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Geographic Literacy

San Francisco skyline at sunset
Photo caption
It's a test: recognize this skyline? Hint: That pointy building is the Transamerica Pyramid.


All of us, if awakened in the middle of the night, can find our way from the bed to the bathroom. In the dark. It's a start. Out of the wide world we carve our own worlds and know them almost instinctively. We are masters of an intimate geography of floor plans, daily commutes, shortcuts, scenic drives, back alleys, paper routes stretching back to childhood. We would be lost and poor without it. But now we can be lost and impoverished with it. No longer is it enough to know one's individual piece of Earth, one's place, because today all places are lavishly linked. On an average day we may put on an Italian suit made in Malaysia; find email in English, Hebrew, and Mandarin; order from a Romanian waitress in an Indian restaurant; fill the tank of our Japanese car with gas from Saudi Arabian oil; and then settle down for a quiet evening of televised baseball with players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and South Korea. We can graze a dozen different cultures simply by getting up in the morning. The broader world has engulfed, and enriched, our smaller ones.

This heightened exposure may explain, in an odd way, our general lack of curiosity about the world. It's right here, so why go out and explore it? Only 25 percent of U.S. citizens have passports, a figure which suggests that many of us are world-weary without ever having left home.

We are in fact a nation of immigrants, mostly, or children of immigrants, so a certain amount of detachment is understandable. Only we in the United States declare, with an insistence that's almost touching, that our country is the greatest in the world because it's the only one composed of people from all the others. And while this reiterated sentiment is not very gracious (having the ring of a college football cry), it does in this context make some sense. What doesn't make sense is loudly proclaiming ourselves No. 1 among nations when we know so little about the rest of them. Wouldn't the greatest country be, among other things, the best informed?

Also, the constant brushing up against foreignness—a phenomenon that a century ago happened mainly in large coastal cities—gives us a false sense of worldliness. We eat sushi and dance salsa and practice yoga. How much more cosmopolitan can we be? Well, cosmopolitan enough to be able to name and locate on a map the places from which those three things came. Knowing where a country is located is the first step toward understanding it.

Yet, as has been embarrassingly demonstrated over the last decade, Americans don't possess a very clear picture of the world. The National Geographic–Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey found that given a map of Europe most of the 18-to-24-year-olds queried in the United States were able to identify only three countries. Half of the group could not locate New York State, one of our most populous. A short year after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, only 17 percent of young people could find Afghanistan. Iraq and Iran proved even more elusive. Asia languished in its own thick fog. We've eradicated smallpox, but we haven't taught our children to find Mongolia on a map.

It's not just the young—they take the rap because they take the tests. Geographical howlers are as prevalent in the culture, and as frequently unnoticed, as grammatical mistakes. People consistently confuse Switzerland and Sweden, put into Central America countries that are perfectly at home in South America (and vice versa), go mum when it comes to Africa. A journalist from Zimbabwe, who visited my workplace last year, reported that on the plane from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale he sat next to a woman who informed him there were just two countries in Africa: South Africa and Africa. In the ensuing conversation, he learned that her uncle had been to Namibia. He asked why she had not mentioned that as at least a third African country. "But Namibia," she told him, "is a city in Africa."

The media are not a great help. Many newspapers, to cut costs and play to hometown readers, have closed their foreign bureaus. The glossy travel magazines often seem more interested in restaurants and resorts than in the countries where they're located. My local public radio station, an excellent source for international news, two years ago discontinued its weekend program The Savvy Traveler, replacing it with The Splendid Table. The popular TV show The Amazing Race presents the world not as a riveting place to explore but as an obstacle course to speed through in hopes of winning a small fortune. We've come a long way from the old "It's not the destination but the journey that matters."

The esteemed geographer Harm de Blij used to appear occasionally on morning talk shows, but now you're more likely to see Matt Lauer popping up in some faraway place and getting asked by Katie Couric, as he did in Croatia, "Is everybody named Goran there?" And, like that, a beautiful, poignant country is turned into a studio joke. Garrison Keillor, in an exchange with an audience member on A Prairie Home Companion, confessed, "I know nothing about geography" as unself-consciously as someone saying, "I know nothing about quantum physics." If a command of geography were a job requirement, most of the country would be unemployed.

In his new book Why Geography Matters, de Blij traces the decline of our geographic knowledge to the 1960s. He points his finger at our public educators, who in that fraught decade decided to lump geography, history, and government together under "social studies." De Blij notes that Harvard University has not offered geography to its students for about half a century. Nonetheless, the institution has in those same years educated a host of high-ranking officials, among them Senator Barack Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts.

All politics is local, the saying goes, but that's not true of geography. Wars, both hot and cold, tend to focus each generation's attention on a particular distant region. But as we concentrate on the current obsession (Iraq), future spheres of interest prepare to catch us unawares (China, India, fill in the blank). In the meantime terrorism, climate change, and mass migrations know no national boundaries. We are all in this together, and isolationism—turning away from an interest and expertise in the whole—makes the disruption even greater, the solutions ever harder to reach. Especially when the isolationist is the world's only superpower. The near universal grudge against the United States is surely tied to the strange and alarming fact that as our knowledge of the world has waned, our influence throughout it has grown.

