How, if at all, is geography taught in schools in the USA?
January 1, 2007 7:59 PM   Subscribe

How, if at all, is geography taught in schools in the USA?

It's a cliché about people from the USA that they are ignorant of geography. Not just world geography but their own as well. And I have to say that my experience ("You're from Australia? You speak English very well!" "You're British? I thought you were from England!") has confirmed the cliché somewhat.

I realise that quoting from the "overheard in" group of websites isn't exactly scientific, but their material is supposedly taken from real-life conversations.

Just from the last couple of weeks, there's been a woman who has apparently never seen a map of North America, a Harvard MBA student who doesn't think that Philadelphia is big enough to have an airport, a student who's applied to university in Miami, but doesn't know that Miami is in the USA, someone who clearly thinks Omaha is a state, and this person who sums up the whole phenomenon.

So, is there some explanation in the school system for this? Are children in Texas, for instance, taught only the geography of Texas? Is there one particular social/geographical/age group providing all these examples? Obviously some people do have a basic grounding in geography because they're sending in these hilarious examples. They can't all be from ex-pats!
posted by AmbroseChapel to Education (54 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm 18 and a recent graduate from high school (June 2006) so maybe I can help out a bit.

I really did not learn too much geography in my years in my town's public school system. In 4th grade, I learned all the states and their capitals, but other than that, I did not learn too much. When we talked about events in history class, the teacher would show us maps, but never did I get a larger perspective on geography, only what mattered for the material we were covering.

I also learned about Germany and the countries surrounding it from my German class, and I know my friends who took a class called "Global Insights" had to learn the location of every country.

In elementary school, I also could sing all 50 states in alphabetical order, but that is a different story all together...
posted by deansfurniture5 at 8:08 PM on January 1, 2007

BTW, that is at a public school in Massachusetts, if that matters at all.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 8:09 PM on January 1, 2007

I graduated in 1998 from a very small school in very rural North Dakota (graduating class of 20). From grades 3-6, we had a very basic 'social studies' curriculum which was essentially an overview of world geography and culture. Grade 7 was a fully year of geography. After that, nothing except more specific knowledge as required in, say, a history course.
posted by nathan_teske at 8:14 PM on January 1, 2007

I think it boils down to three things: 1) a general xenophobia that precludes kids from wanting to know about different cultures (and attendant geographic details), 2) a general failure of the education system to consistently produce students who want to learn, and 3) not enough emphasis in the curriculum.

I had one class in middle school that was solely devoted to geography, any other information was taught on a per-topic basis as part of History. There was very little exposure to learning about current events, as well. (Maryland school system, 1990s).
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:14 PM on January 1, 2007

In my 12th grade history class, something like 20% of our final grade was based on the sum of 5 pop quizzes, spread throughout the year, where we were given a blank map of the 50 US states and had to write in their names.

Worked for me. I never talked to anyone else in high school, so I'm not sure how it worked for them.
posted by trevyn at 8:17 PM on January 1, 2007

Here are the geography standards that some states have adopted all or part of. This intro will tell you a little more about it. I remember learning all the states and capitals (seventh grade, probably also earlier), all the Canadian provinces and then maps for the countries we were studying in history. My European geography is horrible and it would be worse if I wasn't fairly well-travelled. I also went to school in Massachusetts, but quite a bit earlier than deansfurniture5.
posted by jessamyn at 8:19 PM on January 1, 2007

U.S. Geographic Illiteracy Statistics
U.S. Participants Ages 18 to 24 (2002)

U.S. Statistic Highlights
89% of American could locate the United States on a map whereas 95% of the French could locate the United States. It's embarrassing that roughly 1 in 10 Americans could NOT find their own country on a map.

* 49% of Americans could not find New York State on a map
* 51% could not locate Pennsylvania
* 69% could not find Massachusetts

World Statistic Highlights

* 30% could not locate the Pacific Ocean
* 56% could not locate India
* 63% of Americans could not find England on a map.
* 93% of Swedes could find the United States.
* Only 16% of Americans could find Sweden
* It's embarrassing to note that 85% of Americans, before the War with Iraq, could not locate Iraq on a map.
* Ironically, 34% of Americans knew the small island in the South Pacific where the one of the "Survivor" shows was filmed.

