Geography illiteracy presents daunting trend

From cartographers mapping unknown corners of the world to mountain lions patrolling distinct territories, a knowledge of geographical locations is a necessary component of life on this planet.

Increasingly, however, young people in the U.S. are lacking both this understanding and an interest in increasing it. Here at Carmel High, the situation may be better than national averages, but only slightly.

CHS freshmen can either take one semester of Global Studies or one full year of AP Human Geography, but when it comes to a basic knowledge of where countries are on the globe, neither course can provide it alone. What students take from them—and any other class, for that matter—is almost entirely dependent on what they put in.

AP Human Geography, known among students as AP Human, was first offered three years ago, and since then, it has taken off as an accelerated look at the world that focuses little on rote memorization of countries and capitals.

Undoubtedly, this approach, which avoids the routine map quizzes of Global Studies, has a surfeit of merits. But there is something to be said for just knowing where places are; it’s too important not to.

Whether it’s a front-page news story or a friend’s description of a vacation, geography comes up all the time, and being able to connect a name with a place on a map is not only useful but often critical.

What’s alarming is that a 2002 study by “National Geographic” found that, among 18-24-year-olds, the U.S. ranked second-to-last among nine nations surveyed for geographic literacy. In the 2006 follow-up to that study, 90 percent of students surveyed could not identify Afghanistan on a map of Asia.

And the lack of knowledge certainly doesn’t stop there.

Social studies teacher Brent Silva, for one, sees it often when grading essays for AP World History, where many prompts ask for analysis of a specific region. If students are unfamiliar with countries in that region, then the results, in Silva’s words, “can be all across the board.”

“Southeast Asia to them is China and Japan,” Silva says. “Even [with] geography in terms of close proximity, most [people’s]…knowledge of Canada is almost nonexistent.”

Clearly, there is a need for greater geographical literacy in this country. At Carmel High, this might be solved by integrating more simple, map-based geography into social studies curricula.

The time to act, of course, is now. Apathy breeds apathy, ignorance breeds ignorance, and the world isn’t getting any simpler.

-Michael Montgomery