Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Why Are So Many Americans Geographically Illiterate?

Most Americans couldn't find their asses even if they had a map. Why? Because they can't read the map.

The level of American geographic illiteracy is astounding. I teach Geography courses at a community college and I see it daily in my classrooms. But don't take my anecdotal evidence as the be-all and end-all; National Geographic has been conducting surveys for decades and comparing data between both developed and developing nations. Here are some highlights from the 2006 survey (they're currently conducted every four years):

  • Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map—though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.

  • 6 in 10 young Americans don't speak a foreign language fluently.

  • 20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It's the largest country in Africa.)

  • 48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It's Hindu—by a landslide.)

  • Half of young Americans can't find New York on a map.

Download the full report here.

While working on my bachelor's degree in 1995, I sat in the Cal State Northridge Geography Department's computer lab, near two girls studying for a quiz that week. They spent a good ten minutes with a blank world map, arguing over which ocean was the Pacific. With embarassed giggles, they made their best guess and shrugged it off. They had come thiiiiis close to picking the Atlantic. I almost fell out of my chair.

How did we get to this point? It certainly didn't happen overnight. Why aren't students in the U.S. given more instruction in where things are in the world, where their country fits into the bigger picture, and why people and places are interrelated in ways that affect us every day? Why have my students not had any geography since 8th grade, and then only as a single unit in a larger Social Studies course? Some teachers believe that if you've had History with all of its maps, you've had Geography (trust me on this one--it's not the same thing). Believe it or not, the seeds if this tangled vine were sown with the ancient Greeks. But pointing the finger at Hippocrates won't get you far in understanding the Big Picture. Modern politics played just as large a role, if not more so.

[the following section includes adapted excerpts from Physical Geography: Earth's Interconnected Systems, by Angela Orr, Kendall/Hunt Publishers, 2006]

Traditions of Geography
What is the core of the discipline, the central motivating question or purpose, the material which geographers should be spending their careers studying and defending? In 1964, William Pattison wrote “The Four Traditions of Geography” for the Journal of Geography, in which he attempted to synthesize the basic ideas of academic geographers into a coherent framework. Two of these, the Human-Environment Tradition and the Area Studies Tradition, both offer some insight into reasons behind the loss of geographic literacy in the United States which began in the second half of the 20th Century.

The Human-Environment Tradition
This tradition focuses on the inter-relationships between the natural and the human world. It is perhaps the oldest of the four traditions, the brain-child of Hippocrates, the Greek physician of the 5th century B.C. who wrote On Airs, Waters and Places, in which he attempted to discern the influence of nature on humans. Unfortunately, this tradition led to the embracing of the concept of environmental determinism, and the similarly disastrous concept of social Darwinism, in which it was assumed (without much in the way of true data) that the environment creates conditions of natural selection and is therefore the main determiner of the outcome of human activities. In other words, the most successful (and therefore “superior”) societies or cultures are those which developed in regions of the world dominated by certain types of climate and environmental conditions.

This dangerously-applied concept became one of many justifications for the abuses of racism and imperialism, and sadly dominated American geography well into the 20th Century. By the 1920s, however, it became evident that the most influential studies were being conducted by “armchair geographers” who rarely went out into the world and who often used inauthentic data gathered from other researchers or from anecdotal evidence, rather than authentic field work, clear observations and carefully-derived data.

For example, the climate which produced the strongest societies, according to the environmental determinists, was often the same climate of each author’s home country. For the ancient Greeks, the mediterranean climate brought about cultural perfection. For British authors, it was the west coast marine climate. For Americans, the four-season humid continental climate.

But environmental determinism could not explain the contradictions of situations such as sequent occupance, in which successive societies use and modify the same environment, yet leave vastly different cultural imprints on that place. California is an excellent example of sequent occupance, where numerous different societies (hundreds of different Native American tribes, Spanish and Russian occupiers, Mexican, European, and American settlers) all have successfully adapted to and utilized the same environment, each in very different ways,

Eventually, the hypothesis of environmental determinism was refuted by the larger academic community. Today, those geographers who define the field in terms of the Human-Environment Tradition now accept that there is an interaction between culture and nature. Neither can exist without influencing and being influenced by the other, at this stage in the human habitation of the planet.

The Regional Tradition
Geographers who focus on the Regional Tradition are charged with the characterization and description of places, of regions, as being distinctly different from one another, rather than simply a summary of their locations and associated cartographic facts. A researcher in the Regional Tradition is expected to be an expert, with encyclopedic knowledge of a particular area. This academic focus was dominant in American geography in the first half of the 20th Century, largely due to the interest in defining political boundaries after the World Wars.

However, it soon became apparent that the boundaries of a region can be constructed any number of different ways, and that there existed in geography no universally accepted method for determining which way was best for any one area. We can still see the effects of the difficulties of defining regional borders in many parts of the world, such as Israel and the former Yugoslavia, where lines drawn on a map for political convenience did not match up with real world interactions of people, environment, and economy.

Science is all about gathering information, making generalizations, and testing hypotheses. Regional studies, as it was originally conceptualized, pieced together already gathered knowledge, sought out what was unique or different, and focused very little attention on testing and theorizing. Because it was largely atheoretical and descriptive, regional studies came to be viewed as "unscientific". The Cold War era and the need for more rigorously-trained scientists led to the general academic concensus that anything unscientific was, essentially, useless.

Both the backlash from environmental determinism and the lack of scientific rigour led to regional studies being phased out of the teaching curriculum in American K-12 classrooms. Today, researchers in this tradition have begun to accept the difficulties of regional identification. The realization that Americans have become largely geographically illiterate has led to the reinstitution of regional studies as part of a new set of geographic standards being incorporated once again into the schools.

Geography Today
There has been an effort on the part of some American educators to renew geographic literacy, as exemplified by the eighteen National Geography Standards identified by the National Council for Geographic Education in 1994. It remains to be seen, however, just how well this approach is working. I certainly have yet to see it in my own classroom. Geography generally remains relegated to a position of lesser importance in both physical and social sciences in the secondary education system.

It must be emphasized here that Geography is just as important and rigorous a field of study as any other. Perhaps more so, as our country forges new connections with other nations and cultures around the world through overseas businesses, politics, military movements, humanitarian aid, financial assistance, and tourism. Our nation is made up of people from almost every country in the world, yet we know so little about those places, cultures, and environments that our citizens are often forced to rely on the knowledge, perspectives, and agendas of those offering information—information which may not be complete or accurate, whether through ignorance or deliberation.

Imagine, for example, a company based in Belgium, with production facilities in Singapore, customer assistance in India, and retail sales in the North America, Europe, and Japan. That company will need to make well-informed business decisions, taking into account the cultures, politics, finances, and environments of the places they deal with every day. Geography is an excellent field within which to formulate studies, focus groups, and reports on critical economic and security issues. The nation’s businesses and political institutions will ultimately pay the price for a deficiency of geographic education in the United States.

Turn in your seat right now, dear reader, and point south.

I rest my case.

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