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Monday, Dec. 29, 2014

Geo-Illiteracy?

Friday, February 1, 2013

A press release blows across my disheveled desk, citing yet another Study That Someone Got Paid For, screaming out in a bold, book-caps, san-serify way, "Our Kids Need to Know More About Geography!"

(They threw in the exclamation point for good measure. Has to be important if it has an exclamation point.)

Zowie, you don't say. Shocker. And without this crack team and its crucial research, we would have thunk that our children surely needed to know less.

How manner of hillbillies do they think readers are? I mean really, is there any subject that a study would ever find that our kids don't need to learn any more about? OK, maybe sex ed, since most of the high schoolers could already teach the teachers on several of the finer points. But nah, we're paying taxes, load them up with more of thet thar book larnin' on ever'thang.

As the infomercials tell us, "But Wait, There's MORE!"

Following the study, Senator Thad Cochran, a Republican from Mississippi, introduced a bill that would fund a four-year, $60 million program to "enhance" the teaching of geography in public schools around the country. (The study found, in part, that absolutely no one knows Mississippi exists, which apparently ticked the old Thadster off royally.)

Our supposed leaders can't find a few bucks to send a kid to preschool, we can't keep up grants to support before and after school programs, we can't afford to maintain art and music at some of our public schools, but give us a "study" and suddenly we'll get in a huff and find millions to "enhance" whatever.

Apparently, the need is dire as heck.

A National Geographic survey found that while a ton of our soldiers are stationed there, nine out of ten educated Americans age 18-24 couldn't find Afghanistan on a map.

Yeah yeah. I suppose half of those responding folks thought Afghanistan was a death metal band, 20 percent were too busy texting on their cell phones to hear the question, 10 percent asked if they could still transfer out of this class, and one dude rolled up the map and attempted to smoke it.

I dug up the actual survey. Here's one of the questions it asked, true story:

"Which of these cities is the setting for the original television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation?"

What kind of geography test is this? Sounds more like a pop culture test. And the original CSI was on 13 years ago... it

could have been set in Sac City for all I remember.

What's next? "Can you correctly identify which U.S. state is shaped like Taylor Swift's tush mole?"

According to Nat Geo, six in ten young American adults do not speak a foreign language fluently. If hip hop and South Shore Jerseyspeak were properly considered languages, they might have scored better.

Half of them don't have a clue where New York is on a map. (Um, next to Old York, bro?) I'm assuming that a fair portion aren't even certain what planet they are on at the moment.

There are always surveys out there claiming that American students are less educated than those of the rest of the world, as if our college kids were chimps sitting in classrooms staring blankly at red rubber balls while infants in Indonesia are doing quantum physics just for fun.

Not to say that we shouldn't be concerned, but I do suspect these "studies" are designed specifically to produce their "alarming" results. Who would read an article on a lengthy, expensive, long-term study that discovered, in fact, that young Americans are pretty okay?

So are we as desperately stupid as such studies make us look? (Or perhaps our smart kids are too busy hacking football players dating lives to take silly tests?) Perhaps our society just values learning of different types.

We know lots more about tattoos and video games and too-small graphic tee shirts and mall food courts and Charlie Sheen quotations, for example, than most any tribe in the rain forest does! We'd tell you your darn surveys are full of cultural bias, if we weren't worried that you would ask us to spell, "cultural."

Leaning has evolved. Kids graduating here could program a complex website for you with their eyes shut, but when they wait on me at the local pizza restaurant, and my meal costs $7.75 and I hand them $8, they need to punch away at a calculator for five minutes to figure out the change.

One can't sell the importance of geography short. Perhaps one day we will be in an airport and a rich stranger will walk up to us and offer us a free ticket to anywhere we can point to on the map.

We wouldn't want to take a stab and say triumphantly, "There, Cancun! Boo-yah!" and have the guy shake his head, reply, "No, einstein, that's a coffee stain," and turn and walk away.

But here's the thing. More important than being able to identify every country on a globe, today, is awareness of cultural differences within that world.

Today's young people will inherit a world full of political, social, religious, racial and environmental challenges. They will need to wage peace, repair peoples torn apart by disasters as yet unimagined. There is a lot more to this than a geography quiz.

Good luck kids. If your head isn't filled perfectly, try to make sure your heart is. And, always carry a map.