MOST AMERICANS ARE pitifully ignorant of geography. This was clearly demonstrated recently when the Gallup Organization sent its pollsters to Chicago to ask randomly selected residents if they could name at least three of the six major continents. The results were shocking: Most of the pollsters never found Chicago at all; of those who did, all but one fell into the Chicago River.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident of American geographical ignorance. Just last month, the major U.S. airlines, investigating an increase in the number of delayed flights, discovered that many of their pilots cannot read maps and are finding their destination cities by, in the words of an airline spokesperson, "flying real low and following buses."
What is the cause of this disgraceful lack of knowledge? I blame the same institution that is responsible for crime, sex, godlessness and millions of square miles of badly drawn refrigerator art: our school system. I studied geography in the fifth grade, and I remember that instead of just telling us where things were, the teacher insisted that we make relief maps of the United States by mixing flour and water into a paste and smearing it on a shirt cardboard so as to form important geographical features such as the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, Disneyland, etc. Evidently I put too much water in my paste, because my United States was a featureless amoeba-like blob, with whole population centers such as New England oozing completely off the cardboard and forming new, uncharted territories on the floor.
As a direct result, I grew up, like most Americans, with a poor grasp of geography. That is why, in a recent column about nude TV weather forecasts in the Czech Republic, I made the following statement, which turns out to be incorrect: "Until 1993, the Czech Republic was connected with Slovakia; together they went by the name `Hungary.' "
This is simply not true, as was pointed out to me by many informed readers. Some of these people were quite upset, as we see from these quotes from their letters, which I am not making up:
*"Clearly, your knowledge of historical facts is a clear example that the dumbing down of America has succeeded."
*"It is disgusting to find out that you columnists know so little. You probably do not know where Vietnam or Indonesia is located. It is not uncommon that the American children do not even know or care where Mexico is situated. And your adults are not better. Thank God, I received my education in Europe."
*"The column's credibility was tainted by the gaff."
*"How in the world did this get through the editors?"
In response, let me first state that, in the famous words of Thomas Jefferson, "The buck stops here." If there is a gaff tainting my column, I take full responsibility for it. It is not the fault of the editors; I'm sure they never saw it. Modern newspaper editors don't have time to read the newspaper; they spend their days in lengthy "brainstorming" sessions with other editors wherein they try to decide what to do about the Internet.
Second, Mr. "I-Was-Educated-in-Europe": I do too know where Vietnam (or, as it is sometimes called, "Indonesia") is located: It is located overseas. So there! And speaking of locating things: If the people in Europe are soooooo smart, how come so many of them can't seem to locate the deodorant, huh?
But there is no need to become petty or defensive. The simple fact is, I "blew it," and I want to set the record straight now: When the Czech Republic and Slovakia were connected, they were called -- this now seems so obvious, when I look at the names "Czech" and "Slovakia" together -- "The Netherlands." (Incidentally, this was the original location of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.)
I pledge that from now on I will strive for geographical accuracy in my columns. You parents can also help to raise our national "Geography IQ": The next time your kids ask if they can watch TV or play a video game or take their insulin, you should say: "No! Not until you name all six major continents!" (Answer: America, Central America, South America, Latin America, Euthanasia and Shaquille O'Neal.)
In closing, I wish to apologize to any readers of Czech descent whom I offended by my error. I also want to thank those who sent nice letters, especially Ed Cerny of Conway, S.C., who wrote to tell me that at one time the motto of the official Czech airline was: "Okay and Getting Better." This really makes me want to go there. By bus.