Geographic Illiteracy


Over a decade ago, National Geographic organised a global survey to measure the developed world’s geographic literacy.[1]

On average, fewer than 25 percent of young people worldwide could locate Israel on the map. Only about 20 percent could identify international news hotspots like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

‘Geographically Illiterate: Someone who sucks at geography.’ – Urban Dictionary

More recent research shows no improvement. When the Russian Federation invaded the Ukraine in 2014, the Washington Post conducted a survey which showed that only 16% of Americans was able to locate the Black Sea nation on a map.[2]

More importantly, it was found that this lack of geographic knowledge is related to preferences and decision-making: namely, the farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene with military force.

Whatever your views on this political squabble, the following conclusion is inevitable: whether people are in possession of a certain geographic fact determines their opinion in a certain way.

As for geography, knowledge of the location of places and the physical and cultural characteristics of those places are a requirement to function more effectively in an increasingly interdependent world.

On top of that, knowledge of the geography of past times and how geography has played an important role in the evolution of a society, their ideas, and its environment are not only prerequisites for historical knowledge, but also necessary for making sound decisions in the present.[3]

“If geography is prose, maps are iconography.” – Lennart Meri

These findings only underline the importance of teaching Geography. However, as always with formal education, it does not tell the whole story: besides teaching Geography as a core subject on the national curriculum, National Geographic researchers found that geographic knowledge also increases through travel and language proficiency.

In the highest-scoring countries of the National Geographic Survey (Sweden, Germany and Italy) at least 70 percent of the young adults had travelled internationally in the last three years, and the majority spoke more than one language (at the time, no less than 92 percent of young people in Sweden).

In the U.S. and Mexico only about 20 percent of young people had travelled abroad during the same period and the majority spoke only one language.

“All I ever wanted was a world without maps.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

‘Our daily lives are interwoven with geography. Each of us lives in a unique place and in constant interaction with our surroundings. Geographic knowledge and skills are essential for us to understand the activities and patterns of our lives and the lives of others. We move from place to place, aided by transportation and navigation systems. We communicate using global networks of computers and satellites. We strive to live in healthy physical and social environments. We work to avoid the negative consequences of exposure to natural and technological hazards. We search for interesting destinations and vacations. We observe and learn about our own culture and other cultures around the world. We want to lead satisfying lives and contribute to the welfare of our communities. Geographic knowledge and understanding is fundamental to reaching our goals, and in attaining a higher quality of life.’
Why Geography Is Important (2005), Grosvenor Centre of Education


[1] The National Geographic–Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey polled more than 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States.
According to Robert Pastor, professor of International Relations at American University, in Washington, D.C., “The survey demonstrates the geographic illiteracy of the United States.”
About 11 percent of young citizens of the U.S. couldn’t even locate the U.S. on a map. The Pacific Ocean’s location was a mystery to 29 percent; Japan, to 58 percent; France, to 65 percent; and the United Kingdom, to 69 percent. Less than 15 percent could locate neither Israel nor Iraq.
“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” – Ambrose Bierce

[2] From March 28 to 31, 2014, The Washington Post asked a national sample of 2,066 Americans what action they wanted the U.S. to take in Ukraine, but with a twist: in addition to measuring standard demographic characteristics and general foreign policy attitudes, they also asked the survey respondents to locate Ukraine on a map as part of a larger, ongoing project to study foreign policy knowledge. The newspaper wanted to see where Americans think Ukraine is and to learn if this knowledge (or lack thereof) is related to their foreign policy views. The survey also found that 5 out of 2,066 Americans thought the Ukraine was located in the U.S. corn belt.

[3] The importance of geographic knowledge is of paramount importance, not only for a better understanding of historical and present geopolitical issues, but also as a scientific measuring device to help humans to make better decisions about the environment. Consider the intellectual poverty of young people who are ignorant of:

  • The basic physical systems that affect everyday life (e.g. earth-sun relationships, water cycles, wind and ocean currents).
  • Relationships between the physical environment and society.
  • How the processes of human and physical systems have arranged and sometimes changed the surface of the Earth – and still do.
  • The fact that the Earth is the homeland of humankind and knowledge of that planet provides insight for wise management decisions about how the planet’s resources should be used.
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6 thoughts on “Geographic Illiteracy

  1. Sir Richard Wharton: It’s too dangerous to let politicians become involved with diplomacy.
    Sir Humphrey Appleby: Diplomacy is about surviving until the next century. Politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon.
    Wharton: There are 157 independent countries in the world. We’ve dealt with them for years. There’s hardly an MP who knows anything about any of them.
    Appleby: Show them a map of the world; most of them have a job finding the Isle of Wight.
    Bernard Woolley: Surely, politicians can’t be that ignorant.
    Wharton: Very well, sit down Bernard. Where is the Upper Volta?
    Appleby: What is the capital of Chad?
    Wharton: What language do they speak in Mali?
    Appleby: Who is the president of Peru?
    Wharton: What is the national religion of Cameroon?
    Woolley: Ehm…
    Appleby: Bernard!
    Woolley: Yes?
    Appleby: You should stand for parliament.

    – Anthony Jay, Jonathan Lynn: Yes Prime Minister (1986-1988)

  2. Whatever your views on this political squabble, the following conclusion is inevitable: whether people are in possession of a certain geographic fact determines their opinion in a certain way.

    I wonder if the converse isn’t true. If their opinion determines which facts, to them, are sufficiently significant to retain, and which are not.

  3. In South Africa we are resigned to having people from other countries thinking that our towns consist of mud huts and that lions and elephants roam down the main street (well, that could be true of some remote bits!).

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