Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Is North Up?

It's the beginning of the school year, so the geography classes had the standard "get to know your atlas" assignment. It's a pretty straightforward packet and the instructions are clear. Easy day, right?

I should mention that freshmen take geography.

After the first group couldn't figure out that "find the direction from Topeka, Kansas" meant that the answers were north, south, etc., and the starting point was Topeka, Kansas, I made sure to include this in my instructions to the following classes.

On the one hand, they are only in 9th grade, and perhaps they had not studied maps before. But they're in 9th grade. They haven't even looked at maps before?

I wondered, as some of the questions I got were troubling.

Two students had a debate about Egypt and whether or not it was in Africa. I ended up explaining that Russia was in Asia (at least on the part of the map the student was looking at). And I needed to explain that North America has three countries in it. Oh, and "what body of water a city is on" means the sea or ocean, not the river that's more than 100 miles away.

I swear, I tried to sound nonjudgmental. I don't know if I pulled it off.

Then I got called over to another student. He asked if I studied geography. Well, no, but ask the question anyway as I might have an answer.

He wanted to know why our maps were oriented with north at the top. (Okay, he didn't phrase it that way, but this is what he was asking.)

And just when I had given up hope on the future of the species, I was reminded that some of them do actually think. Nice.


  1. Isn't "Central America" technically considered a part of North America? See, Central America is not a continent unto itself, right? So I think there are a whole lot more countries in North America than just three.

    As for the North question, I think I would have responded, "They are oriented North because we won the Civil War." Just to be a smartass. And then would have said something akin to "It has to do with the magnetic poles and the way a compass orients to the magnetic north."

  2. I think Central America is considered part of North America, as far as continents are concerned.

    The 'why is north at the top?' question makes me think of an episode of The West Wing where a group of cartographers talk about all the problems with maps... including north being at the top.

  3. That really is a great question. He must be good at thinking outside the box. The whole north-is-up thing never occurred to me until someone mentioned it. I wonder why cartographers are so northern-oriented.


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