Why Geographical Ignorance Matters

By Berdichevsky, Norman | The World and I, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Why Geographical Ignorance Matters


Berdichevsky, Norman, The World and I


Geography is an important antidote to the infantile habit of thinking the world is a laboratory in which we can carry out all kinds of experiments, or a huge rubbish heap where we can get rid of all our trash. As David Landes warned in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, "[Geography] tells an unpleasant truth, namely, that nature, like life, is unfair; unequal in its favors; further that nature's unfairness is not easily remedied. A civilization like ours, with its drive to mastery, does not like to be thwarted. It disapproves of discouraging words, which geographic comparisons abound in."

Without knowledge of geography, we cannot appreciate fully our home environment, which is uniquely ours, or how it conditions, shapes and limits our actions and perspectives, and restricts or empowers us. As soon as we leave our immediate surroundings, and especially our own country, we must appreciate which side of the road people drive on (or we will soon feel the consequences), learn to communicate in another language (or be reduced to gestures and the level of communication of a two-year-old), know about the stability of the local currency and government (or else risk having our vacation terminated by revolution and being stuck with worthless currency), and countless other small but significant differences.

The National Geographic-Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey surveyed geographical knowledge in nine countries and gave them grades from A to D. The U.S. came in a distant eighth with a D, followed only by Mexico. Swedes scored the highest and the report concluded that the level of geographic knowledge was related to the degree of foreign travel and knowledge of foreign languages, two areas in which Americans lag far behind Europeans. Americans are even unaware of the degree to which their perception of the world is distorted.

Recently on the Fox News television news program, two of the male staff were bantering about beer due to the presence of a huge Heineken billboard visible through the studio window. Commentator A remarked how the Germans no longer made Heineken their number one choice (Heineken is a venerated Dutch product, known and loved the world over)--only to be scorned by his colleague, commentator B, who sarcastically responded that it was no surprise since Heineken was DANISH (he stressed the word in a loud voice to drive home his awareness of his colleague's ignorance), a "correction" that was greeted by loud laughter from everyone else in the studio demonstrating to the viewers that they were both equally ignorant.

In self-defense, ignorance of geography has been compounded by the abolition of geography departments in such elite universities as Harvard and Yale, while the subject has a long and distinguished history in all the leading British universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge. Roger Downs, a Pennsylvania State University professor of geography explains, "If geography is not in the curriculum, it's not tested--and that says to the students that it is not valued." The message is transmitted clearly that geography simply doesn't matter.

Americans treat geography as a spelling bee--trivia to be memorized and repeated on demand with no analytical power. The key question of Why are things where they are? remains unasked. Knowing geographical facts such as that the Himalayas and Andes are the highest mountain chains in the world contributes no understanding of plate tectonics and the resultant effects on climate, and the impact on human settlement for the people who live on opposite sides of these great mountains. The reluctance to incorporate and classify many facts into relevant explanatory factors contributes to the naive and wholly wrong idea that geography cannot be a science because it deals only with "unique" places.

There is, however, another level of geographic knowledge which is particularly rewarding but seldom communicated to the average pupil--places are not only different, they are similar: It is not by chance that the coasts of Norway and Chile in opposite hemispheres but similar latitudes resemble each other with deep fjords and beautiful glaciers, or that rent, property value and intensity of land use decline from the city center towards the periphery all over the world.

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