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Don’t know much about geography: Why Americans need a crash course on the forgotten subject

December 4, 2015

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As the one of the richest and most powerful countries, I believe the United States has a responsibility to use its wealth and influence to better the world.  We, as Americans, like to think that we always know what’s best, but the reality is that our nation, by virtue of its bossiness, often displays ignorance instead.  A key problem is that our citizens choose to insulate ourselves and refuse to learn about others.

This fact poses a huge problem: how is our nation supposed to uphold its responsibilities when we know so little about the rest of the world? Furthermore, even if you don’t agree about our responsibility to others, I think most will join me in my conviction that to remain a world power, Americans need to understand how and where others live. That means, we need to know geography as much as we know reading and writing.

Compared to people of other countries, Americans tend to be more ignorant of, and even uninterested in, other cultures.  This behavior is demonstrated by the fact that only 36% of Americans own passports, as opposed to 70% of Brits and Australians.  Most Americans aren’t traveling to other countries in order to learn about them.  They are not taking the initiative to learn about other cultures in schools, either.

According to distinguished scholar in residence at Georgetown University and former president of Goucher College in an article for Inside Higher Ed,  Sanford J. Ungar, “Whether motivated by exceptionalism, isolationism, triumphalism or sheer indifference — probably some of each over time — the United States has somehow failed to equip a significant percentage of its citizenry with the basic information necessary to follow international events.”

Contributing to this failure is our education system.

In a technology-centered world, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects are taking over school curricula in order to prepare children for careers using science and math.

Other subjects, however, are being compromised by this STEM revolution, including social studies and world language.  At LHS, where we have more than 15 choices for social studies education, that compromise should not be true; however, in all of those choices, where is geography?

“Americans of all ages have long scored lower than citizens of other countries on geography and current events awareness quizzes and shown a stunning inability even to locate major countries on the map, let alone develop an appreciation for their cultures or their roles in global affairs,” claims Ungar.

American students are testing lower in geography as geography and foreign language classes become less emphasized and available to them.

Only 17 states require students in the U.S. to take a geography course in middle school; while only 10 require a geography course for high school graduation.  Other states encourage social studies teachers to incorporate geography into other classes, but the reality is that teachers don’t have the time, resources, or often the interest in squeezing basic geography lessons into their courses.

Michelle Richardson teaches AP World History and Government.  She says,  “Kids have never even heard of some of the countries we go over, but there isn’t even an option for a geography course in our school to help them.  They have some geography education in elementary school, but it’s very minimal.  I try to incorporate geography into my classes as much as I can, but it can be difficult when there’s so much for them to learn.”

FCPS does have a .5 course in geography in the catalog, and Linganore is one of the few schools to offer AP Human Geography.  Nationally, AP Human Geography is growing, but the overall participation is still much lower than other AP courses. The national scores on that exam show that as many as 50% of the test takers are not prepared for the exam.  Also, physical geography is only a portion of the class.  This means that even our best students who have been exposed to geography need more education in the subject.  What about everyone else?

The reality is that teachers don’t have the time, resources, or often the interest in squeezing basic geography lessons into their courses.”

The requirements for student to take foreign languages are also decreasing, as is enrollment in foreign language in American universities.  Whether students just don’t care or expect the rest of the world to learn English, becoming bilingual isn’t a priority for many Americans, an irony when we live in such a globalized world.

Thousands of years ago, the great philosopher Aristotle said, “Our children hold our future in their hands.”  This message still holds true today.  The children being deprived of the education they need to thrive in today’s world and to lead America into the future will be the politicians, journalists, businessmen, teachers, and voters of tomorrow.

“If kids want to work in the government, or even business work with other countries, they need to understand other cultures and be respectful of different beliefs, said Richardson.  “This will help them respond to different situations and interact successfully with people of other countries.”

According to Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff of The Washington Post, “Information, or the absence thereof, can influence Americans’ attitudes about the kind of policies they want their government to carry out and the ability of elites to shape that agenda.”

Americans’ overall lack of knowledge of other countries, cultures, and languages causes their efforts to handle international affairs to be largely ineffective.

“It makes every specific overseas problem virtually impossible for us to deal with confidently or competently,” Ungar explains.

The Washington Post conducted a survey in 2014 to determine if Americans could correctly locate Ukraine on a world map.  Despite the fact that the conflicts in Ukraine had been aired regularly on the news, most participants were unable to locate the country or the region.

As explained by Dropp, Kertzer, and Zeitzoff, “We found that only one out of six Americans can find Ukraine on a map, and that this lack of knowledge is related to preferences: The farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S to intervene with military force.”

What’s even more frightening is that average Americans aren’t the only ones lacking world knowledge.

Another article in The Washington Post about the crisis surrounding Syria, shows the results of a game played by employees in the Pentagon where players are asked to locate Damascus, Syria’s capital.  

Ezra Klein writes, “You’d expect folks in the U.S. Department of Defense to know the location of the place they’re probably about to bomb, but only 57 percent of the answers we got from inside the DoD were right.”

These results prove that education on geography and world affairs is essential to the well-being of America and the world.  If our nation’s educators would pay attention to these astounding facts and realize that learning about the world is just as important as the reading, math, and science subjects measured on standardized tests, Americans might be able to make more informed decisions when it comes to international affairs and use our nation’s power to benefit others.

People fear what they don’t understand, but Americans have no excuse to be afraid anymore.  It’s time to take responsibility and prepare the next generation for the globalized world they’re inevitably going to face.

What is your geography IQ?  Test your geography knowledge against the average 5th grade student and watch as Lancer Media conducts its own geography test.


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