The National Geographic Society thinks today's young people are a lost generation -- geographically speaking, that is. But the society's own maps may be leading youths astray.

The society cites highly publicized results of geography quizzes: "25 percent of high school seniors in Dallas didn't know that Mexico is the country to the south of the United States." In a poll of freshmen at a Midwestern college, "95 percent could not locate Vietnam on a map of the world."

To help today's young people find their way in the world, National Geographic, among others, is cosponsoring a drive to combat "geographic ignorance," bolstered by a joint resolution of Congress. They have designated this week, Nov. 15-21, "Geography Awareness Week."

Their campaign will focus on public education, mainly of teachers, to rejuvenate the study of geography in our nation's schools. But the society will not revise its popular world map, which geographers believe presents a distorted vision of the Earth that amounts to a picture of another world.

The world maps most Americans are used to seeing portray fairly accurately the shapes of the world's landmasses. However, geographers say these maps grossly distort the relative sizes of landmasses and the distances between them. The maps also invariably present a Europe-centered northern perspective.

The maps most of us see are based on the Mercator projection world map, developed by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in the 16th century. Mercator's map was a breakthrough during his age of seagoing world explorers, because it permitted the plotting of straight navigational courses on a flat map. However, the map was only intended to be used for navigation.

"Unfortunately, the Mercator map was adopted as a geographical instrument," said John P. Snyder, chairman of the Committee on Map Projections of the American Cartographic Association. And down the centuries it has become most people's "mental map" of the world. It has come to represent "what the world should look like," Snyder said.

But not what the world does look like. "If a kid sees a Mercator map every day, it will give him an impression of the world that is absolutely incorrect," said Marvin Gordon, geography professor at the George Washington University.

Mercator had to grossly inflate the landmasses in the northernmost portions of his map to permit straight-line navigation. But his distortions have become our world view. They make countries in the Third World appear relatively smaller than they are. For example, on Mercator maps, Europe is made to look larger than South America, which is actually twice as large. And North America is made to look larger than Africa, which is by far the larger continent.

The Mercator map also leads to some woolly thinking about physics. Its northern, Europe-centered perspective, which has become the standard in the United States, leaves people confused about which way is up. Viewers of the map "associate north with 'up' and south with 'down,' " according to Russell Gerlach, chairman of the National Council for Geographic Education, which is also cosponsoring Geography Awareness Week. "This leads students to assume that all rivers flow south or 'downhill,' " Gerlach said.

The Mercator map also distorts distances. "Europe is much closer to us than South America," says Gerlach, contrary to appearances on the map, which also makes the Soviet Union appear to be a world away. People don't realize that Soviet missiles "would come over the North Pole" and are closer than we think, Gerlach said.

Such misconceptions persist because the influence of the Mercator map is pervasive. It is the map that children likely will see on the classroom wall and the one that most adults will purchase at book and map stores. The largest selling world map is published by Rand McNally and is a Mercator projection. The State Department uses Mercator projections on its official maps. And Mercator maps are often seen in backdrops on network news broadcasts. The ubiquity of the map makes publishers shy away from promoting a more accurate alternative, which would look strange to Mercator-adjusted minds. People would probably shun it. "It's unfortunate," said Snyder.

Geographers have long acknowledged the distortions of the Mercator map. Some years ago, the National Geographic Society adopted the Van der Grinten projection for its world maps, to correct some of the distortions. But that map "is a lot like the Mercator map," said Arthur Robinson, emeritus professor of cartography at the University of Wisconsin. It also greatly distorts the sizes of northern landmasses, Robinson said.

National Geographic is making a large commitment to the current drive, spending $5 million overall to raise the geographical consciousness of youth. But the society has no plans to revise its popular world map.

Geoffrey Underwood, a spokesman for the Geography Education Program at the National Geographic Society, said that children who are asked to draw their own world maps routinely draw an oversized Northern Hemisphere, especially Europe. Asked how much National Geographic's own maps contribute to the geographic disorientation of youth, Underwood said, "I'm sure quite a bit."

Underwood said his group will hold seminars for teachers to show them how to use alternative map projections to clarify for children the distortions in popular world maps. Among the alternatives available is the controversial Gall-Peters equal area projection, developed by the Rev. J. Gall in 1855 and again by German cartographer Arno Peters in 1967.

The Peters map is an "equal area" projection, making its rendition of the relative sizes of Earth's landmasses accurate "by definition," Robinson said. These accurate size relationships come at the expense of severe distortions in the shapes of the continents. Thus, while South America and Africa appear relatively much larger on Peters maps than on Mercator projections, their shapes are squeezed and elongated. According to Robinson, the Peters map looks like the world seen "in a fun-house mirror."

However, Audrey Miller, director of the Friendship Press, publishers of the Peters map, says it is "important to understand the real distribution of landmass in the world." She claims viewing the Peters map will teach people that "the Third World peoples are really the two-thirds world peoples."

Another alternative is the Dymaxion world map, developed by futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. This map presents a nearly equal-area projection with a radical North Polar perspective. Indeed, there are as many different possible world map perspectives as there are countries. One map capsizes the conventional Mercator world view by placing Australia on the top of the world and North America on the bottom, "upside down" to our way of thinking.

Gerlach believes these different map projections should be made available to schoolchildren to "get them to realize it's a spherical world." He would move away from the practice of showing children only Europe-centered maps. "I would like to see North Polar projections, South Polar projections," he said.

Of course, one sure way to defeat the distortions of flat maps is to consult a globe. "The only true representation of the way the world actually looks is a globe," Gordon said.

Robert Cwiklik is the author of "Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity."