Where in the World?

Why everyone should take a geography class, especially now.

Illustration by Mouni Feddag

I have negative associations with the city of Riyadh that have nothing to do with Mideast geopolitics, energy markets, gender equality, or religious freedom. It’s way more personal than that.

I was 14 years old, and in my fourth year of trying and my last year of eligibility, I had made it to the state finals of the National Geography Bee. I was also way out of my league. I may have been the kind of nerd who read atlases for fun and chose Luxembourg as a country to write a report on in fourth grade just to be esoteric, but the other 99 kids there, many of them home-schooled, single-subject specialists, were really into geography. It was pretty clear early on that I wasn’t going to make it through to the final round of the state championships, not to mention the televised nationals. But even so, I went out like a chump on a really easy question: “If you were to find yourself in Riyadh, you would be in the capital of what country?”

“Saudi Arabia, you little dummy! That’s so easy! You’re really going to go down on Riyadh?” I shout to myself ineffectually across the chasm of time, but it’s no use. I don’t remember what answer I gave, but I have a strong memory of sitting in an auditorium in Albany, New York, with my mom and watching some other twerp win the prize.

The psychic wounds—if not my irrational antipathy toward the Saudi capital—have faded with time, but I still strongly believe primary schools and universities need to do a much better job of educating Americans on the natural and political features of our world. Geographical literacy is a major problem: American young adults lag far behind other advanced industrial countries on tests of geographic knowledge. A National Geographic survey in 2006 found that 63 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 can’t find Iraq on a map.  Twenty percent thought Sudan, the largest country in Africa, was in Asia. Last year’s National Assessment of Education Progress found only 27 percent of American eighth-graders at a “proficient” level in geography, largely unchanged since 2010. Americans’ difficulty with geography has become something of a cultural cliché, as shown by one of John Oliver’s favorite running jokes.   

Some have traced the declining interest in the subject to the decline of imperialism—people in Western countries took more of an interest in world maps in the days when a European head of state could draw a new border in the Middle East after a boozy afternoon lunch. The world’s borders have remained relatively stable since the end of the Cold War, though recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East show that we haven’t left wars of conquest entirely behind.

Geographical literacy remains vital—particularly for those of us who live in (for the time being at least) the world’s preeminent military and economic superpower. Geography is necessary for understanding why the overthrow of a government in Libya contributed to an unprecedented surge of migrants into Europe, why Ukraine has been split between East and West amid its conflict with Russia, and why China’s neighbors are alarmed at the new islands under construction in the South China Sea. And as we learned during last year’s Ebola panic, an understanding of African geography could have helped explain why an outbreak in West Africa should not lead to the quarantining of people from Kenya or Tanzania. In the years to come, as the effects of climate change on everything from sea level rise to deforestation to drought quite literally reshape the world we live in, an understanding of geography will be necessary for mitigating and adapting to the consequences.

The lack of attention to the subject is all the more unforgivable in an era when new digital tools have revolutionized mapping and data visualization. We live in a golden age of geographic data for anyone who cares to take an interest.

The good news is that young Americans may be starting to. According to National Geographic, enrollment in geography courses is increasing at the university level—at least at the colleges that offer the subject.

More is needed. In a world of unprecedented human migration, economic interdependence, and environmental challenges, an understanding of the political and natural features of our world should be considered a prerequisite for any informed citizen. At the very least, I would love to live in a country where some kid who doesn’t know where Riyadh is can’t get into the state finals of a geography contest.

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