It's All About Maps
I’m extremely pleased to host Slap’s first guest post today. Arthur is a gay American who moved to New Zealand in 1995 to be with his partner, Nigel (who is a Kiwi). Arthur’s blog and podcast, AmeriNZ, regularly offers an international perspective on culture and politics. Today, he shares his insights on the perceived disconnectedness of the United States and how that relates to their attitudes, both domestically and multinationally.
We all laughed when South Carolina teen beauty contestant Caitlin Upton recently said the reason that twenty percent of Americans can’t find the US on a world map is that “some people out there in our nation don’t have maps.” You know what? She’s right.
The National Geographic Society has long championed geography education in schools, and points out how badly taught American students are. In their National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study, the most recent in a series, they found an appalling lack of geographic knowledge among 18-24 year olds in the US.
It’s not all just finding countries on a map, though it’s shocking that 63% couldn’t find Iraq on a map (or even some states within the US, for that matter). The study found some of the underlying reasons for the lack of world knowledge among young Americans.
Among other findings, 62% couldn’t speak a language other than their native tongue. While one in ten young Americans corresponded regularly with somone outside the US, most had no contact at all. 70% had not been outside the US in the previous three years, though most apparently couldn’t leave, anyway: Only about 22% had a passport.
The survey found that geographic knowledge was highest among those who travelled internationally, were university educated and who obtained their news from two or more sources. They were also more likely to own world maps.
As an American, I’ve often been embarrassed by lack of world knowledge among my fellow citizens. When I moved to New Zealand, a university-educated, internationally travelled person told me with great certainty that New Zealand was west of Australia. I showed him a map. He still couldn’t believe it.
Another, even better educated American asked me if we have the Fourth of July in New Zealand. “Yes,” I said, “It’s between the third and the fifth.” He meant the holiday, he told me, not the day.
So if Americans are so ill informed about the world, is it any surprise that they don’t understand other countries or that they may expect other countries to be like the US? I couldn’t possibly count the number of times that I heard of an American not realising that Canada is a country, or even sometimes that New Zealand isn’t one of its provinces.
I grew up with maps, had good geographic education in school, I’ve travelled, and now I live in another country, so maybe my perspective is skewed. But I can’t help thinking that if the folks in my homeland knew a little more about the world, we’d all be better off. They might realise that those of us who live in another country aren’t automatically any less free. They might be more respectful of people who are different from them in some way. They might come to realise that there are other countries that treat their gay citizens as, well, citizens. Heck, they might even finally adopt the metric system.
Too much to hope for? Maybe. But whoever sets up a “Maps for Americans” charity can count on a donation from me. After all, how can you find your destination without a map?
If you would like to hear more from Arthur, check out AmeriNZ.