Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Geographically Challenged

Antarctica is actually a desert, receiving the same amount of rain as the Sahara Desert

My husband teaches political science and one of his classes covers the politics of a particular region of the world. So, on the first day of class he hands out a map to his class – a group of accomplished college coeds. For the most part, they are a smart bunch, having worked hard to get into this esteemed institution. The map is blank, besides the outlines of a series of countries, and the students have fifteen minutes to fill out the country names. At the end he collects them, and that night we sit at home, having tea, looking them over. 

Approximately 10% of the kids do pretty well, the remainder either sends us into gales of laughter (no, Spain is not in South America…) or into horrified silence. It reinforces the fact that we Americans are woefully geographically challenged – it’s a sad fact that Jay Leno got away with doing a hilarious segment where he asked people on the street answer simple geography questions, and lord I was embarrassed for the contestants. Most didn’t know which states bordered their own. But it’s not JUST embarrassing – it’s a national crisis – kids are unprepared for an increasingly global future. Fewer than 3 in 10 think it important to know the locations of countries that appear in the news, and just 14% believe speaking another language is a necessary skill. The National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study, done a few years ago, paints a dismal picture of the geographic knowledge of the most recent graduates of the U.S. education system.

-- Even through Hurricane Katrina had recently swept through the south, causing death and destruction, 33% of respondents couldn't pinpoint Louisiana on a map.
-- Two-thirds didn't know that the earthquake that killed 70,000 people in October 2005 occurred in Pakistan.
-- 6 in 10 could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East – and HOW long have we been at war there?
-- 47% could not find the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia (It’s the most prominent bit, sticking out)
-- 75% were unable to locate Israel on a map of the Middle East. (Okay, granted it’s pretty tiny, while flying over it George W. Bush stated that his driveway in Texas was bigger…)
Do we not care because most of the world lies at the end of two huge oceans – the Atlantic and the Pacific? Maybe the rest of the world doesn’t seem that relevant - the nightly news no longer covers the rest of the world since Brittany’s latest meltdown and Farmer Buford's ginormous pumpkin are far more important. But, how are we to understand, work and play with others if we don’t know where they are and what language they speak? It really is something to ponder… As the world shrinks before us, how will we continue to grow and prosper when we lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events? Time to open an atlas...

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