Opinion: Geographic literacy merits greater attention in American education system

Opinion: Geographic literacy merits greater attention in American education system

Ignorance may be bliss, but it comes at a steep price.

I have met people who thought Africa was a country. I have met a student (a college honors student, in fact) who thought that Ivory Coast (a country in Africa) was a company.

How has basic knowledge of the world, which is increasingly interconnected each year, escaped the notice of the highest-scoring students this country has to offer? How would these same students feel if they heard someone say that China gets most of its oilseed from a company called the United States?

Of course, this would never happen. I’m willing to bet that most 20-year-olds in China—indeed, across the globe—can locate the United States on a map, despite the fact that it occupies less than seven percent of the world’s landmass and houses less than five percent of its population.

Some would consider this student’s mistake an insignificant gap: what does it matter if we mistake a prime minister for a president? What’s the big deal if we don’t know what a governor general is? Who cares if we occasionally mistake a country for a company? The world does. And the world is a fairly significant entity to be ignoring.

The world needs people in all professions, but it more desperately needs people in every profession to have some inkling of worldly understanding. One student’s ignorance is symptomatic of a larger crisis: what effects are we having on the distant reaches of this planet of which we lack basic knowledge? Geographic understanding is more than a matter of courtesy: it is a matter of global citizenship, international relations and environmental advocacy—in short, everything that keeps this interconnected world from falling into disorder.

“No Child Left Behind” works to put all American children at the same same starting line educationally. However, even if children in this country are standing on the same starting line, that line is far back from other industrialized nations’ when it comes to geography education.

In the United Kingdom (the Western European island containing Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England), geography is a mandatory subject for all schoolchildren. In Australia, the country located in the Indian Ocean to the southwest of the United States, intercultural understanding is built into the primary school curriculum, and geography has its place in the secondary school curriculum. In the United States, 30-percent of 18-24 year-olds surveyed in 2006 believed their country’s population to be approximately five times its actual size.

How many of us in North America can locate Afghanistan on a map? How many of us know where we send soldiers when we vote in favor of war?

Even beyond the undergraduate level, many people in this country publically exhibit geographic apathy. The business department here once displayed (for weeks) a world map that was—in all seriousness — missing the Middle East. We may laugh in embarrassment over such “insignificant gaps,” but the world is laughing too—in scorn.

What is the so-called “price” of geographic ignorance? What is the expense of mistaking a country for a company? Of building a map with a hole in Asia? The cost of all ignorance is misunderstanding. We cannot know terrorism is not a country to wage war upon until we have looked on a map and found it missing. We cannot care about epidemics (until they are on our doorstep) unless we know whom they first afflicted. If we wait until disease stands on our threshold, we will find it has already knocked the door down. I cannot predict when we will pay the price for our apathy; I only hope it’s not before we’ve learned to locate our accusers on a map.

If we refuse to care what the rest of the world thinks, it will assuredly cease to care what we think. We have easy access to geographical data, courtesy of uncounted years of painstaking research, and yet we seem as averse to including it in our curriculums as North Korea (east of China) is.

If you struggle with geography like many North Americans, know that North Korea is infamously repressive of what knowledge is available to its citizens. Their geographic illiteracy is not by choice.

A 2002 Roper poll of nine industrialized nations ranked North American countries among the least geographically literate. Unlike North Korea’s citizens, North American’s have access to geographic knowledge — many of us simply ignore it. Ignorance, after all, is bliss.

Who cares that Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are suffering an Ebola epidemic? Who cares that the Arabian Sea’s fishing industry is under threat from changing temperatures? Who cares that the Pacific Islands may sink below the waters within the next century? Only those who know where they are. If we don’t start to count ourselves among them, who will care when we are suffering an epidemic, or losing our livelihoods, or watching North America (located between the Arctic Circle and South America) sink into the sea?