Lack of Geographical Knowledge in America
BY DHRUVIKA DEEKONDA '24
If I were to ask you to name all fifty states including their capital cities in four minutes, would you be able to do it? Unless you’re a part of the 20 percent of Americans who have a strong grasp on US geography, the answer is no. Let’s not even assume that: according to National Geographic, 11 percent of young Americans struggle to locate the US on a map. Are you part of that 11 percent? Let’s hope not. But that percentage just emphasizes the rise in illiteracy problems. Geographic illiteracy has become increasingly normalized, which hinders students from grasping critical knowledge necessary to engage in world affairs.
Firstly, understanding geography is a powerful tool, as the people who have a stronger grasp of it appreciate and understand their role in the world. As former president Barack Obama observed, “the study of geography is about more than memorizing places on a map. It’s about understanding the complexity of our world, appreciating the diversity of cultures that exist across continents. And in the end, it’s about using all that knowledge to help bridge divides and bring people together.” Learning about the geography of other countries isn’t just memorizing locations; it molds our minds to grasp the world’s complexity and how we’re connected through common experiences.
Besides appreciating diversity, geographic understanding maintains a well-informed society. Take for instance the US: it’s involved with almost every country regarding their military, social, economic, and political matters. Yet, according to National Geographic, only 17 percent of American students could find Afghanistan on a map a year after the September 11 attacks, even though the US military had deployed troops there. As Christina Lin, an AsiaTimes writer, points out, geographic ignorance is so widespread that it may actually “constitute a national-security threat,” as many are struggling to connect current events to places on a map, much less understand the significance of their geographic locations. This in turn harms people’s critical thinking abilities about the US’s role in global affairs.
However, our education systems don’t seem to reflect geography’s importance. Both the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the 1994 NAEP measured eighth graders’ geographic literacy, and given the nation’s meager investment in promoting geographic understanding, the results were unsurprising. In 2014, 48 percent of eighth graders demonstrated a basic understanding of geography, a mere 5 percent increase from 1994. There is almost no difference between the past and present proficiency levels, which reveals how schools aren’t engaging students in geography. While other subjects like World History, which explores our interconnected pasts with other nations, are seen as essential to a student’s education, why shouldn’t geography, which visualizes international connections, be similarly prioritized?
Geographic illiteracy in America has been far too normalized, and sooner or later, it will hurt students, limiting their sense of the present. Understanding geography isn’t just helpful for navigating one’s surroundings; it also fosters a deeper knowledge of the world, helping people improve comprehension of global affairs, current events, and form more nuanced perspectives on them. Thus, it’s crucial to promote geography as a subject comparable to history, not leaving understanding to chance or optional studies.