CAN YOU NAME the eight states that border Missouri? Gil Grosvenor can, but then he's the head of the National Geographic Society.
If he has his way, pretty soon most Americans -- or at least the young ones -- will be able to rattle off Missouri's neighbors also, along with more useful information, such as where America is.
Grosvenor's not kidding, things are that bad. In Baltimore, according to a Society survey, 45 percent of the schoolchildren could not color in the continental United States (never mind Alaska and Hawaii) on a world map. A quarter of the kids in Dallas can't tell you what country borders the United States on the south. Two out of every five Boston children dunno what New England is. At a respected midwestern university, only one freshman in 20 could find Vietnam on a map.
Americans, in short, are geographically illiterate, and that finding has put a damper on the Society's centennial celebration, which began this week. After all, National Geographic magazine goes to one in five American households, so how come after a century of superbly illustrated articles covering virtually every hectare of our planet, most Americans know hardly any geography?
While the Society accepts some of the blame, Grosvenor says the main problem is that geography as an independent subject has all but vanished from U.S. schools, and most of what is taught is dull and outdated. NGS has created a new foundation for geographical education, with $20 million in seed money and at least an equal amount pledged in matching funds.
"We're going to make geography exciting again," Grosvenor says, by supporting better training for teachers and developing videodiscs, interactive computer programs and other space-age classroom tools that will capture the attention of video-saturated, computerwise kids. They're talking real high-tech and have enlisted Steven Spielberg and the Apple computer folks, among others.
A taste of the tools NGS hopes to have in classrooms within the coming decade is the "Metavision" show at the end of the Society's centennial exhibit in Explorers Hall. Using laser videodisc technology, three synchronized projectors on a 23-foot screen and an "audio hologram" digital sound system, "Honoring the Earth . . . Seeking the Stars" all but grabs you by the lapels. And take home the Society's new "Global Pursuit" game ($19.95), so that the next time they have a survey, your kids can identify where Japan is.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CENTENNIAL --
Through 1988 in Explorers Hall, 17th & M NW.