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Get Your Geography Right!

Is geographic knowledge in the United States really that bad?

November 17, 2000

Is geographic knowledge in the United States really that bad?

It is certainly not news that the state of geographical knowledge in the United States is rather poor. U.S. high school students often score poorly in relation to European and Asian students on international geography exams — and one of the U.S. presidential candidates found himself tripped up by geography more than a few times on the campaign trail.

All of this feeds a European notion that Americans are geographical dunces. Such petty prejudices are unfortunately reinforced by the sometimes comical geographical lapses we encounter every day. For instance, riding on the Washington, D.C., subway, we recently overheard a conversation between two Americans, one of whom had evidently just returned to Washington from Indonesia.

The first man had just expressed his appreciation of the other man’s shoes, a rather unusual kind of slip-on sandal, and asked where he had bought them. “In Jakarta,” the other man said. “Oh, really,” said the first man, “what street is that on?”

In Washington, a city that prides itself on its global importance, such blunders are clearly embarrassing. Luckily, the geographically challenged can always appeal to any number of easily accessible information resources to get out of a jam. Say, for instance, you were trying to place a phone call, as we recently did, to Eastern Europe. We appealed to AT&T’s international information operator for help.

Asking the operator to find a number in the Czech Republic, we were asked if we could spell out the name of the country. Fair enough, we thought, English has only two words — “czar” and “Czech” — that start with the letters “c” and “z.” (And those don’t really have the ring of real English words.) But we abandoned all hope of making our call when the operator, determined to be helpful, asked us where in the United States this place was supposed to be!

Yes, these are the kinds of everyday lapses that have created the perception that Americans are failing geography. Still, based on other anecdotal evidence we’ve collected, Europeans may have a false sense of geographical superiority. Case in point, a Frenchman living in Singapore who, upon returning to Paris to visit relatives, had to take care of some affairs at a city agency.

When asked his place of residence a bureaucrat in the office, he replied “Singapore” — which, when pronounced quickly in French, can sound something like “Saint Gapour.” No Michelin guidebook will help you find Saint Gapour in France. But that simple fact did not give pause to the bureaucrat, who determinedly asked which arrondissement, or district, Saint Gapour was located in.

Evidently, Singapore — founded as a British colony in the early 1800s and an independent state for the past 35 years — causes problems for Germans, too.

Not long ago, Germany’s International Recruitment Services, a federal agency that helps citizens find jobs abroad, sent a letter from Germany addressed to Singapore, Malaysia.

Admittedly, Singapore is a small speck on the map, a few tiny islands at the tip of Malaysia. True, too, that from 1963 until its independence two years later, Singapore was indeed part of Malaysia. Still, it is a rather embarrassing oversight for this agency — whose function, after all, is to find jobs for people in countries all around the world — to have overlooked Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.

Singapore’s former ruler, Great Britain, has endured similar instances of geographical ineptitude. Surveys taken by the Colonial Office in the 1950s showed that at least 3% of the British still believed the United States were part of the British Empire — some 180 years after the American Revolution. Never underestimate the power of denial.

So it would appear that Americans are not alone in not knowing their way around a map. Anyway, as an American friend likes to point out: “The only difference, perhaps, between Americans and the Europeans is that I have never heard of Americans criticizing Europeans for their lack of geographical knowledge.” Hopefully this is not because Americans don’t know where Europe is — or what Europeans are!

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