Study: Young Americans need a refresher course in world geography

Despite daily news coverage and a war in the Middle East, nine-out-of-10 young Americans can’t identify Afghanistan on a map, according to a recent study.

The study, by the Nation Geographic and Roper Public Affairs 2006 Literacy Study, is suggesting that young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are geographically illiterate, have a limited knowledge of the world and fail to understand their place in it.

The 2006 study interviewed 510 young adults ages 18 to 24, without regard to their student status, in their homes across the country to measure their level of geographic literacy. The interviews included a questionnaire, face-to-face interview and map identification.

Sixty-three percent of young adults cannot find Iraq on a map and only a quarter can locate Iran or Israel. After the October 2005 Pakistani earthquake that killed more than 70,000 people, 35 percent of people could identify the country.

Questions about U.S. geography had similar results. After intense media coverage following Hurricane Katrina, one-third of those surveyed couldn’t find either Louisiana or Mississippi. Half couldn’t find New York, the third most populated state in the country.

“It’s surprising that so many people are basically geographically illiterate,” said Richard Forster, associate geography professor. “In today’s world, we should be more engaged, because when you don’t even know where a country is located, it just continues to play to the ignorant American stereotype.”

In an increasingly globalized world, it is particularly important that young adults know the world they have to live in, Forster said. If young people ever want to solve today’s problems, they will need to know the basics of location.

This ignorance isn’t shocking to many Americans, however. In the study, 28 percent of people said knowing where countries in the news are located was absolutely necessary. Further, more than half said it isn’t important to speak a foreign language.

Young adults think that geography isn’t relevant, that it is just something they learned in junior high and didn’t retain, Forster said, but in today’s post-9/11 world, understanding the history, culture and conflict of a country is always relevant.

“The first step to understanding current events is knowing how to read a map,” Forster said.

“I would suspect that this illiteracy is a bigger problem when compared (with) Europe because America is disconnected by two oceans,” he said.

Young Americans are isolated, so they don’t see the relevance of knowing places beyond their own, Forster said.

Americans are further geographically illiterate because the Internet has blurred the importance of location, he said.

“On the Internet, location doesn’t matter because you can shop online and read news anywhere from anywhere and place doesn’t matter,” Forster added.

“If you don’t know your own country’s geography, then you’ve lived in a box,” said Arielle Elwood, an undeclared freshman.

Geography is crucial, and people should recognize the importance of knowing their own nationality. They need to start learning the history of other places, she said, and this study simply brings this point to everyone’s attention.

The results are discouraging, and “I hope that the percentages are skewed and that people aren’t that ignorant about the world,” Forster said.

But as surprising as this trend is, it can be remedied. “All it would take to reverse this trend is for people to pay attention to current events,” he said.