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Survey Reveals Geographic Illiteracy

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
November 20, 2002
 
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In a nation called the world's superpower, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map, according to a new worldwide survey released today.

The young U.S. citizens received poor marks generally in geography. But then, as results showed, their counterparts in other countries were hardly star students.

The National Geographic–Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey polled more than 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States.


Sweden scored highest; Mexico, lowest. The U.S. was next to last.

"The survey demonstrates the geographic illiteracy of the United States," said Robert Pastor, professor of International Relations at American University, in Washington, D.C. "The results are particularly appalling in light of September 11, which traumatized America and revealed that our destiny is connected to the rest of the world."

About 11 percent of young citizens of the U.S. couldn't even locate the U.S. on a map. The Pacific Ocean's location was a mystery to 29 percent; Japan, to 58 percent; France, to 65 percent; and the United Kingdom, to 69 percent.

Are Young U.S. Citizens Americentric?

Despite the threat of war in Iraq and the daily reports of suicide bombers in Israel, less than 15 percent of the young U.S. citizens could locate either country.

More young U.S. citizens in the study knew that the island featured in last season's TV show "Survivor" is in the South Pacific than could find Israel.

Particularly humiliating was that all countries were better able to identify the U.S. population than many young U.S. citizens. Within the U.S., almost one-third said that population was between one billion and two billion; the answer is 289 million.

"It gives the sense that there is this Americentric thing going on—that we are big and powerful and have all these people in our country," said John Fahey, President and CEO of the National Geographic Society.

On the other hand, Pastor suggests that the results could mean that most young Americans just have no idea of the total world population (about six billion).

Poor Geographic Literacy Worldwide

Young adults worldwide are not markedly more literate about geography than the Americans.

On average, fewer than 25 percent of young people worldwide could locate Israel on the map. Only about 20 percent could identify hotspots like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

Of all the young adults in the survey, only about one-third in Germany, Sweden and Japan, could name four countries that officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons. In the rest of the countries that number dropped to less than a quarter. In France 24 percent did not know that that their own country was a nuclear nation.

The survey results are not all bleak, says Roger Downs, head of the geography department at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, and a National Geographic geographer-in-residence in 1995-1996.

Geography Not Valued in Schools

Since the last Geographic-sponsored survey in 1988, said Downs, the percentage of young U.S. citizens who reported taking a geography course in school rose from 30 to 55 percent. And students who had studied geography did better on the current survey.

U.S. schools generally have slighted geography. "If geography is not in the curriculum," Downs said, "it's not tested—and that says to the students that it is not valued."

The schools are not solely to blame, either. "Wouldn't it be nice if parents also read atlases to their children?" Downs says.

Questions covering current events or practical activities yielded more promising results.

Most young U.S. citizens knew that Africa was most affected by the AIDS epidemic, and about half knew that El Niño caused erratic weather.

"When geography and life intersect, people pay attention," said Nick Boyon, senior vice president for international research at RoperASW, in Manhattan.

Boosting Geography

Geographic knowledge increases through travel and language proficiency, among other factors.

In the highest-scoring countries—Sweden, Germany and Italy—at least 70 percent of the young adults had traveled internationally in the last three years, and the majority spoke more than one language (in Sweden, 92 and 89 percent, respectively).

In the U.S. and Mexico only about 20 percent had traveled abroad during the same period and the majority spoke only one language.

To fight geographic ignorance, and apathy, among young people in the U.S. and around the world, the National Geographic Society will convene an international coalition of leaders in American business, education and media.

Next year the panel will recommend initiatives to policymakers in those areas—and to parents and children.

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