Out of nine countries tested, the U.S. came in eighth place. Here are the countries in order of their performance (best to worst):

1. Sweden
2. Germany
3. Italy
4. France
5. Japan
6. Great Britain
7. Canada
8. United States
9. Mexico
posted by toucano at 8:24 PM on January 1, 2007

there are different standards for every state...

personally in 4th grade i learned states, but moved before we learned capitals...and the school i moved to had already done to this day i don't know some of them XD

in 6th grade we learned canadian provinces, and central and south american countries.

years of spanish class taught me all the spanish speaking countries.

and in 11th grade i had world cultures where our final grade was based on a blank world map that we had to fill in every country and capital. (that was the best feeling ever too. i still retain a lot of the information years later, but i could really use a refresher)
posted by thisisnotkatrina at 8:25 PM on January 1, 2007

Part of it may be that the "social studies" curriculum in high school (at least when I went to school in the 1980s) was largely history and American government; geography was mostly done in elementary school, so the 20-somethings overheard in New York may not have been tested on the U.S. map in 10 years or so. In 4th grade we had to learn the names of all the counties in Maryland, but not where they were, if I remember right.

To put a forgiving spin on it; the U.S. is a big country and lots of Americans have hardly been to any of it. I met intelligent Californians in college who didn't know Delaware was a state, which I thought was crazy. On the other hand, I recently looked down a list of U.S. cities by population and discovered that there was a city of over 300,000 in California I had never heard of, the 54th largest in the country. It's not that much smaller than Delaware. So if you're feeling proud of your geography, go down the list and see how soon you get to a place you didn't know existed!
posted by escabeche at 8:30 PM on January 1, 2007

Several of those "Overheard in New York" chestnuts are highly dubious, at best.

That US natives are more geographically illiterate than Europeans (if that is the case) speaks as much to our spatial separation from other countries as any other single factor (and yes, I will allow that the pervasive US ignorance of Mexico/Canada is pretty deplorable).

As far as the chicken-little stuff that gets slung around whenever someone chooses to run a "VERYHIGH% of Graduating Seniors Can't Find COUNTRYWE'REINVADING on a Map!!!" in this hand-wringing kind of "what are we coming to" manner... eh, I'm not impressed. Personal geographies are far more important than geopolitical geographies to the average person.

Why do they need to locate Iraq? Are they responsible for navigating some overland route to Baghdad? Unlikely.

Developing a thorough understanding of Iraq (just to continue using this example) surely requires a multifaceted geographic literacy that co-equal to simple shape and position-identification of pointing to a place on the map and saying "this is it."

Geographic education in the US is just so much map-coloring and state-capital-remembering... creating children that can be replaced by the paint-bucket tool in MSPaint, and an almanac, respectively.

(BS, Geography, 2002. Yes, I can name all neighbors of Iraq, Clockwise... With Capitals. Then I could name all neighbors of neighbors of Iraq, Clockwise, With Capitals. And absolutely none of this alone is sufficient to make me even baseline-competant when talking about the Middle East)

(I also know only 38-40 US state capitals. A deep and abiding secret shame).
posted by cadastral at 8:37 PM on January 1, 2007

Standards vary by states, but sadly, geography just isn't usually taught as a subject unto itself. It's usually lumped into the history and generalized social studies curriculum.

personally in 4th grade i learned states ... in 6th grade we learned canadian provinces

This concept -- a gradual enlarging of the area being covered -- is pretty typical for U.S. schools, as it purports to mirror what the young mind can easily comprehend. Teaching the geography of the country in kindergarten is pointless, according to the theory, because the kids can barely conceive of the layout of their own city. So, for example, 3rd-graders may cover the city, 4th-graders cover the state, 5th-graders cover their own country.

Then, because high school is generally elective-driven, and geography is not even on the map, so to speak, it doesn't get covered in any comprehensive way. The curriculum just doesn't focus on, say, the names of the four major islands of Japan, or even what is meant by "the Persian Gulf."

