The Decline of Geographical Literacy among Americas High School Students

A startling statistic that said 20 percent of Americans couldn’t find the United States on a world map shocked most Americans. When Miss South Carolina horribly fumbled over her answer about why this was, the rest of us hung our heads in embarrassment and left us thinking of some excuse for her. But I suppose the answer was never really explained: why are we so geographically inept compared to everyone else in the developed world? Perhaps they grew up deep in the Amazon rainforest. Well, let’s hope so. I’d hate to find out they are the products of our educational system.

I tend to blame the problem on three things: poor funding and budget cuts in schools, GPS and other navigation systems, and they just plain old don’t care.

Let’s look at the first problem: budget cuts. Our public schools, which are funded partly by the government and partly by tax dollars, are somehow losing money and funding for academic programs each year. This means that schools have to cut back on buying updated textbooks, newer computers and computer programs, desks and other materials. It also means that they may need to cut certain fringe-curriculum classes, like home economics, shop class, any of the arts, foreign languages, certain science classes, extra physical education classes, and AP/distance courses. This leaves their focus more on the basics: reading, writing, mathematics, core sciences, a little bit of foreign language (namely Spanish), history, government/economics. And unfortunately courses like current events and geography are among those that get cut. The other problem is that when it is taught, there isn’t a stress that this is important for life, not just for a test. A high school freshman should know all 50 states, where they are on a map, and their capitals. (And it would be wonderful if they were all spelled correctly.)

The second problem I place as a problem is GPS and other navigations systems. This also includes map programs such as Google Maps and Mapquest. I bet you there are many kids who can’t even read a paper map anymore. They are so used to Mapquest or Garmins that they don’t see the need to look at paper maps or atlases. These devices have led them to view problems on a need-to-know basis. If you need to find Chicago, then just look it up. They don’t just know that it’s in Illinois, near Lake Michigan or that it’s west of New York and north of Houston. In fact, I am still amazed that there are many high school students who can’t even tell which direction you drive to get to the capital city of their state, or which side of town they live on. This same phenomenon goes for spell check as well. They don’t feel they need to know how to spell anything because that’s what spell check is for. The students currently in high school have always grown up with the Internet and therefore don’t remember a time where information wasn’t readily at their fingertips in the form of their cell phone or PDA.

The third problem is a combination of the two: they just don’t really care. Geography intelligence isn’t important to them. Even getting a driver’s license doesn’t really inspire them to learn where things are either. Maybe a few, but most of them just know which roads to take to get to school or their friend’s house or the mall. They don’t know north or south or the relationship of various towns to each other. Why? That’s what Garmin or Mapquest is for, right? Just wait until the system crashes or your cell phone dies, then I’d bet you they wished they had a clue about where they are. It’s a really sad state of affairs when our educational system not only fails our students and tells them what to think, but they continue to fail themselves by not caring and solely relying on electronic devices to think for them as well.