Geography knowledge lost on young Americans

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WASHINGTON – Nearly two-thirds of young adults cannot find Iraq on a map even after three years of war and more than 2,400 U.S. deaths. And following months of continuing news coverage of Gulf Coast hurricanes, one-third cannot locate Louisiana.

Those were among the findings of a Roper poll released Tuesday by the National Geographic Society that detailed an alarming deficiency in geographic literacy.

The survey of 510 participants, ages 18 to 24, shows young Americans cannot find many countries prominently featured in the news. And their knowledge gap goes beyond locating nations on a map. Many show little interest in critical geographic knowledge and relationships about global politics, economics and language.

The results raised fresh questions about prospects for young Americans to prosper and be secure in a shrinking world, National Geographic officials said. And they underscored the challenges facing the United States if its citizens do not understand the forces shaping global activity, such as trade, natural disasters and armed conflict.

“We are no longer an isolated nation,” said Pat Hardy, who taught high school geography for 30 years in Fort Worth, Texas, and is now social studies coordinator for the Weatherford (Texas) Independent School District. “It is frightening that people are giving up their lives to fight in another country and there are people here who do not even know where they are going.”

The survey follows a similar National Geographic poll in 2002 in which Americans scored second to last on overall geographic knowledge, behind Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and Sweden.

“Geographic illiteracy impacts our economic well-being, our relationships with other nations and the environment and isolates us from our world,” said John Fahey, National Geographic’s chief executive. “Geography is what helps us make sense of our world by showing the connections between people and places.”

He urged more education and greater public awareness of geographic literacy.

The latest poll was conducted last December and January. The survey, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, was conducted in the homes of respondents and each lasted nearly a half-hour, yielding insights that went well beyond simple country-finding skills.

“Young Americans are alarmingly ignorant of the relationships between places that give context to world events,” the National Geographic Society concluded.

For instance, 71 percent do not know that the United States is the world’s largest exporter of goods and services. And 74 percent believe English is the primary language spoken by the most people in the world. It is actually Mandarin Chinese, although English is the principal global language of commerce.

If there was one hopeful result, the poll found two-thirds of respondents had an understanding of map features and could use one to navigate.

National Geographic officials said geographic literacy is a long-term problem. They said it gets low priority in schools. Declining readership of newspapers and news magazines among young adults has exacerbated the trend.

Now, Fahey said efforts to improve geographic literacy “are running against the tide,” noting it has been overlooked once again in President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education initiative.

“They are missing a component that is very important and should be one of the skill sets for the 21st century that every kid has when they graduate from high school,” Fahey said.

Chad Colby, an Education Department spokesman, said schools have the option of spending federal funds on geography education. He said the No Child Left Behind law requires that geography teachers be trained in their subject.

But he acknowledged: “Clearly, more work needs to be done in geography.”

National Geographic used the release of its poll to launch a new public awareness initiative, “My Wonderful World.” The campaign will include print advertising, television public service ads and a Web site, mywonderfulworld.org.

The public awareness effort includes a coalition of nonprofit associations and businesses. Among them are groups such as the National PTA and the American Federation of Teachers, as well as business groups, including the Council on Competitiveness.

“This campaign will help make sure our children get their geography so they can become familiar with other cultures during their school years and move more comfortably and confidently in a global economy as adults,” said Anna Marie Weselak, president of the National PTA.

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