Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson was widely ridiculed last week when, in an interview, he failed to recognize Aleppo, a major city impacted by the war in Syria.
Now a new survey of geopolitical literacy shows that Johnson isn’t the only one who doesn’t know enough about foreign relations. The results suggest that most young Americans have a weak grasp on global concepts like the importance of the U.S. dollar and the structure of the United Nations.
The survey “revealed significant gaps between what young people understand about today’s world and what they need to know to successfully navigate and compete in it,” says the forward to the survey report, released Tuesday by the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Geographic Society.
Although most respondents could correctly answer the most basic questions about geography, they performed poorly on subjects that required cultural and demographic knowledge, such as questions about population, language, and religion. More than two-thirds of respondents, for example, couldn’t identify Indonesia as a majority-Muslim nation.
They also had a poor grasp of what countries the U.S. is bound to protect and where U.S. troops are stationed around the world.
The global literacy survey asked 1,203 young adults 75 questions about geography, current events, and economics and trade. Among 18-to-26-year-olds who attend or have attended a two- or four-year college in the United States, the average score on the survey was just 55 percent—a failing grade in most U.S. classrooms.
“Even people who’ve been through college are still not gaining this sort of basic level of understanding about the world and how things are connected to each other,” says Kathleen Schwille, vice president of education at the National Geographic Society.
That worries Schwille, who says Americans “can’t ignore things that are happening on the other side of the world, because they do impact us. … Water availability and climate change and religious conflict—those are things that don’t pay attention to borders.”
Getting It Wrong on China
The respondents’ poor performance likely has implications for their ability to make informed political choices in the final months of the presidential election.
One of the subjects that those surveyed really struggled with was economics and trade. Asked to name the United States’ largest trading partner, most got it wrong, saying it was China. Only 10 percent correctly answered Canada.
Most respondents also overestimated the extent of Mexican immigration to the U.S.—another key issue in this election cycle. Two-thirds did not know that the number of Mexicans exiting the U.S. actually exceeds the number that enter.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says knowledge or ignorance of global affairs can reflect a person’s political decisions. Though he doesn’t know how people come to misunderstand these topics, “I’m not sure at the end of the day that matters that much because either way it means they have it wrong, and they’re sympathetic to populist appeals that are simply not well grounded,” he says.
“We saw a similar thing by the way in Britain with the Brexit vote,” he says. “And a lot of the quote-unquote ‘facts’ that people were basing their preferences on turned out not to be facts.”
Although students did fairly well on general geography questions—like matching a country to its continent—they struggled with questions that required more detailed knowledge of geography.
“I’m not really surprised by the number of people who do or don’t know about where different things are,” Schwille says, noting that many respondents “can’t really tell the difference between specific countries,” like Iraq and Iran.
One area in which respondents did do well was environmental issues. Most young people surveyed could identify a main cause of climate change and name a nonrenewable resource.
“It’s really heartening that people seem to be understanding environmental issues more,” Schwille says. “What I’d like to better understand is how connected they feel to those problems and to the solutions that are possible for the environmental issues that we’re facing.”
But They Want to Know More
Overall, Haass says that the survey demonstrates a “deficit in knowledge” regarding foreign relations, geography, and other global issues. But he also thinks there are some positive takeaways.
Though “it might seem like a slight contradiction,” he says that respondents “seemed to think that it was important that they do know a lot about the world, even if they didn’t necessarily know a lot.
“So that suggests to me that we’re pushing on an open door,” he says. “I’d be much more concerned if students didn’t know about these things and said it doesn’t matter.”
Haass hopes that the survey starts a conversation about the importance of global literacy for Americans as democratic participants.
“The only way I know to hold candidates and officials to account is an informed populace,” says Haass. “So this is a bigger issue than Gary Johnson. The only way we will, I think, get individuals of sufficient knowledge and experience in these jobs is if the American people demand it. And they will only demand it if they themselves have sufficient knowledge and understanding of these issues.”