Why U.S. students flunk geography

By Samuel Blumenfeld

When I was a kid I loved geography. I knew the capitals of all the countries. I collected maps and dreamt about faraway places. I knew the hexagonal shape of France, the Italian boot, the shape of Australia. The world was a fascinating place.

We didn’t have TV or the Internet. All we had were newspapers, magazines, school atlases, maps from gas stations. We also had movies. In those days movies were about great heroes, historical events, adventure and exploration. “Oil for the Lamps of China,” “The Good Earth,” “Flying Down to Rio,” “Mutiny on the Bounty” and other entertaining films transported us to far off countries and back into history.

Today’s American students have television, the Internet, videos, travel books, magazines, atlases, CD roms, and yet they seem to have a kind of cognitive block against learning geographic facts. It’s as if their minds are closed to that sort of information. Whereas we found great pleasure in learning geography, today’s youths find it a dull chore.

A recent National Geographic survey found that only one in seven Americans aged between 18 and 24 could find Iraq or Iran on a map. While 58 percent knew about Afghanistan, only 17 percent could find it on a world map.

When asked to find 10 specific states on a map of the U.S., 89 percent could locate California and Texas, but only 51 percent could find New York. On a world map, Americans could only find seven of 16 countries in the quiz. Eleven percent couldn’t even find the U.S. on the map, and 29 percent couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean.

The cause of this kind of ignorance can only be attributed to the public schools where geography has been relegated to a minor corner in the greater category of social studies. When I was in school in the 1930s and ’40s, geography was a full-fledged subject, studied systematically, continent by continent, country by country, with roll-down maps above the blackboard.

Back in 1970, when I was a substitute teacher in a middle school, I decided to teach the class about Southern Africa. There was a good roll-down map of the continent and I used a pointer and spoke about each country in the region – South Africa, Southwest Africa, Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola – and showed their relationships and political problems. The class was absolutely mesmerized.

I myself was quite pleasantly surprised by the class’s total attention. I attributed their interest to the fact that I was very much interested in what was going on in Southern Africa during the cold war, and thus my interest stimulated their interest. Apparently, their regular teacher had no such interest and thus was unable to convey any enthusiasm for the subject.

I imagine that one of the reasons why American students have acquired this cognitive block to geography is because their teachers have it. When geography is scrambled in the mishmash of social studies, it is no longer a coherent subject of study. It has become too fragmented to be interesting or even comprehensible.

Today, when a country is studied in the context of social studies, the emphasis is on simple national customs and characteristics. Thus, when you study Greece you will learn about shish-kebab and Greek folk dances. Spain is the land of bullfights and paella. Mexico is the land of the Aztecs, sombreros, and tortillas. Egypt is the land of mummies. What you get is geography-lite.

Is geography important enough to be studied seriously as a separate subject? I believe it is. We live in a geopolitical world where we are subject to attack from many quarters. It’s hard to believe that the people who went to work in the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, would have their lives snuffed out by cave-dwelling terrorists living in a remote, backward country some 10,000 miles away. The plan to kill them was hatched by Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan known to some people in our government but virtually unknown to the American people.

We wonder how many FBI agents knew anything about Afghanistan, since during the Clinton administration their attention was on American “right-wing extremists.” And even now, with so much attention focussed on that remote Asian country, only 17 percent of American students could find it on a map. Yet, American servicemen are presently fighting there.

Until the schools get back to studying geography as a subject worthy of serious attention, we shall continue to be a culturally backward country, self-blinded by the politically correct agenda of our progressive educators.