Thursday, January 31, 2013

Geographic Ignorance

I was talking with a friend and fellow teacher the other day and she was sharing how appalled she was at her students' lack of geographic awareness. Can't find Paraguay on a map. Not sure where Normandy is. No clue where the Romans were from. We sort of laughed about it. But our laughter was the hollow sort where you are confronted with something so unbelievable you can either laugh or cry.

C'mon people...the Romans? Ugh. Geographic ignorance is rampant in America.

I'm sort of fascinated by people's lack of geographic awareness. Given how interconnected global events have become, you would think people would be more interested and aware of how geography shapes culture, and politics, and economics, and a host of other aspects of our modern life.

Image courtesy freedo
I think this should put a burden on schools to do a better job of increasing students' global awareness. I know the curriculum is already overstuffed--that's another whole blog post in the making. It surely would take some pruning of the curriculum to make room for teaching more geography, culture studies, and world languages, but I think these are only going to be of increasing importance.

Here's a fun little map quiz for you that I found online today. Just 15 countries for you to find where they belong on the map. My challenge: time yourself and see how long it takes you to figure out which one is which. If you're feeling really brave, comment on this post with your time to match all 15 countries.

What do you think? Am I blowing this out of proportion? Or is this a real shortcoming for 21st Century citizens?


  1. Great reflection! Unfortunately I do not think that you are blowing this out of proportion. I would like to pick on this part of your post: “It surely would take some pruning of the curriculum to make room for teaching more geography, culture studies, and world languages…etc)

    I have recently been introduced to the idea of “organized abandonment” in regards to curriculum - a.k.a. an organized way to completely disregard certain subjects. Teachers should get together and talk about what content is relevant and irrelevant. I currently think that we are guilty of an “add-on” curriculum…How can we create room for more subjects that are important?

    Thought provoking!

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Brian! I like the idea of "organized abandonment." We tend to just keep cramming more things in...but something's gotta give then, right?

  2. Rather than "organized abandonment," maybe there is a need for a total re-thinking about how curriculum is designed. Given the global nature of the issues that face us, the current education by "disciplines" that was set up in the 1890's does not really foster ways to address them. Geography by its very nature is interdisciplinary, as is environmental "studies." I think a redesign that might have curriculum designed around issues, problems, regions, or historic periods would be a more appropriate design.
    Two books that may be a model pattern (not really education books, but illustrate the idea) are "The Revenge of Geography" by Robert D Kaplan, and Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel." Kaplan's Geography looks at history and world events through the influence of geography, while Diamond's looks at culture development and geography.
    Science is beginning to attempt to change its pattern; making geology a more central science (not even taught in most HS's now) because it underlies (no pun intended :) much of the issues that face us. It did not even exist as a science in 1890 when the disciplines we use now were developed.

    1. I love this, Tim! I've taught a course for Dordt's M.Ed program the past few years all about designing thematic units. This is the central idea we look at there too: selecting a concept to study (rather than the usual "topical" approach to curriculum) and then finding all sorts of natural connections to that concept. A high concept idea like "justice" or "poverty" has all sorts of natural connections in the various disciplines: literature, the sciences, history, geography, economics, etc. I think this makes a lot more sense, but it would require a pretty radical shift in the way our schools are currently structured. Still, jut because it's hard doesn't mean it shouldn't be done...