Undiscovering the Mountains of Kong

A West African Map from 1839.
A map of West Africa from 1839.

The map on the left looks unexceptional to me, a layman. It’s a standard, if rather archaic, map of West Africa.

But geographers are a lot sharper than most of us, with the kind of keen eye that can spot a child trying to pick up something very unpleasant on a wet beach at a distance of 100 yards. Through drizzle.

And those geographers would probably be able to tell you that the mountain range that runs along the north border of Upper Guinea doesn’t actually exist. It never has.

You see, this map was created by the cartographer James Rennell to accompany the Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s travelogue, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1798). Park was trying to find the source of the Niger river and was curious as to why it didn’t flow south of the Gulf of New Guinea. He saw a few mountains and assumed that this was the reason why. Rennell believed this theory and, wanting to show ‘proof’ of it, he forged on his map an entire (and entirely fictional) range of mountains that ran from West to East Africa: The Mountains of Kong.

John Cary's 1805 map of Africa
John Cary’s 1805 map of Africa

Following Rennell’s map, other maps began to include the Mountains of Kong. In fact, for almost 100 years nearly all of the maps we had of Africa contained this feature. Nobody checked to see if these mountains were really there. Indeed, explorers actually avoided the area because the mountains were stated to be of “stupendous height” and were considered an “insuperable barrier”, making them impassable. Other cartographers just added more lies when reproducing maps: one added snow and another connected them to the Mountains of the Moon in Central Africa, they themselves being another entirely non-existent range invented in the ancient world.

It wasn’t until the French explorer Louis Gustave Binger went on an expedition to chart the Niger between 1887-1889 that this lie was uncovered. Binger effectively undiscovered a mountain range.

Whilst most cartographers stopped including the Mountains of Kong on their maps henceforth, they did still pop up now and again: they were indexed in 1928’s Bartholomew’s Oxford Advanced World Atlas and they even appeared in the 19th edition of Goode’s World Atlas as recently as 1995.

The reason that these mythological mountains prevailed in print for so long is down to the belief that cartographers are ‘guided by an ethic of accuracy’.

When I heard this story I was struck by how analogous it is with education, particularly with regards to initial teacher training. There are lots of edu-myths paraded around in these early stages of our careers, and they find disciples due to the belief that educators are guided by the same ethic of accuracy as people believed of 18th and 19th century cartographers. But the truth is that some of what we learn has little or no provenance of any discerning and plenty of it is based on the whim of people aiming to make money out of schools.

I faithfully followed many of these myths myself, and would still be doing so if it weren’t for the emergent wave of bloggers and academics engaging teachers with research via social media. My approach and practice has certainly been sharpened because of this. But not only have I noticed a change in my approach, I am also seeing a great deal more trainee teachers coming into schools with a critical, questioning and discerning mind; new teachers who are clearly actively engaging with research via social media and blogging. Whilst it took me a few years to undiscover education’s Mountains of Kong, there are loads of bright, new teachers who are questioning their existence from the very beginning. I wish I’d been so switched on at that stage of my career.

The difficulty I think we have in education is not in getting new teachers to engage with research, but rather in getting long-standing teachers to let go of the mumpsimuses that have been largely debunked by research. The good news is that there are people and institutions out there that have grasped the nettle of getting teachers to engage with research:

Today is the eve of another of Tom Bennett‘s prized researchED conferences, David Weston‘s National Teacher Enquiry Network is working with some great schools on research projects, and the Education Endowment Foundation is a great source for research and is developing an evidence base for school and classroom practice.

There’s a great deal of research available to teachers now. I’d encourage everyone to explore it.

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7 thoughts on “Undiscovering the Mountains of Kong”

  1. Postscript: I’ve just read another story of a fake geographical location appearing on a map that adds a little more interest to the analogy:

    In 1925, the head of mapmakers The General Drafting Company and his assistant decided to put a ‘copyright trap’ on their map of Sullivan County, New York to ensure that other mapmakers didn’t steal and copy their map. The two men, Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers, added the fictitious town of Agloe to their map, it being an anagram of their initials. The idea being that if it appeared on somebody else’s map, they’d know their intellectual property had been stolen.

    A number of years later, competitors Rand McNally printed their map of New York state and, yes, they included Agloe on it. Lindberg and Alpers set about springing their well-planned trap and took Rand McNally to court.

    However, when questioned about the fake town’s existence on their map, Rand McNally officials identified a building named Agloe Fishing Lodge, that had been built there in the 1930s. Apparently there was also an Agloe General Store built in the area too. It turns out that a small hamlet had built up on the site of the fake Agloe, and settlers had used the name on the original map: they’d actually brought the fake town into existence. Rand McNally walked free from the copyright claim.

    The moral of this? Watch out for post-rationalisation. Often evidence is made to fit the idea, rather than building ideas out of evidence.

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