Teaching as Cartography

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) (Image courtesy of Fairfield University)

Of late I’ve been reading a lot about Matteo Ricci, the 16th-century Jesuit missionary to China.

Ricci, born in Italy in 1552, was known for his brilliance in mathematics and astronomy, but he was also a gifted cartographer, a talent that became especially helpful for his ministry in the “Middle Kingdom.”  


When Ricci arrived in China, he encountered a Ming Dynasty largely closed off to overseas commerce and isolated from other countries. As a result, Chinese maps were inaccurate and incomplete. They contained almost nothing of the world beyond China.  

European world maps, on the other hand, informed by the voyages of Portuguese and Spanish explorers, were far more detailed and filled in. As a result, these maps fascinated Chinese officials. When Wang Pan, a governor in Guandong province, saw one of these maps in the Jesuit residence, he asked Ricci for a Chinese edition.

Ricci happily complied. According to historian Mary Laven, author of Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East, Ricci

prepared a new map, of modest dimensions, with notes adapted for the Chinese viewer. It showed the equator, the tropics and the five climatic ‘zones’; it named all the countries, and described the customs of their peoples; and it was marked with the degrees and parallels, unlike any Chinese maps before it.

It was a success. And in “the years that followed,” said Laven, “Ricci would return again and again to his cartographic vocation.”

I’ve been thinking about Ricci and his map, and about cartography, and about the ways his example informs the work of an educator. And it’s introduced a theme that has been fruitful for my own contemplations: the idea of teacher as cartographer. 

Consider: Our students are entering the new worlds of high school and young adulthood, regions at once primitive and civilized. On Wednesday they might be deciphering geometry; on Friday, they might be pressured to smoke marijuana. Faced with these temptations and insecurities, they form tribes and hierarchies and wonder: Who are my enemies and who are my allies? Where can I go to be safe? Where can I go to be accepted?

Many students arrive on campus with the same mindset as the imperial officials of the Ming Dynasty, with a map that is more like a mirror. Their world is often the sum total of their preoccupations. And given their age, who can blame them?

This context forms the background for teachers. Our task, in part, is to inhabit the role that Ricci did: to be mapmakers, not necessarily literally (Google has mastered that), but mapmakers of the inner landscapes of spirit and soul, cartographers for the odyssey through adolescence. Joining parents, teachers must show students where they are and what surrounds them, and help them see reality as it is, not as they want it to be. We help annotate their plans, pointing out potential obstacles, risky shortcuts, and areas of safe passage. Like Ricci’s map did, we introduce students to communities that have long predated us, as well as to the remarkably complex and stunning topography of the human condition. 

Thinking of teaching as cartography helps me keep my own role in check. A map doesn’t impose; it empowers. It gives the one holding the map the chance to explore on his or her own. It fosters freedom. 

Having said this, I add a caveat. Teachers are mapmakers, but they are also humans, which is to say, flawed. Truth demands that we prayerfully examine our motivations to uproot any creeping intuition of our own omniscience. It can easily happen. As a teacher, you’re almost always the smartest in the room, or if not the smartest, the most knowledgeable. Given this, we might be tempted to conclude, in our classrooms, that we alone have seen the “big picture,” that we alone draw the right maps.

But this of course is untrue. Even in Ricci’s case (and Ricci usually was the smartest in the room), there were problems. Though the first edition of his world map was impressive, it contained errors. It was also misleading. As Laven wrote, Ricci’s map “took good care to draw attention to Rome . . . and to proclaim, somewhat disingenuously, that the entire continent was united in its devotion to the religion of the Lord of Heaven.”

In making his map, what were Ricci’s motives? They were mixed. Ricci was, wrote Laven, “keen to inform his Chinese hosts, to raise his own status and to encourage conversions.”

For teachers, coaches, and counselors, Ricci’s example poses these questions: As we draw maps, how do we filter out our own ego, our own agenda? Does self-promotion drive us? In the guise of objectivity, do we foment misleading impressions?

Ricci’s example reminds us that a good map, like most projects, results from the checks and balances of honest collaboration. In making his map, Ricci had his biases. A more objective effort, for instance, might have indicated the division and unrest caused by the Protestant Reformation. But before a Chinese audience that hadn’t heard of Martin Luther or Henry VIII, who would have challenged Ricci? Who would have pressed him to be more nuanced in characterizing papal loyalties?

Teachers, too, carry biases. For us to see things as they really are, our students are indispensable. An example comes to mind.

In 2011, not long after Jared Lee Loughner shot and almost killed Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I called him a “freak.” I said it in front of a couple students who had asked me about the shooting. I said it without thinking, as if it were common knowledge. It wasn’t so much an explanation as a surrender. To call someone a “freak” is to say: He or she cannot be analyzed. End of discussion.

But one of my students immediately took issue with my remark, and she came right back with questions. How can you just dismiss it like that? What about mental health? If we cared more about this issue, could the shooting have been prevented?

Her questions silenced me, and for good reason. It was a watershed moment in my teaching career. With that exchange, my student gave me a better map. My student had seen something I hadn’t. I wanted to close down the conversation, while she wanted to enrich it. She wasn’t defending Loughner; she was inspiring me to think through issues I didn’t want to address, issues which might have muddied my reactive and complacent view.  Like Ricci’s picture of Europe, I had oversimplified.   

Students, in other words, are also mapmakers. They bring firsthand accounts of territories teachers haven’t seen, and they invite us to question whether some borders should be redrawn. Their stories, their insights, and their struggles keep us constantly refining the focus points of adulthood. 

This is good. This is education. A school is a community of mapmakers that synthesizes the results of individual voyaging. It is a community that organizes and integrates perspectives which, taken together, advance us closer and closer to the manger of truth. 



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