The Decline of Geographical Literacy among Americas High School Students

A number of years ago, perhaps in the early 1990’s, the venerable National Geographic Society took a poll of adults on geographical literacy. They polled over 22,000 people, which is quite large, given that many polls, especially the political kind, involve somewhere between 900-1,200. The poll showed that 61% of those asked could not find the United States on an outline map of the world! SIXTY ONE PERCENT! I was pretty flabbergasted and nearly fell out of my chair. I’ve quoted this statistic numerous times when I have taught formal geography classes to 9th-12th graders at my high school. It’s frightening what they don’t know.
In my school district, only one of the three comprehensive high schools requires geography to graduate. The other, while it being a requirement, has it so low on its priority list, they refuse to buy up to date books, rather using old books, which are so terrible, many of the geography teachers, myself included, refuse to use them. I have come up with my own curriculum, within the district guidelines.
I have to agree with one writer on this subject that wrote one of the problems is that the kids just don’t care. Emphasize that in a big way. She also wrote that the kids are too dependent on the computer and other ‘toys,’ which doesn’t force them to read a paper map. There is nothing wrong with some of the new technology, but how did the designers of that new technology learn to put that info into computers: They read it in a book, or a magazine, on in the newspaper!
There is still an attitude in some high schools, even my recently departed mother had: Too many social science courses, including geography, are being taught by athletic coaches because they need to find them full time jobs. (Perhaps that is the reason it took me so long to find a decent job in social studies: There were so many football coaches who thought they could teach so…
I will offer this advise to prospective teachers:

1. Bring in free newspapers, (available from many papers at no charge,) have them find information on geography in the news. (One could argue that geography be into almost everything that is happening;

2. Insist that they know how to read an atlas. That too is scary that they have little idea how to do that. (To their credit, our school did go out one year and bought a hardcover set of atlases for each geography teacher and I spent a lot of time on them;

3. Know the difference between geography and geology, though it could be argued that they are connected, and I would not disagree with that.)

4. Teachers should get as much hands-on training in geography as possible. Conferences are OK, put one-day workshops that emphasize a hands on approach are better.