Where Will Maps Take You?

By George Heinrichs

When you picture Seattle, Washington, the world, what do you see? Is it a road map? Is it a satellite image? We live in the age of maps (one of the pleasures of being a historian is getting to label periods of time as “the age of blank”), and our phones give us all constant access to all the maps we could ever need--maps of the 10 closest coffee shops, maps made by algorithms specifically for us. The word “map” comes from the Latin mappa mundi, which translates to “sheet of the world.” It came into popular parlance in the 16th century with the rise of maps to represent European expeditions that both traveled and documented coastlines not previously know to Western Europeans. Maps allow us to see the world and understand it in all new ways. Maps can also be divisive, creating divisions in our minds where before we saw unmarked land. Philip II of Macedonia is credited with saying “divide and conquer,” but Lear put it best when he said “Give me the map there. Know that we have divided” (KL I.i.37). From the Treaty of Tordesillas to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the drawing of a line can led to centuries of pain.

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Over the past few weeks the 9th graders have been reflecting on maps and considering how a map can shape identity. We talked about areas with border disputes such as in Kashmir, where a contested border between India and Pakistan almost led to war and has led to many deaths. They studied the Inter Caetera, which in 1493 split the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal, and which led to the Americas being predominantly Spanish-speaking save for the small portion given to Portugal (which became Brazil--a line on a map can rarely stop a land grab, though it can cause one). Now they are creating maps of their own: some that show the distribution of meat-eaters worldwide, others look at how relationships between countries have changed over time, and others look at how different countries have invested in infrastructure. These are maps that are not meant to divide, but to explore complexity. For that is what maps call upon us to do: explore the world around us, and give us a hand in seeing all the complexities and features that we might otherwise have overlooked.

Ask your student for their map and then see where it takes you both.