Wrapping Our Heads Around World Geography

We Americans like to think we are so smart. Why even tiny tots in this country know how to use a cell phone, change TV channels with  a remote, and play games on an iPad. Nevertheless, Americans are woefully deficient when it comes to knowledge of geography. We probably couldn’t figure out where Carmen Sandiego was on a map even if we were told the city and country where she was located.

My lack of geographical proficiency was brought to my attention back in April when I was in Washington, D.C. playing tourist. On my tourist bucket list was going down Embassy Row to check out all the foreign embassies. While I recognized the names of all the countries and could place them on the correct continent, I realized that I likely couldn’t point some of them out on a map or give pertinent information about them.

Let’s take Malawi, for example. Ding, ding, ding. Of course Malawi is in Africa. I knew that. OK, but what else do I know about Malawi–other than how to spell it? Um, nothing. Trying to rectify my ignorance, I pulled out a trusty geography textbook–not. I took a modern approach and did research about Malawi online. Perhaps one reason that I (and most likely you too) don’t know about Malawi is that it is among the world’s least developed countries; its economy is heavily based on agriculture. But surely you’re familiar with the country’s capital of Lilongwe. OK, OK. I didn’t know that either. Nor did I know off the top of my head that Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa. Hanging my head in shame.

At least if I am geographically ignorant, I am in good company. The younger generation has been documented to be appallingly lacking in general geographic knowledge. In fact, nearly 75% of 8th graders tested below proficient in geography on the 2014 National Assessment Of Education Progress exam. And why should they be proficient? A majority of states today do not require geography courses in middle school or high school. Who needs such classes? I mean we all have a GPS on our cell phone, right? Siri can tell us where a city or country is located if we must know.

Sure we can rely on electronic devices to give us needed geographical information. But our understanding of the world around us and what is happening in it is much deeper if we know where current events are taking place. A truly informed person will have a basic understanding of not only WHAT is going on but WHERE it is occurring.

Let’s look at some news headlines from the past week to see what geographical locations we might need to know about. Anyone know where Fukuoka is and why it is in the news? More basic than that–WHAT is Fukuoka? Well, it’s a city which, before this week, I’d never heard of. I might have guessed it was in Japan, and I’d have been right. To my surprise I learned that Fukuoka is the sixth largest city in Japan. It’s located on the island of Kyushu, one of Japan’s largest islands.

Fukuoka was in the news because it was the setting for a meeting of the G-20 finance ministers. These economic bigwigs, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, needed to put their heads together to discuss revisions to trade rules and finances in light of technological change and protectionism. Given clashes between the U.S. and China (which countries we can ALL find on a map or globe) over trade and technology, the finance ministers are concerned about upsets to the global economy. Not sure why Fukuoka in particular was chosen for the meeting venue, although finance and Fukuoka both do begin with the letter “F.”

Not interested in world politics? How about sports? If so, you should know about Reims. Again, this is not a city about which I have ever heard. Reims is located about 85 miles northeast of Paris and is the unofficial capital of the Champagne wine-producing region. While I’m fairly sure we’ve all heard about that area, I doubt many of us could mark the spot where it’s located with an X on a map.

Some champagne was likely uncorked in Reims Tuesday when the U.S. opened its defense of the Women’s World Cup title with a win in a match against Thailand. Hurray for the red, white and blue! They blew away their opponent by a wide margin–13-0. This score is the most lopsided victory in World Cup history for either men or women. Shall we say the Thais got reamed? Or maybe Reimsed?

For those interested in planning a trip, recent news stories would give one pause when considering the Dominican Republic as a vacation destination. Perhaps you might want to know where that country is located so you can avoid it. Since last year several American tourists have suddenly fallen ill and died while at resorts in this Caribbean location. Furthermore, Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz was the victim of an attempted murder Sunday night outside a popular nightspot in his hometown of Santo Domingo, the country’s capital and largest city.

Looks like this island’s life involves death or brushes with it.Other than that, an informed person should know that the Dominican Republic is on the island of Hispaniola, an island it shares with Haiti. By area, the Dominican Republic is the second largest Caribbean nation after Cuba.

Let’s face it. The world may seem to be shrinking because we can probably call anyone anywhere in the world on a cell phone, connect with someone in a foreign country via the Internet, and see what’s happening on another continent in real time on CNN. But the seemingly smaller world contains people with large gaps in their geographical knowledge.

Sure, we can’t know everything about every place. But a good start to becoming geographically proficient is to take the time to determine where a place in the news is and some general information about it. And if we really want to go all out, we might consider having our kids taught some geography before they are sent out into the big wide world as adults.

JUST WONDER-ing: Did you take a geography class in high school? Do you think that geography should be a required subject? How geographically proficient do you think you are?

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Wrapping Our Heads Around World Geography

  1. I loved your article and the fact that our Washington DC trip provided the source of your observations and ultimately your article. I tell my kids all of the time that if I’m deficient in my world geography, they are really in trouble! I think I need to watch more reruns of Carmen.

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  2. Thanks for reading, Colleen. Yes, our D.C. trip was productive in several ways. I was shocked to find out how geography is NOT taught in the majority of states in middle school or high school. What? I personally think it is fun to look up where some of these places in the news are and learn about them.

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