Like so many of my students, I too was “geographically ignorant.”
At least that was the epithet hurled at us by our professor in a freshman course titled “Map of the Modern World.” Everyone who didn’t score above a certain cutoff on a placement test was forced to take this class. The doors were locked promptly. The teaching assistants stood like bouncers. We had to learn the placement of ALL 200+ states in the international system, plus all colonies, territories, associated territories, crown dependencies, etc. At the beginning I didn’t even know where Curacao was. Now I know the position of every Antille, from Bonaire to Aruba and everything in between.
If only our students in public schools had such an intensive class–or a psychotic professor to teach it.
Our pitiful knowledge of geography has been well documented for the last decade. Among the most notable studies was the 2006 Roper study sponsored by the National Geographic Society, a copy of which is linked here. I will spare a detailed analysis, but some of the highlights include that “most young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 demonstrate a limited understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders, and they place insufficient importance on the basic geographic skills that might enhance their knowledge.”
- Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map—though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.
- 6 in 10 young Americans don’t speak a foreign language fluently.
- 20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It’s the largest country in Africa.)
- 48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It’s Hindu—by a landslide.)
- Half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map. – from 2006 National Geographic/Roper Survey
What is even more disturbing–even as a three-year old study–is the declining attitude towards geography. 21% of respondents said that knowing where countries were in the world is “not too important.” 38% of respondents said the same about learning another language. As our ability to understand the world grows more and more, we want to know less about it. The results are scary.
One need not look further than my own students to see the results of such thinking. Many of my fifth graders, even as late as December, still thought the Bronx was a country. Many didn’t even know how many states comprised the United States, where our capital is located, or even its name. One kid even alleged that Puerto Rico was a borough of New York City–though considering the demographic, he may be on to something.
Yet they all knew where the Chuck-E-Cheese is located. Most have an encyclopedic knowledge of the shops in Co-Op City, or the amusement possibilities of New Rochelle (dubbed “New Roc City”). They also have exact bearings on where to find the nearest McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, which would also become their future employers, if they’re not careful.
Our culture has not helped, on both sides of the political spectrum. The extreme right-wing ding-dongs who belittle “book learning”, as education is so often called, as un-American do our children a grave disservice. It is not patriotic to be dumb, no matter what Sarah Palin tells you. Yes, she can see Russia, but Lord knows if she can pick it off a map. Even those conservatives who preach American exceptionalism–and I do, to a certain degree–have to have a working understanding of world geography to form a basis for arguments. You can’t tell a liberal to “go the hell to Russia!” and then point to the Ukraine. I’ve seen this happen with Young Republicans, and it isn’t pretty.
The left is no saint, either. For all their hemming and hawing about the “guilt” of European populations and their parasitic attack on American peoples and environments, they seem to overlook the need to use geography to see why we came here in the first place. Geography played a huge role in the creation of the American landscape. There’s a reason why Arizona and New Mexico weren’t settled by large numbers of European settlers until later in the 19th Century (Here’s a hint: you drink it). If Ms. Cannabis wants to preach about the rape of the continent, she better make sure the class can find it on a map. Otherwise you get renderings of the Atlantic slave trade with ships coming from Detroit into Jamaica, which plays havoc on your civil rights lessons.
Geography is essential to our education. Not just knowing how to read a map, but at least a basic understanding of where countries, states and continents are located on a map. The maps do look nice on the wall, at least before Jose decides to tag them with a Sharpie. Yet the study of our world has many other implications as well:
- It’s multidisciplinary – You have to read maps, and understand what symbols mean. Distances, angles, and rates of speed for travel all need to be calculated. Borders between states or countries can change or shift over time for different reasons. The natural boundaries–mountains, rivers, oceans, etc.–serve ecological, social and economic purposes. Geography extends to every discipline.
- It informs our history — New York City isn’t where it is because of dumb luck. Verrazzano and Hudson both stumbled into the greatest natural harbor on the Atlantic coast. Boston started as a peninsula sheltered by the inland water of Cape Cod. New Orleans sprang up at the terminus of our continent’s most important river system. These were no accidents–geography played a huge role in the development of civilization.
- It informs our perceptions, both true and false — one need look no further than the greatest tool of white supremacy in world history, the 1569 Mercator world map. Yes, a map. Gerardus Mercator’s wildly popular map was created with a huge distortion: the areas farthest away from the Equator were abnormally larger. Europe, North America and Russia are all greatly oversized. Europe is also placed squarely in the middle, as if the world revolved around it. Now, this was probably unintentional–Mercator was European, after all, and used a familiar vantage point–but this map has helped to color our perceptions of people and countries for many years. It’s important for kids to understand this.
- It’s tactile — Geography is one of the few parts of social studies that’s hands-on. The best way to get a kid excited about the world is to put a map or globe in their grubby little mitts. To actually see where the United States is compared to the rest of the world can often be a shocking experience. It also helps the student understand the world doesn’t always revolve around us–even though that’s how it seems.
Students should have access to as much geography as humanly possible. The more kids understand the world, the more curious they get about how the world works–especially its problems. The geography problem, in many ways, is the most urgent problem, as it colors almost every other aspect of social studies. Extending knowledge of world geography will help our students make a positive mark on that same world later in life.
At the very least, students can argue that Puerto Rico is not a borough of New York–but it ought to be. Along with Santo Domingo, Mexico, parts of Ecuador, Israel, Russia, Sicily and southwest Ireland.
The following are some helpful geography websites:
National Geographic for Kids – this is a great site to start. Maps, activities, videos, you name it.
National Geographic Xpeditions – this site is a big help to teachers, as it has lesson plans, interactive media and a fully interactive atlas for students to explore.
KidsGeo-Geography for Kids – this is more of geography skills site than a true study in an atlas nature. It does have a massive amount of information.
Sheppard Software’s Geography Games – truly for the geography fanatic, these games really test your country and state identification skills. Warning: for advance students only.