(This is the first in a series of commentaries I am doing for the Teach for America private community of history and geography teachers. The series is on the book The Myth of Continents by Lewis and Wigen. I will be reposting each commentary here so it is available for the world at large.)
The Myth of Continents opens asking a seemingly simple set of questions. What is a continent? Why do speak of continents? Are continents intellectually or empirically valid units of geographical measurement?
At the beginning of the first chapter, Lewis and Wigen share a conventional definition of the continent and follow with their damning assessment. “In contemporary usage, continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water. Although of ancient origin, this convention is both historically unstable and surprisingly unexamined; the required size and the requisite degree of physical separation have never been defined.”
Looking back at history and the origin of the continental idea, we should closely examine the Greeks who provided us the names (Africa, Europe, Asia) that would forever after function as a core part of the world’s vocabulary. The Greeks themselves argued about the meaning of these terms. Herodotus questioned the system and called for “empirical cartography.” He noted that “Asia and Africa were actually contiguous, both with each other and with Europe.” (22)
During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the unresolved question of continents underwent new forms of distortion due to the centrality of religion in every ideological paradigm. St. Jerome argued for the three continent system based on the story of Noah (23). Maps were even drawn in the shape of a cross. “Classical precedence joined here with theological necessity, converting an empirical distortion into an expression of profound cosmographical order” (24). With the growth of the Ottoman Empire pushing Christianity back into Greek’s “Europe,” and secular humanism seeking self-designation, a more modern definition of Europe emerged (25). Ironically, the region that gave birth to the continental lexicon, southeastern Europe, was pulled out of the “orbit” of Europe during this early modern period.
With the European discovery of the Americas, it took nearly a century for Europeans to accept the existence of America. A debate that had lasted for two millennia experienced a major rupture. The old idea of a single “world island” split into 3 continents by relatively minor geographic barriers could not define the world properly when enormous oceans separated equally enormous landmasses. While the original idea of a “continent” stems from “continuity,” isolation soon became the dominant pattern of thinking (26).
With the growth of exploration, imperialism and modern industry, new political and economic interests came to shape both the mental and physical map of the world. Empirical attempts to standardize divisions between continents continued to elude scholars because there is no division between Europe and Asia compared to the clear divisions of Africa and the Americas.
The context of an expanding and “Westernizing” Russian state helps us understand the causes of our modern geographical confusion:
“by the late seventeenth century, one strategy was to divide Europe from Asia along stretches of the Don, Volga, Kama and Ob rivers…Only in the eighteenth century did Swedish military officer, Philipp-Johann von Strahlenberg, argue that the Ural Mountains formed the most significant barrier. Von Strahlenberg’s proposal was enthusiastically seconded by Russian intellectuals associated with Peter the Great’s Westernization program, particularly Vasilii Nikitich Tatishchev, in large part because of its ideological convenience. In highlighting the Ural divide, Russian Westernizers could at once emphasize the European nature of the historical Russian core while consigning Siberia to the position of an alien Asian realm suitable for colonial rule and exploitation.” (27)
This solution to dividing Asia and Europe was gradually integrated with antiquated ideas of continental division, forming a complex, confusing, and culturally inaccurate border. Nonetheless this jagged border is widely used in Atlases, maps and references, even today (28).
What is a continent? Do we do a service or disservice to students by teaching them about these units? If continents are about separation, why isn’t Madagascar a continent? If continents are about size, why is Europe a continent, or Asia two continents? If continents are about culture, why is Mexico in North America and not South America? If it’s about politics, how on earth do we deal with Russia, Turkey, Japan, Australia, or Egypt?
We need a more empirical geography, a more critical professional discussion among geography educators, and a more informed discourse on world geography in classrooms.