When Pam Mandel recently wrote about having visited all seven continents, a commenter reminded me that lots of people don't believe there are actually seven continents to visit. This was something I learned loud and clear when I was teaching English to multicultural classes, but it sure surprised me at the time!
Who would've thought that some "fact" like the number of continents in the world could be so culturally-bound? I've learned to avoid it in class because there were usually more answers to the question of "How many continents are there?" than there were people in the class, and it often got controversial.
But these are the "facts" as I understand them. Growing up in Australia - and as far as I've heard, in any English-speaking country - I was told, absolutely matter-of-factly, that there are seven continents. Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, and my own country of Australia. We were even taught to be proud of the fact that we were the only country that was a continent, as well as being the smallest continent. (Back then, I never thought to ask where places like New Zealand fitted into this model). For a good twenty years or more, I absolutely took this fact to be one of the surest facts I knew. There are seven continents.
I started having doubts when people in other countries asked me how Australia could be a continent ("It's just a country, isn't it?) and when many wanted to lump North America and South America into a single continent, "America". It was hard to argue with their logic.
After spending time teaching groups of people who all come from different parts of the world, I've seen the conflict that such a topic can provoke. Students from places like Brazil and Colombia, for example, always argue that America is a single continent (and they also differ from my old geography teachers on where North and South America would begin and end if they did, in fact, exist). A Russian student told me quite emphatically that Europe and Asia are actually one continent called Eurasia - also with impeccable logic because if you look on a map, they are clearly not separate landmasses, and Russia of course "belongs" to both.
And then there's the Australia problem. Many of my students want to call this either Oceania or Australasia, so that a bunch of other otherwise continent-less countries in the Pacific can be included. Again, pretty difficult to argue with.
So basically, I throw my hands in the air now and I'll never discuss continents again. But I'd be pleased to hear your opinion in the comments, of course!
[Thanks to Horia Valan for the pic via Flickr CC]