American geographic literacy remains problematic

By Sahana Jayaraman

Jesuit News (Portland, Oregon)

In 2002, National Geographic conducted a study measuring geographic literacy rates in young adult populations worldwide, polling more than 3,000 18-to-24-year-olds in 9 different countries: Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States (National Geographic).

While the U.S. didn’t come in last place, it wasn’t far from it–with only 17% of American young adults displaying the ability to locate Afghanistan on a map, the United States has earned its label as a geographically illiterate nation (National Geographic).

A second study of a similar nature, conducted in 2016, didn’t yielded much more promising results- 90% of the American youth surveyed incorrectly identified China as the U.S.’ largest trading partner (National Geographic).

“The vast majority of [the kids I teach] don’t really have a sense of geography,” International studies teacher Mr. Mark Flamoe said. “They claim they’ve never really learned it or been exposed to it.”

Nor are young people the only ones guilty of geographical slip-ups–current American President Donald J. Trump was criticized for referring to Southwest African nation Namibia as ‘Nambia’ several times in a recent address to the United Nations (CNN).

So why do the citizens of one of the most globally influential countries have so much trouble with geography?

The answer may lay in the American educational system, according to senior Julius Correl.

“I think [the geographic literacy rate] is very reflective of the general attitude of American social studies and [historical] education,” Correl said. “We learn a lot about the revolutionary war and the war of 1812…in social studies if we ever go to countries beyond the United States, it’s often to Europe and mostly Western Europe. I think the rest of the world has been looked at as kind of secondary, when it comes to the importance of [geographic] knowledge.”

While the majority of the U.S.’s geographic literacy problem may indeed be a product of curricula lacking diversity, Mr. Flamoe believes the way those curricula are taught contributes to the issue.

“We either don’t teach [geography], or we teach it as rote memorization,” Mr. Flamoe said. “In order for geography to matter and stick, it needs context. Kids need to know what’s going on in places. In my international studies class, we do headlines around the world so that kids are aware of what’s happening [around the world].”

Remedying the seeming dearth of geographic savvy may not seem like particularly pressing task, but increasing geopolitical education may be the key in opening the door to a more globally informed national attitude–and consequently, better international relations.

“I think that [geographic] illiteracy, a product of our education system, engenders a sort of disregard for the geopolitical interactions around the world,” Correl said. “not knowing where countries are or what their relations are to the nation’s around them makes them a lot easier to dismiss them and think of them as away from where we are.

However, in the end, adding diversity and context to geographic education will only change the U.S’s geographical paradigm so much.

“I think American illiteracy of geography is more a function of how we view ourselves as a country,” Mr. Flamoe said. “I think we feel less compelled to find out exactly where these countries are because we think they influence us less. I’m not sure it’s so much a function as how we teach it, as it is our geopolitical power and isolation in the world.”

Photo Credit: Jesuit News

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