Are We Really Geo-Illiterate?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A press release slithers across my desk, citing yet another Study That Someone Got Paid For, screaming out in a bold 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.)

You Don't Say! Zowie! Thanks Very Much For That Study! We Woulda Thunk They Needed to Know Less!

I mean really, is there ary subject that a study would find that our kids need to learn less about? Okay, maybe The Jersey Shore. But school subjects? Nah, we're paying taxes, load them up with more book larnin' on everything.

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

Following the study, in March, 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 no one knows Mississippi exists.)

We 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 keep art and music at some of our public schools, but give us a "study" and we'll find millions to "enhance" whatever.

Apparently, the need is dire.

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

Yeah yeah. I suppose three thought Afghanistan was a death metal band, three were too busy texting on their cell phones to hear the question, two asked if they could transfer out of this class, and one 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 11 years ago... it could have been set in Des Moines for all I remember.

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

According to Nat Geo, six in ten young American adults do not speak a foreign language fluently, and half of them don't have a clue where New York is. (Um, next to Old York, dude?)

I'm assuming that a fair portion aren't even ceratin 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 are chimps sitting in classrooms staring at red rubber balls while preschoolers in Indonesia are doing quantum physics 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 really horrifically stupid? No way! We just value 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 $6.50 and I hand them $7, 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, the South of France! 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 map, today it is awareness of cultural differences.

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 natural disasters. There is a lot more to this than a geography quiz.

For the 49th consecutive year, I was not invited to address any graduation this year. I didn't expect Harvard, but I thought maybe I'd get an invite from a preschool, juvenile detention center or at least a dog obedience class commencement.

Nevertheless, I have saved this quote, from an anonymous source, just in case. Consider it the shortest grad speech ever, but danged if it doesn't cover it all.

"This is my wish for you: Comfort on difficult days, smiles when sadness intrudes, rainbows to follow the clouds, laughter to kiss your lips, sunsets to warm your heart, hugs when spirits sag, beauty for your eyes to see, friendships to brighten your being, faith so that you can believe, confidence for when you doubt, courage to know yourself, patience to accept the truth, Love to complete your life." Good luck. Carry a map.