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’.