Of course, there are savants in our midst who can name capitals, rivers, and seas the way the rest of us rattle off movie titles. And the Kraków McDonald's and the Maputo Holiday Inn are testament to a small group of Americans armed with a global, utilitarian knowledge.

But for the rest of us, the world we know is the world we've seen. A country like Turkey is a blotch on a map until we go there for vacation and suddenly towns with names like Göreme (where we spend a night in a cave hotel), Ürgüp (an excellent bottle of Cappadocian wine), Fethiye (the wedding party that keeps us up all night) become as familiar as Trenton or Flagstaff. In cosmopolitan Istanbul we understand the arguments in support of Turkey's bid to join the European Union, while in conservative Konya we get an inkling of why some of the union's members oppose it.

This is what's priceless about travel. It allows us to fill in the blanks, put names to faces, make bits and pieces of the wide world, now and forever, part of our own worlds. And through it we gain a better understanding of everything from the front-page news to our next-door neighbors.

Yet no matter how impressive our grasp—especially of the regions where we've lived and traveled—there will always be people who surpass us. They would be the locals. Geography is the field of the unfair advantage.

So we are all, to greater and lesser degrees, geographically illiterate. The world is far too bounteous for us to know it completely. But it's too infinitely fascinating for us not to try.

How well do you know the world?

Young adults in the United States lag badly in knowledge of world geography. Or so says a poll of 18-to-24-year-olds run by the Roper survey for the National Geographic Education Foundation in nine developed nations a few years ago. Americans on average picked the wrong answer more than half the time. Another eye-opener: Our nation had the lowest percentage of young people who had traveled outside the country in the previous three years—21 percent. Here are several of the 56 questions the 3,250 test takers faced. At bottom are the answers, followed by the percentage of U.S. citizens who responded correctly. For a longer quiz, see

1. Which range has the correct population of the United States today?
a. 10 million to 50 million
b. 150 million to 350 million
c. 500 million to 750 million
d. 1 billion to 2 billion

2. Which of the following religions has the largest number of followers worldwide?
a. Christianity
b. Islam
c. Judaism
d. Buddhism
e. Hinduism

3. Can you name four countries that officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons?

4. The Taliban and al Qaeda movements were both based in which country?
a. Iraq
b. Pakistan
c. Israel
d. Albania
e. Afghanistan

5. Which region of the world is the largest exporter of oil?
a. Middle East
b. Southeast Asia
c. Latin America
d. Australia

6. Which two countries in the world have a population of more than 1 billion?

7. Which two countries have had a long-standing conflict over the region of Kashmir?
a. Israel and Egypt
b. India and Pakistan
c. China and Russia
d. Iran and Iraq

8. Periodically, drastic changes in ocean temperature cause weather changes around the world. What is the name of this occurrence?
a. El Niño
b. Tornado
c. Gulf Stream
d. Global warming

Answers (with percentage of U.S. 18-to-24-year-olds who responded correctly): 1. b. 150 million to 350 million (25%). 2. a. Christianity (62%).3. United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan (58%, lowest among countries surveyed). 4. e. Afghanistan (19%).5. a. Middle East (81%). 6. China and India (25%). 7. b. India and Pakistan (36%). 8. a. El Niño (48%).

The Known World: Making Maps from Memory
By Robin Clements

Geography was at one time a mainstay of American education. "What are the three principal products of German Southwest Africa?" 19th-century textbooks asked. Students were also obliged to draw elaborate maps from memory. Though the old books wouldn't work in today's classrooms, hand-drawn maps have made a minor comeback, resurrected in the 1970s by David Smith at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Mass.

Their essence is simple. Each student takes a large piece of paper and, after weeks of training, makes a map of a country, a continent, or the world.

Of course, my 14-year-old students aren't used to recalling shapes or noting latitude and longitude. Their early efforts show all the awkwardness of first outings on skis or skates. After a while, though, they start correcting me as I draw: "Sicily isn't that shape!" "Libya goes much farther north!"

Then comes the day when the students close their atlases and spin right out of their memories beautiful, accurate maps, with Romania nestled on the Black Sea and the Gulf of Sidra dipping gracefully down to 30° N. Sea serpents pop up in the Atlantic, beer steins overflow in Bavaria, and a compass rose becomes a skateboard—these are eighth graders, after all.

It's as if each student builds a large mental dresser with a hundred drawers, all labeled. When they read one year later in ninth-grade history that Germanic warriors in the 4th century swept across the Rhine and Danube rivers, or that Iran and Iraq fought a long and bitter war, they just pop each fact in its drawer, where it remains until the day it's needed.

My students gradually forget the latitude and longitude of Prague (50° N, 14° E), but they enter high school with a sense of where the Czech Republic is, what it looks like, and which nations it touches. On they go, with a widening view of the world as a place within reach.

Photography by Robert Holmes/CalTour


This article was first published in May 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.