July 12, 2012
Geography: from Greek “geographia,” lit. “to describe or write about the Earth.”
It happened sometime during my junior year at college in San Diego. I was studying at the library for a midterm when a handsome boy (a business major in his senior year) whom I’d seen around campus, asked if he could sit at my table. Of course, I said “yes” and soon we began a flirtatious banter in hushed tones.
I don’t remember much of what we said, but I do remember him asking me what I was studying. “History of Latin America,” was my response.
“Oh, yeah, Latin America. That’s where there’s Brazil, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia…” he started to recite a mash-up of countries spanning three continents. When he was finished, he leaned back in his chair, his arms folded across his chest. He seemed so pleased with himself. I, on the other hand, sat frozen in my seat, speechless. Suddenly, he was no longer the boy I’d thought as handsome. His blatant ignorance of what I’d assumed was a given, or even more so, expected, of not just a fourth year university student but a high school graduate was embarrassing. How could this be?
Not knowing and yet thinking you’re right is a sad commentary on how many people go on about their lives these days. Nowadays, it seems that geographic mistakes and willful ignorance is the cool thing to do. Check out this video of some fellow citizens stopped randomly on streets on American cities if you want to see and hear this for yourself.
These geographic faux pas are even trickling down from the top. We can’t escape the slipups by our politicians who misname countries or mispronouncing them or can’t seem to distinguish one nation from another. The filmmaker Michael Moore had a point when he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that we shouldn’t go to a war with a country if we don’t know where it is on the map. Just take a look at some of the gaffes made by our geographically-impaired elected officials on this link and you’ll be shaking your head in disbelief.
My fascination with geography, knowing the capitals of the countries and where to find them on the globe or a map, the different languages, cultures, and topography has been with me since an early age. I remember studying geography at elementary school in Iran. We not only studied the geography of Iran but also of the world. My tuition in geography continued through high school in England. I so loved drawing and tracing maps that when I ran out of tracing paper, I– along with fellow classmates–would resort to using the standard utilitarian transparent toilet paper as a substitute.
But today, here in the US, geography has become the stepchild of social studies and history curriculum and in many cases ignored altogether. Geography acts as a pointer in man’s life and should be taken seriously and not ignored. The results of a 2006 poll taken by the National Geographic Society showed the following: “62% of US citizens were unable to locate Iraq on a map, 75% were unable to locate Israel and 24% couldn’t find the Indian subcontinent. They didn’t fare so well when asked about their own country. Nearly half of the Americans polled didn’t know where Mississippi was.” My brother remembers a classmate in a World History class in his senior year at a public high school in West Los Angeles who pointed at the European continent when asked by the teacher to locate USA on the map. Mind you, the word EUROPE was printed in bold across the countries of the region.
Geographic ignorance isn’t simply about not knowing where a specific country is on a map but also understanding why the borders are where they are, the placement or displacement of different cultures and people, language, religions, political ideologies. It’s not just about where but why there.
A curriculum that includes geography enriches the individual’s overall understanding of contemporary events and global environmental concerns. Geography is about the earth and the more we know the better equipped and inspired we are to care about the planet and one another.
Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI, Inc.