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A Post-modern Look at the Continents

I have been thinking about our concept of the continents this morning.  In homeschool, we are going through the Roman Empire in history and Africa in geography.  I was thinking about how, to the Romans, Africa only meant the area around Carthage, which is now modern-day Tunisia and part of Algeria.  It did not include Egypt or Morocco or anything South of the Sahara.  And Asia originally referred only to ‘Asia minor,’ or modern-day Turkey.

So when did the concept of continents Continentsdevelop?  And isn’t it interesting that when the dead white Europeans named them, they just expanded the name of the area closest to them.  Wouldn’t that be a little like Wisconsites calling everything West of the the Mississippi “Minnesota”, and everything North of us “Canada”?  (Well I guess the only thing North of us actually IS Canada, but you get the point.)

But Europeans and Americans have even taken over the word continent for themselves.  “The Continent” means Europe as distinct from Britain, because, who else of course would you be talking about but Europeans?  (And here I had thought Britain was part of Europe.)

But the United States has the same problem.  Leading up to the Revolutionary war, what were we known as?  Continental.  That’s why we had the Continental Congress.  Because, again, if you want to talk about a continent, the only one that really matters is America.  Be careful, however, lest you nievely assume that “America” actually refers to the two American continents.  Of course we are referring to the only part of the continent that matters — our own country.

So I looked up the word continent in the dictionary and got a surprise.  First the number of continents is “usually reckoned as seven.”  Usually reckoned?  This shakes my whole world.  I thought the fact that there are seven of them is at least as well established as anything else in the definition.

To further complicate things, the World Book encyclopedia (the only encyclopedia set we happen to actually own) says that technically Europe is just a part of Asia.  Ah ha!  I always knew it!  It certainly doesn’t look like a separate continent.  I had figured that there must be some sort of continental plates that geologists had discovered which met up around the Ural mountains.  But no, it’s all just political terminology to separate “us” white Europeans from “those” non-white Asians.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 8, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    I think you’re judging me for being white.

    Seriously, of course us white Americans contextualize everything according to white America – it’s where we live and who we are. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with separating the earth into continents according to our viewpoint. Everyone does it, whether you’re a rich white American or a poor black African. Contextualization isn’t a bad thing, just reality.

    When I had to make a map of the continents for a website, I realized I had forgotten how many continents there were, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, and there’s apparently a lot of different schools of thought on the topic.

    You’ve got your standard 7, and then there’s others that say we only have six (Europe and Asia are one), and still others say we have six but it’s because Australia is really just a big island and not an actual continent, and others say we have four (Eurasia, Africa, Americas, and Antarctica), and one school of thought says we only have two (Western and Eastern)…

    Oh, and for the flip side, some groups have the original 7 but change Australia to “Oceania” and include the zillions of islands in the South Pacific, and others have 8 (Australia and Oceania are split into 2), and yet another has 9 (the original 7 plus Oceania and India)…

    It was sort of a pain to try to figure out how to divide the world up into continents for that website, but then I just decided to make it easy and split it into two – America and Not America.

  2. January 15, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Sorry Jake. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad for being a rich, white, straight, American male (and any other adjectives that might make you feel bad). Mostly I was just shocked to find another area of knowledge that I thought was relatively ‘objective’ but is actually heavily influenced by one’s perspective.

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