Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Americans pretty much clueless in geography

The latest survey from the National Geographic Society is out, and it found that Americans are woefully clueless when it comes to geographic knowledge. You can find the Reuters story on the topic here that highlights the report, and the actual story from the National Geographic Society News here. Some of the findings include (citing from the NGS page):
  • Take Iraq, for example. Despite nearly constant news coverage since the war there began in 2003, 63 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 failed to correctly locate the country on a map of the Middle East. Seventy percent could not find Iran or Israel.
  • Nine in ten couldn't find Afghanistan on a map of Asia.
Let me see. The United States has been at war in these nations for a few years now, and yet a substantial number of Americans have no idea where their country is sending their sons and daughters to die? Notice it is the 18 to 24 crowd, the ones very likely to enlist (or get drafted if a draft came back) that have no idea. Not to mention that the United States is spending billions of dollars on a daily basis on the war in Iraq. I think as a taxpayer some people may want to know where their money is going (or do they?). More findings:
  • A third of the respondents could not find Louisiana, and 48 percent couldn't locate Mississippi on a map of the United States, even though Hurricane Katrina put these southeastern states in the spotlight in 2005.
Now that particular finding I find very disturbing. I may give people the benefit of the doubt, not much but a little, when it comes to world geography. But not knowing your own geography has to be a new low. I am sure some cynic would be tempted to say that the relief efforts for the area were so bad because they could not even find the places (as for the overall incompetence in that front, others have written about it and documented it much more eloquently). Attitude in terms of global awareness may not be that much better:
  • Fewer than three in ten [young adults] think it's absolutely necessary to know where countries in the news are located. Only 14 percent believe speaking another language fluently is a necessary skill.
That may explain a few things as well. And there are reasons why learning a foreign language can be beneficial. Readers may want to take a quick look here for some ideas. Geography is usually taught under social studies in schools, or at least it was in my day. However, this seems to be going down the wayside, in large measure because of things like high stakes testing that emphasize very limited skills, mostly to pass the test, while forsaking everything else. I wrote about how social studies is losing out to reading and math last year. While back then I was mostly looking at history, I did refer to geography as well. Nothing wrong with learning reading and math, but there are other important things. The fact that Americans can be so clueless, and so cavalier about that cluelessness, when it comes to geography should be a matter of concern. The world is becoming a much more global community. From outsourcing to globalization to multinational corporations, having geographic knowledge is necessary. The one thing that the survey does not mention is cultural knowledge, which often goes with geography. It is not only knowing where a country is, but having a good sense of its people, land, and culture. Given that the United States has involvement around the world, whether military or business or otherwise, it is foolish not to have a good geographic knowledge. You can bet that the rest of the world can likely point to a map and find the United States. Given that economies are becoming more competitive, and that the United States needs to have a well educated workforce down the road, this is one aspect of that education that cannot be neglected.

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