As Jesuit educators, our goal is to form students to be men and women for others and this forms the basis of how we teach, interact with students, and make decisions. Over the years I’ve taught with St. Bonaventure’s College, we have been blessed with several professional development opportunities designed to encourage us to bring this goal into our teaching in more overt ways. But as teacher of senior high Mathematics I’ve really struggled in this endeavor. I’ve always envied the Humanities teachers their ability to easily incorporate vital issues such as current events, controversies, and social issues into their lessons. These fit quite naturally, and necessarily, into these areas. But in Math, addressing cultural and political issues is a bit of a stretch in most cases.
I consider myself to be a creative thinker, but attempting to marry civic engagement with quadratic equations, or gender politics with logarithms, has often ended only with frustration and failure. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Where I come from, Math as a discipline, has long suffered the same problem. How do we help our students to engage with the world around them in truly meaningful ways? The staple answer to this question has always been to build in token attempts at problem solving. “Betty is driving to a political rally. If she has to drive for 2 hours at a speed of 50km/h and 1.5 hours at a speed of 75 km/h, how far away is the rally?” In some schools perhaps this is enough, but it falls so short of the meaningful engagement expected by our Ignatian principles that it feels almost insulting. So how can we really do it justice? (pardon the pun).
In the last couple of years, I’ve set out to make some progress on this question. First, I tried reaching out to our global community on Educate Magis. And while I got a couple of responses from teachers interested in the same thing, no one seemed to have cracked the code yet. So, I decided to just dive in and try something. I tried to start small with a single topic, only to realize that to be meaningful it can’t be small. So, I went big…and I mean big. I decided to tackle the planet as a whole. Or at least our representation and understanding of it.
Taking inspiration from an episode of the TV drama “The West Wing”, I built a unit around the Mercator Projection Map, which is one of the most commonly used maps of the world. Dating back to 1569, the Mercator Projection was originally designed for sailors to make navigation easier. Unfortunately, the way the 3-dimensional globe is interpreted into a 2-dimensional image results in significant distortion in the size, shape, and location of land masses. Most people don’t see a problem with this, which is why this map persists in common use even today. The issue is in how North American culture tends to associate size with importance, and there is quite a lot of research to support this. The Mercator Projection inflates the size of northern land masses while decreasing the size of equatorial regions. The very real and measurable consequence is that we tend to perceive northern countries as more significant and more important, because this is exactly what the map indicates. As a result, developing countries, almost all of which are located in equatorial regions or in the global south, are easily dismissed by northern-centric attitudes.
So, we’ve got a real issue, but what does this have to do with math? Well it turns out that maps work really well for introducing trigonometry since distance between two places can be represented as a right triangle created using the north/south and east/west lines as sides with path of travel as the hypotenuse. The shape of the earth allows it to fit quite nicely into calculations of surface area and volume of spheres. So, with a little rearranging and reframing of some of the content in my grade 10 curriculum, I was able to cover two units of my existing course under the umbrella of social justice. We wove the theme of maps throughout the lessons in both units, using different versions including the Educate Magis Global Map. We were able to compare the area displayed on the rectangular map to the actual surface area of the earth and discuss where and how the discrepancy creeps in. We were able to observe the importance of an accurate map in navigation. Plotting your travel between two points relies pretty heavily on the destination being where you expect it to be. Inaccurate maps cause all sorts of problems, both practical and cultural. Why then do we continue to use these flawed tools?
It was the consideration of this last question that I felt to be the real value of this project. It isn’t an accident that notions like this persist, the Mercator Projection is only one example. It’s vital that our students examine issues and ask the important questions. Why is this still in use? Who benefits from this? Who suffers because of it? Students need to learn to see injustice before they can fix it. Herein lies the goal of Jesuit Education. It’s not enough to teach the individual subjects. The subjects aren’t the point. Our students are going to grow up to shape society and culture through their influence. They need to ask the important questions, they need to make global connections, and they need to identify the important problems, because it’s going to be up to them to find the important solutions. My job isn’t done yet…but at least this is a start.