This seems to never get old

That Americans are woefully ignorant about world geography is well known. My first experience with this was when I first came to the US for graduate studies. When I told people that I was from Sri Lanka, most people had never heard of it. That was not surprising since this was before the various vicious ethnic and political conflicts in that country had brought it greater notoriety. When you add to that the fact that the country was known as Ceylon before 1971, the lack of awareness was perfectly understandable.

So I developed a standard follow up statement where I said that it was a small island off the southern tip of India. Usually that was sufficient for them to roughly place it. But then I met a friendly woman who asked me where I was from and when said ‘Sri Lanka’ she gave me the usual blank look. When I added the India reference, she brightened up and said, “Oh, so you’re from South America!”

It is said that international crises is the means by which Americans learn at least some geography, that it is only when the US is on the verge of starting yet another war with yet another country that people make the effort to figure out exactly where that country is. But even then, the results are mixed.

Take North Korea, which has been in the news for at least a decade as fears have arisen that they may be developing the capability to have their missiles reach the US. So can Americans place it on a map of the world? The results of a survey of 1,746 adults suggests, not so much. Interestingly, some people even place it in Sri Lanka. But at least no one thought that it was in South America, so that’s progress.

It would be interesting to see if Donald Trump, the person who has been highly critical of North Korea, can place it on the map.

I was reminded of these two scenes from the film Game Change based on the 2008 election where Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin (played by Julianne Moore) gets briefings on foreign affairs. I suspect that something similar is being attempted with the current president except that he thinks he already knows everything that is worth knowing and would not dream of doing something that only losers do, such as ‘listening to experts’ and ‘taking notes’.


  1. Chiroptera says

    This is one of the things that I never understood when I was younger. When I was in grade through (right through high school!), I would spend hours pouring over maps. When reading a book, I would be turning to the maps over and over again for reference. I would spend hours going through an Atlas.

    I figured that everyone was like this. I was shocked after high school to find out how ignorant so many Americans are about geography and thus not everyone had the same fascination with maps that I did.

    Now, of course, I’ve long learned not to assume that people have the same interests or the same experiences that I have had, but it took a few shocks like this.

  2. says

    @Chiroptera -- glad to know I am not the only one!! I loved maps and globes and such as a kid. Especially subway maps (b/c they almost all use the visual design of the original Paris subway map)
    I used to play a game where I’d time myself to find places on a globe. Until it got too easy.

  3. raym says

    Another map lover here. My knowledge about various countries was first accumulated during my childhood hobby of collecting stamps, from which I learned all manner of useful and interesting things. This was sufficiently long ago that I have stamps only from Ceylon, not Sri Lanka!

  4. Bruce says

    Mano, you can’t rejoice that nobody thought that North Korea is in South America, because the survey asked people to pick a spot on a map of Asia, which did not offer any other continents as options.
    I’m surprised that people around 40 years old had such difficulty. I would have thought that they would recall the TV show M*A*S*H, although fans might not recall that it was set in the Korean War, even though it was one of the most popular US TV shows ever.
    I note that as people were younger, they were more likely to know. I wonder if this is related to habits of inquiry and internet access related to smartphone usage?

  5. mnb0 says

    Guys above -- count me in as well. Until I turned 12 I greatly enjoyed learning topography -- my record is 120 names in one day (Russia).
    I’ve still got it to some extent. If you want to piss me off you must include maps in a book that don’t show important topographical names the text writes about. Once I “traveled” through the Ural from north to south by searching pictures on internet.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    I, too, loved atlases and globes but I think I was in high school when I figured out that political boundaries are not permanent.

  7. says

    When I bought my studio (an old 1950s elementary school) it came with geographic maps of the world, including the great big blob “USSR” in red. Now there is a Poland again and only 1 germany. It’s interesting to me how much blood is spilled to move various lines on maps around for a few years.

  8. chigau (違う) says

    I Am Canadian.
    I remember wall maps of the (pink) British Empire.
    It was everywhere. The sun never set.

  9. Trickster Goddess says

    Count me in as another map geek.

    @Bruce: “I note that as people were younger, they were more likely to know. I wonder if this is related to habits of inquiry and internet access related to smartphone usage?”

    One day last summer I was walking past a construction site where the workers were relaxing on their lunch break. Amid the chatter, one worker, looking at his phone, loudly announced to his co-workers what the population of Nigeria was. This starkly contrasted my experiences as labourer back in the day when, if something similar had come up in discussion, the ignorance on the topic would only be outdone the bullshit.

  10. jrkrideau says

    @ Mano
    I have always suspected that G. W. Bush did not know where Afghanistan was before 9/11.

    I know of a prof in New York who always checks to make sure his students know where a) Europe and b) France is on a map before starting his lectures on Medieval affairs.

    IRRC, many have problem with France.

    @ 8 chigau
    Oh lord, the pull-down oil-skin ones? I remember them. And they were accurate until the 1960’s, well more or less. Let’s forget the India-Pakistan mess.

  11. Holms says

    I think those clips give Palin undue credit: that she is willing to sit down, pay attention, and take notes.

  12. KG says

    I remember wall maps of the (pink) British Empire. -chigau@8

    Ha! No wonder it didn’t last -- painting it such a girly colour! /s

  13. says

    There are only two kinds of maps Donald is interested. Those that show his electoral college victory, and those he can exclaim “Oh, that looks like a boot!” before colouring it in.

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