Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Geographically Retarded (Part I)

This is the first of a two-part article being published this week

I've been living in the United States for a few years now, and I've traveled through many parts of this country. In my travels, I've been consistently amazed at the level of geographic ignorance I see. I've met people from the north side of Chicago who've never even been to the south side of Chicago, or New Yorkers from the Bronx who've never even been to Queens.

As a Canadian, the questions I've gotten are sometimes comical. Someone asks me where I'm from, and I tell them "Canada", and then the questions start. Here are some gems I've been asked over the years:
  • Wow, you came here all the way from Canada! [this question in Chicago, just a 5 hour drive from the Canadian border]
  • What time is it up there in Canada? [Canada is a huge country that spans 6 timezones]
  • Did you grow up in an igloo? [NO!]
  • Do you take a dogsled to work? [HELL NO!]
  • Hey, I know a guy who lives in Canada, his name is Fred and he lives in this place called Vancouver, do you know him? [I'm from Toronto... Vancouver is a 4.5 hour plane ride away, so NO!]
  • Canada's not really a different country, is it? [I should remember to ask the customs guys this question the next time I'm on my way to visit my parents...]

The sad thing is, these were honest questions, asked by real Americans, about their neighbor to their immediate north. When you look at countries further away, the ignorance gets even worse.

Three years ago, National Geographic Magazine commissioned the Roper Geographic Survey, which studied the relative level of geographic knowledge of young Americans versus other countries. Some interesting tidbits:

  • A third of Americans grossly overestimated the US population as being 1 to 2 billion (a third of the world's population) - almost ten times the actual population.
  • Less than half of Americans could identify the Pacific Ocean on a map (yes, that big blue thing on the left side of the US map!)
  • Just 58% percent of Americans knew that Afghanistan was where the Taliban was from, despite the fact that American troops were in the process of invading Afghanistan when this survey was done in 2002. Likewise, only 17% of Americans could pick out Afghanistan on a map.

The US school systems are failing America's youth by not doing a good job of teaching geography. Most students spend their time in the classroom looking not at a globe, not at a map of the world, but at a map of the 48 contingous American states. They may become experts at picking out Boise, Idaho on a map, but they don't learn much beyond their own borders.

America's geographical ignorance has cost some American companies in the business world. For instance, last year, the Guardian Newspaper in the UK published an article about how geographic ignorance has cost Microsoft Corporation hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few years in several blunders.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that geographic ignorance often translates into stereotypes and misconceptions about other cultures that impair America's foreign relations and foster animosity of foreigners towards Americans. But, I will save that whole discussion for Part II of this post, which I'll publish later this week.

Don't get me wrong, I have met plenty of smart Americans who are extremely savvy in terms of world affairs. However, these Americans usually develop these skills despite their educational background, and not because of it.

In summary, America's youth are being failed by their school system. Instead of being adequately prepared to play a leading role on the stage of world business, American youth are being turned into geographically retarded automatons who are incapable of critically analyzing world events and being able to correctly assess culpability in foreign conflicts. If America wants to continue to play a leading role in world affairs, this basic weakness needs to be fixed.