I heard an NPR report that 83% of Americans 18-24 cannot find Afghanistan on a map. Following it up on their website, I found a link to the National Geographic survey they used.

Of course, what the report neglected to mention is that nobody had a good rate at finding Afghanistan. The only country where a majority of respondents could identify it was Germany, and they only made 55%. In fact, many people think Sweden’s pretty obscure (although Swedes scored 97%). Across the board, more people could locate Argentina than Sweden or Afghanistan.

It’s all in what you’re looking for. National Geographic was looking to see how well American youth stacked up against those in other countries, and most of us aren’t doing that well. But the fact is, they aren’t doing much better. (NG’s summary page notes that Mexico, Canada, and Great Britain scored almost as poorly.) What the results really show is that people everywhere have an astounding lack of geographical knowledge.

(Still wondering about the 3% of Swedes who couldn’t find Sweden.)

14 thoughts on “Geographical Knowledge (Vacuum)

  1. That and geography is an extremely low curricular priority, which isn’t surprising, given that teaching geography doesn’t really impart skills that are widely applicable in our society, whereas English, History, Math, and the Sciences do. Especially English.

  2. I stole it from somewhere once and I’ll steal it again:

    “God invented WAR to teach Americans geography.”

    Dan, you might have an acceptable arguement on cirriculum importance if America were some third world nation where students were unlikely to come into contact with another nation in their working lives, much less travel to it. However, in this country we do alot of business overseas. Even if you work in the mail room, you’d better know that the London office is in England, or that a document set going to Bangor, Maine does not go through international mail.

    While you may be trying to prioritize given the amount of time, and woeful background of students, geography is usually the second-best give away of ignorance. I’ll grant you that English should probably come first as questions like “Is Japan bigger than China or are they about the same” probably wouldn’t embarrass anyone if they weren’t spoken in a common language.

    However other subjects, such as math, and higher sciences, I would say are a little less everyday in business (business, not engineering, so everyone calm down) than basic geography. So since most cube rats work in business, why take out the stress on states and capitals, countries and rivers in the second through fourth grades?

    On another note, why are news articles always enraged that Americans can’t point out the country we’re currently at war with or are our allies, but very rarely in peacetime do we have embarrassing articles like:

    “National Geographic tells frightened 4th grade students, Yes, Canada really is a separate country…”


    Actually, this article was better than most. Especially last month’s article in Newsweek or was it CNN? Students and adults can’t find Iraq. Now if we could just get those people in the military…

  3. In defense of Swedes, NG was very cruel and did some wacky numbering system so you can hardly tell which country has what number (Norway, Sweden, and Finland are all really close). I noticed with Japan, they had pointers.

  4. Actually, my argument was not that knowledge of geography is unimportant in our lives, but rather that instruction in geography does not impart *skills* especially applicable in our society. Knowledge is not a skill. Knowledge is vital, but cognitive skills are moreso, and our educational priorities tend toward knowledge pertaining to those skills more difficult to acquire without expert assistance.

    Anyone with basic reading comprehension skills can independently acquire geographic knowledge. Further, visual intelligence is (in normal humans) the easiest intelligence to develop, and because (normal) Americans are required to participate in navigational activities quite regularly from an early age, thereby acquiring the few elementary skills inherent in Geography, a whole semester or quarter devoted to imparting those particular skills would be unwarranted and largely wasted.

    Perhaps I should be clearer about the kinds of skills I’m referring to. When conducted properly, an English class enables students to more effectively and creatively manipulate the language they transmit and more thoroughly examine the language they receive. This enhances their ability to learn all other subjects, conduct independent research, think critically about language they encounter, and articulate their own ideas more clearly. Research also suggests that improved linguistic skills enhance one’s general ability to think abstractly.

    When math is taught correctly, it improves students’ ability to reason logically and problem solve (this refers not only to mathematic problems but also to many real life conflicts wherein individuals must identify the nature of a problem they encounter, consider relevant variables (or forces acting on the situation) and determine a reasonable course of action.

    When a competent teacher instructs students in the higher sciences, the students come to better understand the relationships between the things around them and internalize the scientific method, improving their ability to go beyond speculating–not just about science, but any topic of interest–to systematically form and check hypotheses. Thus, students are better equipped to analyze and improve or interact with the systems and processes they encounter both in nature and society.

    It helps to know that London is in England, too, but a talented mind can acquire knowledge much more easily than a knowledgeable mind can acquire talent. Since we *can* profoundly influence the extent to which any mind develops its potential talents, I maintain that English, Math and Science come first.

  5. It was noted in the local paper (SD Union-Tribune) that public schools (and teachers) have been encouraged to focus on basic math and literacy skills in preparation for standardized tests, and that the emphasis on standardized tests dissuades most teachers from using history, geography, and science as means of instruction in either of the favored subjects. That, and the fact that, for the most part, most teachers are not the best and brightest of the universities and colleges anyhow (though there are still a fair number amongst teachers who could be counted as such).

