experience. The map is, in the telling contemporary term, a way of picturing spaceship Earth. The articles may, therefore, be of particular interest to those involved in developing global perspectives for social education.

Second, this series might encourage an improved understanding of maps as a means of communication. Maps, like the children of long ago, speak only when spoken to, and to communicate with them, one must learn their language. Perhaps a close look at a handful of world maps extending over many centuries will evoke an expanded cartographic sense, a firm grasp of what makes a map a map, and an understanding of both the objectivity and subjectivity of maps. Our second goal is for social studies teachers as a group to increase their comprehension of maps so that they feel comfortable when using cartographic materials and will become alert to the range of possibilities maps offer as instructional tools.

Third, we hope this study of maps as primary sources offers some understanding of the historic process itself. As schools prepare for the quincentenary celebration in 1992, a focus on the transformation of world maps could pay rich dividends. Important understandings about our situation in time and space might be gained by focusing some attention on Columbus and his colleagues. The connection between our worldview and the voyages of discovery becomes apparent upon studying the origins of our standard world map. Making that connection explicit for students in 1992 might help them imitate one of the intellectual strengths of the great discoverer: his ability to sense what maps might be to one who understands them.

At the very least, studying maps might help us come to terms with ourselves and our environment. David Greenhood (1964, xiii) said it best: "As maps become less strange to us, they grow more wonderful. So we take them into our homes to make ourselves more at home in the universe."


Greenhood, David. Mapping. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.