One of the less-publicized acts of the recently departed Congress was to pass a bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) proclaiming a "National Geography Awareness Week." It was a symbolic action, to be sure, but one that should not be trivialized in view of the alarming degree of geographical illiteracy in the United States today. A few examples will suffice.
In a recent survey of the University of Miami, 30 percent of the students could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a world map.
Nearly half of the college students in a California poll could not identify the location of Japan.
The results of a recent survey of 5,000 high school seniors in eight major cities revealed that 25 percent of the high school students in Dallas could not name the country that borders the United States on the south; 50 percent of the students in Hartford were unable to name three countries in Africa; 45 percent of those in Baltimore could not shade in the area representing the United States on a map.
Closer to home, when a television station in Washington asked 500 high school students to name the large country north of the United States, 14 percent guessed incorrectly. One said Delaware. In Georgetown University's most competitive freshman class ever admitted (with mean SAT scores of nearly 1400), only 23 of the 225 students taking a placement exam in geography scored above the cutoff line that would exempt them from a course titled "Map of the Modern World."
Unfortunately, geographical ignorance in this country not only is prevalent but is rapidly spreading. In a geography test conducted in the North Carolina college system in 1984, students scored 27 points lower than on the same test conducted in 1950, at which time the results were considered "shockingly low." In the same vein, a New York Times survey in 1950 revealed that 84 percent of the respondents knew Manila was the capital of the Philippines; by 1984 this figure had dropped to 27 percent. And in a 1984 study at a college in Indiana, 95 percent of the freshmen could not locate Vietnam on a world map! Indeed, as National Geographic Society President Gilbert M. Grosvenor recently said: "American kids are in the forefront of protesting South African government politics. My problem is that they don't know where South Africa is, and they don't know anything about South Africa."
These facts of geographical illiteracy are well documented. What is more distressing than the mere ignorance of the locations of states, rivers, capital cities and other toponymic geographical features is the fact that the increasing geographical ignorance prevalent in this country's educational system, as well as throughout the society, contributes to a fundamentally unsound and ethnocentric world view.
There is no problem in this world that is exclusively geographical. Yet at the same time there are few problems that are not in some way geographical -- that is, they have a spatial component. This spatial aspect is one of two dimensions -- the other being time -- within which physical and human activities forge the systems of man/land relations. And just as political and cultural processes should not be seen as being determined by geographical conditions, it is folly as well to be ignorant of the geographical factors in policy formation and decision-making.
The discipline of geography has undergone a substantial transformation in recent years, so that geographers today are concerned not only with where things are but also why. Contemporary geography stresses the dynamic nature of man-environment interrelationships -- the processes involved with the movement of goods and services, the exchange of ideas, and the objective criteria underlying political and social instability. In this sense it is important to understand that geography, as opposed to geology, is based on human institutions, be they economic, cultural or political.
Problems of food supply, urbanization, refugee migration, trade and warfare all have dynamic spatial components that lend themselves quite readily to an analysis from a geographical perspective. Topics being investigated today by political geographers, for instance, include the role of territoriality and the rise of ethnicity; the internal organization of states and nations; the influence of regional and supranational organizations; the electoral consequences of changing patterns of population growth; and the geopolitics of trade relations between the industrial and underdeveloped worlds.
The conspicuous deficiency in geographical knowledge in the United States comes at a time when the challenges of a global community increasingly require the use of geographical training and expertise to help resolve complex problems of international and international conflict. The objective realities of geography, when placed in the proper conceptual context, can make a valuable contribution not just to the pursuit of trivia, but to the pursuit of critical thinking and rational decision-making in the world today. The writer is an assistant professor at the School of International Service, The American University.