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Where in the world is Waldo? Okay, let’s say he’s in the thriving metropolis of Thimphu. Uh, well, where’s that? Oh, it’s the capital of Bhutan. Really? Um, where’s Bhutan? It’s in Asia. You DO know where Asia is, don’t you?
Depending on your age, the answer is very likely “No.”
I have to admit, as a child, I never did like geography. I can remember learning about maps, climates, some stuff about oceans and coastlines, a little bit on volcanoes and glaciers, various landscapes, a little bit about culture here and there, and of course the names of all 50 states.
For the most part, it was rote memorization and didn’t engage the interest of a math nerd such as myself.
But even with my laissez-faire approach back then to the subject, I can still name all 50 states (and when I was young, all the capital cities). As a child, I could list out all the nations in South America. I could even name the territories and provinces of Canada.
Even now, I remember trivial facts – such as Minnesota being the northern-most state in the contiguous 48-states. You didn’t know that? Well, there’s a little notch of land in Minnesota that protrudes upward into Canada. And despite the infestation of poorly drawn maps (even in school hallways), the New England states are in fact all south of the 49th parallel.
Today though, it seems that geographical knowledge is best described by a 75-watt light bulb receiving only 30 watts of juice. American youth are now being called geographically illiterate. In a National Geographic-Roper survey of young adults (ages 18 to 24) in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States, Sweden scored highest; Mexico, lowest. The U.S. was next to last.
Many other reports in recent years demonstrate just how bad things have gotten. In another survey of young adults in the US, one-third of them could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a map. Not being able to locate Bhutan or Gabon is understandable, but the Pacific Ocean is kind of big, isn’t it? You know, just look for that big blue splotch on the map? No, no, not that one. That’s Lake Superior. Maybe you should look for something a bit bigger?
Fewer than half of the kids tested could locate France or Japan. Fewer than half were able to identify the states New York or Ohio on a map. And when shown a map of the world, 11 percent of them couldn’t find the United States of America. Think about it: We’re talking about people who can vote in this country but can’t even find it.
In another study, 88 percent of young adults could not locate Afghanistan, 75 percent could not identify Iran or Israel on the globe, and 63 percent could not locate Iraq or Saudi Arabia on a map. And when discussing the ruin left behind by Hurricane Katrina, only 66 percent of young adults could locate Louisiana on a map. When asked where Vietnam is, almost half of those surveyed said it was in South America. Many of them couldn’t even tell you why Vietnam was of particular interest. Uh, maybe a war?
But a healthy percentage of them could tell you that the island in the 2001 TV show “Survivor” was in the South Pacific.
The problem goes further than just reading maps. The majority of incoming freshmen at colleges in the U.S. know the Berlin Wall and U2 only as rock groups. Avatars are well known among youth, but have nothing to do with Hindu deities. Students know that birds fly south for the winter.
When asked what birds do in the southern hemisphere, the answer (albeit sad) is not surprising: They fly south! Yeah, like to Antarctica?
While most young adults can point out where China is, when asked what language is primarily spoken in China, 75 percent said English. Told they could escape an approaching storm by evacuating to the northwest, only two-thirds could indicate which way northwest is on a map. Almost one-third of those surveyed thought that the population of the United States was between one billion and two billion (rather than the correct answer of 300 million).
What is the cause of this outbreak of geographical illiteracy? Some claim that today’s self-absorbed nationalistic attitude of our government is the primary cause. If this were so, you’d think more students could find the U.S. on a map. What is known is that for many students, geography rates as their least favorite subject in school. Considering how much people hate math, that’s really saying something.
But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Less than 30 percent of young adults were able to locate New Jersey on a map. I’ve lived in New Jersey, so I can truthfully say that having our young adults be geographically illiterate might actually have some benefits.
John Pawlak is a teacher at Santa Fe Public Schools. E-mail him at email@example.com.