  6. The standardized testing movement can be traced back to 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik and a bunch of conservative politicians exploited public concern–blaming our schools for not producing scientists sufficiently well educated to get us into space first–in order to push forward policies reflecting their educational agenda, which only undermined the quality of public school education.

    Long story short: extremely effective right wing propaganda since then has eroded the general public’s confidence in public education (although it’s interesting to note that national Gallup polls have consistently shown for years that while most people think the state of public education in America is abysmal as a whole, most people also think quite highly of the particular public schools their children attend).

    Those who advocate standardized tests mean well. The tests are intended to monitor the quality of education and hold teachers and students accountable for their academic performance. High stakes (such as college admissions, school funding, high school graduation, etc.) are attached to test scores as incentive. The problem is that the tests are inadequate measures of achievement. It’s an excellent idea to hold teachers and students accountable for their performance, but these tests hold them accountable for the wrong things. This is not the work of teachers but of naive politicians who understand neither pedagogy nor principles of scientific measurement.

    As to the collective intelligence of public school teachers. . . . Look at it this way: Confidence in public schools erodes. Teachers take the heat. The job’s a strain to begin with, and for many, this is too much. The pay is insulting, while the job is exhausting and generally thankless. Many who stay in the profession become worn out and less effective. Many more leave. Turnover is significant. Less than 50% of new teachers remain teachers more than a few years. As a result, the vast majority of our teachers are either novices or burned out veterans who’ve held on longer than they should. A lot of the novices have potential, and many are actually fairly good, but given the statistics, it’s hard to find mentors, and these guys aren’t likely to stick around long enough to gain the experience they need to become exceptionally good on their own. Distrust of teachers becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Meanwhile, bad press for teachers gives children a measure of license to slack off and behave disruptively in class, making the job that much harder, and when the children’s grades suffer as a result, the teachers take the blame.

    It all comes back to blaming teachers by default. The more we do it, the worse things get.

  7. How badly are teachers underpaid? I live in a fairly affluent part of Pennsylvania, and I’ve heard that the average teacher’s salary in this state is somewhere around $55K annually. That’s not fabulous, but it’s certainly well above the poverty level.

    I fully support paying teachers more, as they have one of the most important jobs in our society. If doubling my property taxes meant we could double teacher salaries, I’d happily pay it. I think that if we can make the position so desirable that people have to compete to get it, instead of having school districts beg and plead for teachers, then we’d see some quality teaching. However, I would like to make sure we have the facts straight — can anyone confirm that average teacher salaries really are “insulting”?

  8. Really? I thought the unimportance of Geography was because the American government just treats the rest of the world as it’s toilet.

    PS: English teachers get paid far, far worse.

  9. Surveys over many years (throughout the 80’s and ’90s) have shown that American kids have a severe lack of geographic knowledge.

    In a recent survey 80% of high schoolers couldn’t name the worlds largest democracy, and 25% couldn’t name the Ocean between the US and Asia.

    What makes this all the more concerning today is 1) the world is becoming such a small place, with travel and technology connecting us to people all over the world 2) US companies now operate in nearly all countries of the world, so our children will have jobs that almost certainly will have an international aspect 3) the US is the worlds sole superpower and as such plays global policeman.
    With all this in place we very much need to improve the geographic knowledge of our kids.

    We’re doing our little bit by making world maps available at http://www.mapkids.org [Editor’s note: changed link to the top page of the site]

  10. Geography encompasses a great deal more than identifying countries or rivers on maps. The field is broad and includes areas such as obtaining and rectifying satellite imagery, community and transportation planning, and research in many different areas. Perhaps the problem is not that teachers do not have time or that schools do not have resources, but that the general public views geography as useless knowledge. In reality, geography crosses into many fields and its disciplines can be valuable in many different occupations. Then again, as a researcher in transportation geography, I may be a bit biased.

  11. is there really such an equation called:3×2(9yz)4a,if so can one truly hope to feel the speed force by using this formula?i would like to know this,also how would i use this in general practice? do i keep recieting it over and over,do i yell it out loud or silently say it to myself?please send me a reply via e-mail at:[Ed: removed to protect you from spam] thank you so very much.

  12. Nah, there’s nothing special about the formula. It’s just a plot gimmick that the writers of the early Johnny Quick stories came up with. Just like the speed force is a gimmick that Mark Waid came up with to tie together the origins of the various Flashes.

    Sorry about the disappearing comments. You re-posted so many times, so quickly, that the spam filter kicked in and hid them. Hmm, maybe you’ve got super-speed already! 😉

    (P.S. I removed your email address from the comment that I pulled out of moderation. As the site owner I can see the one from the form field, but anyone can see the one you put in the comment itself—including spammers, who have programs that crawl across the web and pick up new addresses for their mailing lists.)

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