This archived article was written by: Carlie Miller
America has a problem. As we strive toward global dominance, we are forgetting about one gargantuan detail: we don’t know “squat” about the world. Back in the days before the world wars, America’s foreign policy was that we didn’t have one. Isolationism is its name and we held on to it like there was no tomorrow, justifying it with quotes we claim the founding fathers said on behalf of this policy and that this country was founded to be independent of the world and its problems that were so far below us. If today is any standard, you may notice that our foreign policy has changed quite drastically, but we the people are a bit slow when it comes to change. It is not fate that makes us ignorant of the outside world, it is “isolation of the mind,” according to Phil Klein, associate geography professor at University of Northern Colorado. It is our own fault. Klein says, “Sometimes Americans don’t think they can learn from other places.”
The National Geographic Society wanted to test geographic literacy around the world and conducted a survey in 1988. The results were shocking. Since that time, the Society has conducted two more surveys (in 2002 and 2006) and found the United States to be lacking, severely. According to Robert Pastor, professor of international relations at American University, in Washington, D.C., the 2002 survey “demonstrates the geographic illiteracy of the United States. The results are particularly appalling in light of Sept. 11, which traumatized America and revealed that our destiny is connected to the rest of the world.”
Are you curious about the results that make professors and society members cringe for America’s global future? Here they stand: the National Geographic-Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey polled more than 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds in countries ranging from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Great Britain, Sweden, Germany, Italy and Japan. Sweden, Germany and Italy were the top scorers. The U.S. almost tied with Mexico for last place by only answering 23 questions correctly out of the total 56. The survey only goes downhill from here.
Despite our involvement in Southwest Asia (Middle East), 85 percent of Americans could not find Afghanistan, Iraq or Israel on a map. The statistics are a little better concerning the location of the Pacific Ocean: almost 30 percent could not find it. Though we frequently outsource to India, more than 56 percent of the surveyors were not able to locate the home to 17 percent of the world’s population. What about politics? Surely we all know at least four countries with the ability to nuke us from existence. Apparently only 19 percent could name four countries with nuclear weapons.
After seeing the results of the 2002 survey, one would think America would go into a flurry, passing laws, changing school curriculum, something that would pull us out of the embarrassing illiteracy rut. Four years later, the National Geographic-Roper 2006 Global Geographic Literacy Survey was conducted. Little had changed since 2002. Americans answered more questions correctly (about half), but our map skills were still nothing to brag about. 60 percent of college-age Americans could not find Iraq while only 37 percent of younger Americans could perform the task. A large number of Americans didn’t even know where to look when asked to point out the state of New York and 11 percent cannot even find the glorious United States.
It isn’t a surprise that the further away from America we get, there is more we do not know. 20 percent of Americans think Sudan, the largest African country, is in Asia while 48 percent believe Islam is the major religion in India (Hinduism is the correct answer). What of the global position of our political allies? The locations of France, Japan and the United Kingdom are a mystery to more than half the number of Americans.
The survey concluded that “These results suggest that young people in the United States—the most recent graduates of our educational system—are unprepared for an increasingly global future. Far too many 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.” So whose fault is it that we are so geographically ignorant? The answer is us. “We as a country don’t place as much value on it,” states Michal LeVasseur, executive director of the National Council for Geography Education. LeVasseur explained that when the No Child Left Behind Act was improved to include more core subjects, beloved geography was the only one (out of nine) not funded for teacher training. LeVasseur says, “To understand events in the world today is almost impossible unless you have a geographical perspective,” but “no one was up there championing the cause.”
So why is it important to know geography anyway? The National Geographic website states, “Geographic literacy is more than knowing state capitals. It’s understanding how people and places interact, where things come from and where we’re going. Without geography, our young people are unprepared for an increasingly global future. Now more than ever, geographic literacy is necessary for us to understand global events and cultures.”
John Fahey, the National Geographic Society president and CEO, says, “Geographic illiteracy impacts our economic well-being, our relationships with other nations and the environment and isolates us from our world.” He continued, “Geography is what helps us make sense of our world by showing the connections between people and places. Without geography, our young people are not ready to face the challenges of the increasingly interconnected and competitive world of the 21st century.”
As the National Geographic website says, geography is more than knowing state capitals. It is understanding. So here are a few fun questions and facts as a reward to those who trudged through my lengthy and statistic-filled article. (Note: these questions are from the website for the National Geographic Bee which can be reached through the National Geographic main site).
Question one: Which state has a climate suitable for growing citrus fruits—California or Maine? Two: Which country has the world’s largest Muslim population—Indonesia or Mexico? Three: Which Canadian province produces more than half of the country’s manufactured goods? Now these questions are very easy—if you know your geography, as a hint, consider how climate varies from location to location, think about history and colonization, and lastly contemplate the location of rivers and bodies of water because it is easier and less time consuming to ship goods down a river or across a lake than it is to drive around.
Here are the answers and how the Bee website explains how you might reach those conclusions: question one answer: You know that oranges and grapefruit are citrus fruits and that they grow in warm places. Since California’s climate is definitely warmer and sunnier than Maine’s, you correctly answer California. Question two answer: If you have studied maps showing world religions, you will know the answer immediately. If you haven’t, you might reason that Mexico was settled by the Spanish, followers of Christianity not Islam. Either way, you correctly answer Indonesia. And lastly, the answer to question three: Even if you haven’t studied profiles of Canadian provinces, you know from your mental maps that Ontario borders all of the Great Lakes and has access to the St. Lawrence Seaway. This puts it in a better position than any other Canadian province to import materials needed for manufacturing and to export finished goods. So you correctly answer Ontario.
So how did you do? If you had no idea that citrus fruits were grown in California or that Mexico was settled by the Spanish or that Canada was made up of provinces then that is kind of sad, but at least you have expanded your knowledge of geography and are now more geographically literate than most of your fellow Americans. Want more of a challenge? Visit the Bee website and try your hand at the daily GeoBee Challenge. Here are some geography facts I will leave you with. Who knows? You might need them someday when you participate in a geographic literacy survey. Did you know: Tourists outnumber Venetians two to one (Venetians are the locals of Venice, Italy). The United Nations Headquarters in New York City is not part of the city, state or even the United States. It is international territory, which means it has laws separate to state and federal laws. Fortune cookies were invented not in China, but in San Francisco by a Japanese family living in Chinatown!
And the most interesting tidbit of the day: The people of Honduras (a country in Central America, south of Mexico) do not use the saying, “it’s raining cats and dogs” but “it’s raining fishes” literally! Once a year, usually between May and July, there is a terrible storm with strong winds and heavy rain in the Departmento de Yoro (a region in Honduras) that lasts between two and three hours. After the storm clears, thousands of live fish are found flopping on the ground. The local people have created a festival for the event called Festival de la Lluvia de Peces (the Festival of the Rain of Fishes) where they collect the fish and take them home to be cooked and eaten. The strange event was once thought to be folklore until scientists were sent to confirm it in truth. It is still not known why it “rains fishes” but there are a few theories. One theory is that the storm causes waterspouts in the ocean that sucks up the fish and spits them onto the land, but it is farfetched, the area of the storm is over 140 miles away from the ocean and scientists have confirmed that the fish are freshwater fish. Another theory, by a National Geographic research team in the 1970s says that all the fish were approximately the same size and were blind, leading to the conclusion that they were underground river fish which escape to the surface during the storm.