The World

Americans Don’t Know Anything About African Geography, and That’s a Problem

The map above has been making the Internet rounds this week for obvious reasons.

One could quibble with the details. Congo recently had a now-contained outbreak of a different strain of Ebola. A number of people are being monitored for possible exposure in Mali. But the basic point is valid. The 2014 Ebola outbreak has provided abundant evidence that non-Africans’ understanding of the size and geographical diversity of the African continent is pretty appalling.

The tourism industry is apparently hurting in South Africa because travelers are nervous that “Ebola is in Africa.” A teacher in Kentucky who performed mission work in Kenya has been forced to resign. A teenager in Iowa has agreed to self-isolate due to concerns about his recent travel to Uganda. A school in New Jersey forced two students from Rwanda to stay home for 21 days. As this other map shows, these places are father away from the Ebola infection zone than several western European capitals. (None of this is to imply that the needless stigmatization of who are from Ebola-infected countries is justified.) 

Geographical literacy is not a high point of the American education system. A 2010 survey found that fewer than 30 percent of American students are proficient at geography by the standards of their grade level. These scores, as measured by the National Center for Education Statistics, have been declining since the 1990s.

The topic of Americans’ geographical literacy, or lack thereof, tends to come up when a previously under-discussed country is suddenly in the news. Last year, a popular online quiz demonstrated that very few people, including Department of Defense employees, were able to find Damascus on a map at a time when the U.S. was seriously considering launching airstrikes against the country that city is located in.

At the time, Ezra Klein, then of the Washington Post, pushed back against the meme, arguing that “where Syria sits on a globe has basically nothing to do with the wisdom of a punitive strike meant to uphold international norms against the use of chemical weapons.”

Maybe so, though I’d argue that the Syrian civil war’s subsequent spillover into Iraq, and the fact that the Middle East’s current borders are very much at issue in that conflict, show that knowing where Syria is and what’s around it are necessary to understand the situation there.

If basic geographic knowledge is important for understanding violence in the Middle East, it’s really important for understanding the spread of a virus in West Africa. And if anything, people are probably even less informed about Africa than about the Middle East. We can all do a little better.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Ebola.