The Decline of Geographical Literacy among Americas High School Students

While I have always been a bit of a geography nut and have a hard time understanding the lack of interest in the subject, I have to disagree with my fellow posters in lamenting this development in the young people of the United States.

It’s clear that geographical aptitude in the US is pretty poor, but it’s so frequently offered as evidence of teenagers’ ignorance that maybe we should be asking ourselves why there aren’t better examples if these kids are so irredeemably dumb.

There are two points I would like to offer in defense of all the poor youngsters being harassed by know-it-alls with globes:

Let me start with an anecdote:

The philosophy library at my university in Florida was in a remarkable neo-Gothic building with peaked doors and windows. Over the main entrance were the following words: “The half of knowledge is knowing where to find knowledge.” That may not be an exact quote, but a quick Internet search will supply me with the correct words. And likely several color photos of the building. And directions on how to get there from this computer in Germany where I now sit.

A couple of contributors to this thread have pointed with palpable disdain to technological developments (Internet, GPS) that have dulled our sense of geographical orientation, perhaps, but it is precisely these tools that free us of the need to know what the capital of Georgia is, for example. (It’s Tblisi, by the way.) If you’re not sure how many countries border Ethiopia, find a young person who also doesn’t know, and race him to your preferred medium to look it up. The kid will find a computer and you’ll grab your atlas, but even if you’re faster, he’ll have a bunch of other equally-useless bits of trivia to add to a lively discussion of East Africa. The high-school students possess the aforementioned “half of knowledge” – they know just where to find it. If you already know off the top of your head how many countries border Ethiopia, you are obviously a geography wiz and should be congratulated on indulging in a healthy but largely useless pastime (like me).

My point is related to the ancient legend of the Egyptian god Thoth who offered the medium of writing to a pharaoh. The pharaoh immediately rejected the offer, saying that the ability to record information on papyrus would dull his subjects’ memories. Likely true but a bit extreme, I think you’ll admit. Those who insist that GPS technology has contributed to teens’ ignorance (an argument made in this thread that makes little sense to me) are, however, the intellectual grandchildren of that backwards pharaoh. Let your subjects forget. They might only use the extra storage capacity to remember pop-song lyrics, but some might actually use the time not spent poring over maps for more valuable pursuits.

Older generations might be shocked to learn that 30-year-olds can’t tell Bach from Beethoven. And the parents of that generation (rest their souls) were probably ashamed of their kids for not knowing the right time to plant potatoes. As technology develops and certain skills become unnecessary for EVERYONE to know, these specialist skills become the domain of the enthusiast. That’s why I can recognize most countries by their silhouette – not because it’s necessary, but because I’m interested in that kind of nonsense.

And the phenomenon of PERSONAL INTEREST brings me to my second “defense” of the geographically-ignorant American. While the evolution of technology is a (hopefully) harmless reason for this alleged deficiency in high-school students, the second reason is a bit more precarious.

I’ll begin again with another anecdote.

My grandmother is over 80 years old and she’s never left the United States. She has hardly left Ohio. The obvious question then is: why does she need to know where Stonehenge is on a map? She doesn’t, of course. And this is increasingly (and unfortunately) true of younger generations as well.

The very same digital media that make a map of England effortless to find are becoming the dominant medium of experience for the same US high-school students we’re discussing. Even a cursory examination of the American media landscape reveals to the critical observer that the United States media environment contains nothing but United States media. International media influence is minimal and personal exposure to foreign cultures is obviously even less frequent. Perhaps due to the scale and inherent variety of the US, the experience (real or mediated) of young people today is one of total immersion in the American Way of Life. Kids today don’t know about Syria, for example, because they don’t have to. But you’d better believe that Syrian high-school students are interested in what’s going on in the far-off United States even if they don’t happen to know what the capital of Georgia is. (It’s Atlanta.) Syrians have to know in ways our kids don’t.

This thread is called “the decline of geographical literacy among America’s high school students.” I don’t deny that there is a decline, but rather than pointing to the usual culprits of video games and comic books, let’s foster a real curiosity in foreign lands and cultures that goes beyond knowing what the longest river happens to be.

Maybe if Ms Teen South Carolina had taken a short vacation to Greece with her family as a child, we’d be laughing as someone else right now.