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Home » Geographical Education, Physical Geography, World

Nonsense about Continents

Submitted by on March 3, 2010 – 4:33 pm 5 Comments |  

Basic geographical education in the United States remains, in a word, pathetic. As students are required to learn virtually nothing about the world, we should not be surprised that few young Americans have any idea where Iraq or Afghanistan are located. And the one locational lesson in global geography that young students are required to master, that of the “seven continents,” is, in a word, nonsense. The absurdity of the continental framework is readily apparent in a lesson plan found on the My Schoolhouse website, a prominent educational resource. The page begins by informing students that, “the seven continents are North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica.” But the map placed immediately below this assertion (see above) portrays Central America, the Middle East, and Greenland exactly as they do North America, Africa, and the other supposed continents. True irrationality comes with a question listed below the map: “What continent appears to be part of Asia?” But “Europe” and “Asia,” along with “Middle East,” appear on this map merely as labels attached to different areas of a single landmass. As such, students could just as easily deduce that “Asia appears to be part of Europe.”

Nonsense about the supposed continents extends well beyond elementary education. My favorite absurdity comes with the mountaineering quest to bag the “seven summits,” defined as the highest peaks on each of the world’s continents. The list includes some formidable peaks – but it also takes in Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, a gentle rise that one could surmount on a bicycle, if only authorities would allow it. To be sure, Reinhold Messner proposed dropping Kosciuszko in favor of New Guinea’s Puncak Jaya, which is indeed a difficult climb. By any reasonable standard, Messner was absolutely correct: New Guinea is part of the same piece of continental crust as Australia (see map), and is thus by continental criteria as much part of Australia as Japan is part of Asia. But despite Messner’s fame – and demands of reason – Kosciuszko remains standard.

So what is the actual continental architecture of the world? That issue will be addressed in tomorrow’s post.

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  • Asya

    There is not only a question as to what's included into what continent, but how many there are. We learned in school in Russia that there are five continents, not seven. A different 5-continent model is encoded in the 5-Olympic ring symbol (Antarctica doesn't count there as it doesn't send athletes to the games):

    The animated map here presents various 7-, 6-, 5- and even 4-continent models:

    Interestingly, Russian has three different terms that roughly mean "continent": kontinent, materik, chast' sveta. The first and the second terms seem to be synonymous (and problematic), and apparently there are 6 "kontinenty" or "materiki" (North and South America are two separate "kontinenty", Eurasia is one, and Antarctica counts). But "chast' sveta" is different and I am not sure what English expression would translate it best. According to the Russian Wikipedia, the term appeared in the times of Great Geographic Discoveries and it's a more historical-cultural distinction that one based purely on physical geography (being separated from others by sea/ocean). So two "kontinenty" (North and South America) form the same "chast' sveta" (America), while one continent Eurasia is divided into two "chast' sveta" (Europe and Asia).

  • Martin W. Lewis

    Thanks, Asya — it is very interesting to get the Russian perspective on such issues. It makes a lot of sense to have different words for major landmasses based on physical geography and on historical cultural issues. A big problem with English terminology in this regard is the fact that these very different systems of division are often conflated.

  • Asya

    A quick correction to what I said earlier. The definition of the Russian terms "kontinent" and "chast' sveta" are correct but a little correction is in order about "materik". It's roughly synonymous with "kontinent" but it refers only to the mainland. So Madagascar is part of the African "kontinent" and "chast' sveta" but not of the African "materik". Similarly, England is part of Europe ("chast' sveta"), part of Eurasia ("kontinent"), but not part of Europe or Eurasia as "materik".
    Having thought about it, I am actually quite surprised that Russian makes such fine distinctions in this respect. Often, the Russian language uses confusing terms to obfuscate geographic (and especially geopolitical) realities.

  • Jim Wilson

    Yes, the continents are simply arbitrary categories, like the centuries or various post factum artistic terms. All categories, though, are to some extent arbitrary (unless you believe in some sort of Platonic forms). As long as we agree on a definition, they are still useful, however. I am perfectly happy to talk about European states, for instance, and simply add that I am excluding some specific ones and excluding others.

    As for “chast’ sveta,” what’s wrong with “part of the world.” “Materik” strikes me as the really useful word, and one I had never even heard in Russian.

    • I also have no problem talking about “European states,” but only because I define Europe as a region rather than a continent. Europe does not fit the basic continental definition, as it is not “surrounded, or almost surrounded by water.”