WOULD YOU LIKE to be in Brazil right now? Well, apparently that's where many of America's schoolchildren think you, we and they are. In a test of sixth-graders' knowledge of geography sponsored by the Dallas Times-Herald, 20 percent of the American children tested identified the outlines of Brazil on a map as those of the United States. Two organizations concerned with the teaching of geography cited this result in releasing a report last week that raises the question of whether American schools are fostering "widespread geography illiteracy."
At the same time, another question occurs to us as we stroll along the banks of the Amazon: how many times over the past 15 or 20 years have we read or heard of some new test, survey or multiple- choice quiz that revealed immense gaps in knowledge or awe-inspiring misconceptions shared by large segments of the population? Without being too facetious (just moderately facetious) about it, we mean things like the following, all usually reported with considerable solemnity and alarm: 63 percent of elementary school students tested were unable to answer the question "Who is our president?", or deliberately mumbled their answers; 57 percent of high school sophomores could not write a coherent account of what they had for lunch that day; three- quarters of all Americans, on a true-false question, said the Bill of Rights appeared to be the work of a conspiracy; 45 percent of first-graders could not read a simple sentence or tie their own shoes.
News stories like these are a perennial favorite. They could make you wonder: how do we even get to work in the morning? At what point does all this catch up with us and the country simply dissolve into a vast puddle of ignorance and incompetence? Or, in view of the fact that such a catastrophe hasn't come to pass yet, they could lead you to conclude that the state of our learning, while not nearly so good as it needs to be, is probably not quite so bad as it sometimes has to appear to be to make the evening news or the morning paper.