Don’t Know Much About Geography

Where in the world has geography gone? Last year, Miss Teen South Carolina became a national laughingstock for her halting and confused answer to a question about why roughly one-fifth of Americans cannot locate their own country on a map—but who are we to mock? Indeed, many Americans don’t recognize important countries on maps. According to a 2006 survey of Americans aged 18 to 24, less than four in ten can identify Iraq on a map of the Middle East; one-third of young Americans cannot calculate time-zone differences; even after Hurricane Katrina, two-thirds cannot find Louisiana on a U.S. map; almost one-third think that the United States has between 1 and 2 billion citizens; and two in ten, amazingly, cannot point to the Pacific Ocean on a world map.

Offering the counterexample to these sad statistics are the 55 talented youngsters competing this week in the 20th annual National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C. The top three finishers—winnowed from five million who started competition at the classroom level in January—will take home college scholarships worth up to $25,000. Not only can these kids identify world capitals and bodies of water, they’re also familiar with obscure African tribal languages, the chief agricultural exports of Tajikistan, the waxing and waning of Patagonian glaciers, and the endorheic characteristics of Lake Chad. Last year, the winning question was: “A city that is divided by a river of the same name was the imperial capital of Vietnam for more than a century. Name this city, which is still an important cultural center.” (The answer is Huế.)

The first Bee was held in 1989 as a response to rising geographic illiteracy. Evidence suggests that we are still shortchanging geography education. Of the core subjects identified by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), geography is the only one to receive no federal funding. Nor do all states assess or require geography education. As the Orlando Sentinel has reported, many public schools do not even teach the subject; and if they do, it is often given short shrift as part of a history or social studies class. Popular presentations of geography have also declined. For example, in the 12 years since it went off the air, no geography-themed game show has emerged to replace Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (which ran from 1991 to 1996 on PBS).

A critic might object that only the most dedicated students need to know such trivia as the imperial capital of Vietnam. But geographic knowledge provides a foundation for studying history, economics, political science, architecture, environmental science, demography, geology, and more. In fact, geographic knowledge correlates with other positive traits, such as having a higher level of education, traveling overseas, and following current events.

Oddly enough, however, just as geographic knowledge is becoming increasingly important, geographic memory is being made obsolete by technology. Need to know how to spell Reykjavik? Take a stab at it in a search engine, and the website will helpfully suggest the right spelling. No one need remember the four official languages of Switzerland when the CIA World Factbook is a few clicks away. And though we now have access to the most spectacular mass-market mapping technology in human history—in the form of Google Earth and similar products—we use it not to fly through the Himalayas or to explore the rural areas of the Falkland Islands, but to find the nearest pizza place. We don’t actually have to “read” the maps anymore; just search for directions and you get a step-by-step itinerary. We can even rely on precise oral driving directions from GPS.

The aforementioned survey suggests that Miss Teen South Carolina may have had a point when she said, “I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some people out there in our nation don’t have maps.” Those who own a map (besides a street map) are more likely to be able to locate countries on a map. This can be understood as self-selection, but we learn geography better when the tools of the discipline are resources, not substitutes, for actual knowledge.

In Congress, the bipartisan Teaching Geography is Fundamental Act calls for a response to the crisis in geographic literacy. But even if the legislation passes—which is unlikely in the current Congress—it may have only a small impact. While it is worthwhile to give geography equal footing with other core academic subjects, the long-term effectiveness of NCLB’s mandates is debatable. It is much more important that schools and parents grasp geography’s importance, write it into curricula, and find innovative ways—such as competitions like the Bee—to encourage students to learn more about the world. 

This article was originally published on on May 21, 2008. Full disclosure: I am a past participant in and current writer for the National Geographic Bee.