So, it's more likely that your average American high school graduate can tell you more about the history and geography of their own state (hello, California missions!) than they can about other countries.

Personally, the single geography class I got -- meaning, it covered geography, by itself -- was a 7th grade elective in 1979.
posted by frogan at 8:40 PM on January 1, 2007

It varies state to state, city to city and school to school.

The social studies focus in my town's public school 9th grade year was geography. 10th grade was US history, 11th "Early Western Civ and Modern Europe", 12th was US government.

In primary school it was mainly focused on US geography. We did "country reports" occasionally, but the information wasn't shared. We had to learn the "Fifty Nifty" song to memorize the states. I *think* that in 3rd grade the focus was on Michigan history, 4th grade was other US states (I tried to grow a peach for Georgia), and 5th grade was countries (I did Jordan because I liked Jordan Knight from New Kids on the Block.)

I grew up in Michigan in the 1980s and 1990s. Now I live in California and I am amazed that in Michigan I was never taught that California belonged to Spain and Mexico before it belonged to the US. I think that in California schools, kids learn a bit more about Spanish and Mexican history.

My boyfriend says that in his Pennsylvania school in the 1970s and 1980s he had geography - both US and global only in 5th grade, public school. He doesn't recall it being taught at all in high school.
posted by k8t at 8:42 PM on January 1, 2007

I went to public school in small towns in Arkansas, where I was taught geography as a specific, half-year class in the 7th grade (i.e., age 12, though I was actually only 10 at the time). Homework consisted of drawing maps of each continent. The final test consisted of drawing a map of the world from memory on a large piece of paper with a requirement of labeling a certain number of countries, rivers, lakes, mountain ranges, cities, etc per continent. I believe we may have had to do the entire US, though I'm not sure.

Frankly, I absolutely hated the course at the time because I was a perfectionist when it came to the map drawing. I would constantly erase and redraw things trying to get them right. I seem to recall particularly loathing Bangladesh. Anyway, today I'm quite glad I got such a good grounding in geography, and having to know it well enough to reproduce the globe from memory has helped me to remember quite a lot of it.

On preview, I would say my course was considerably more educational than the map-coloring and state-capital-remembering that cadastral mentions.
posted by jedicus at 8:42 PM on January 1, 2007

My middle school geography teacher was an art teacher in another life and graded us mostly on how well we colored our maps, rather than overall correctness of our labeling.

So, I'm rather glad I at least know the 50 states & capitals and where most countries are located.

We were also taught very little about regions other than where they were located. Geography was more like memorizing the shapes of puzzle pieces than learning about the world.
posted by Sangre Azul at 8:44 PM on January 1, 2007

I definitely learned plenty of American and European geography in elementary school (class of 1997) and middle school (2000), but none in high school (2004). I attended rural, small, public schools in New England.

In elementary school, we had "social studies" instead of history. In social studies, we didn't learn much about dates and events (beyond, like, 1492 and 1776), but we learned about the different peoples of the world -- this is eaten in X country, Y country exports a lot of that, the traditional dress of Z country is whatever. We learned similar information about the different areas of the US.

Somewhere in these years, like in third or fourth grade, we learned at least the countries of Central & South America. We went over Africa in sections, but not by individual countries. We learned Australia as a whole, and we never did Canada at all (sorry guys).

By fifth grade, we were supposed to know all of the US's states and be able to place them all (given the outline of the country). We learned about US areas separately (one unit on New England, one unit on the South, etc.) and learned capitals in that context. We never had one big test on matching all the capitals with all the states.

In middle school, history replaced social studies. We went over (and over, and over) American history. However, in seventh grade, one unit was on Eurasia. By the end of it, we were supposed to be able to label every country in Europe and Asia, and to draw in and label the capitals. Then we hit the Revolutionary War and blammo, back to American history.

In high school, we did more American history. I had one AP class that was pretty decent, but the other courses were terrible. Geography was never explicitly mentioned, but it was assumed we knew that the Boston Massacre took place in Massachusetts, and that South Carolina didn't almost fight for the North.

One obvious failing was the lack of follow-through in geography. If you couldn't remember which Virginia was shaped like a jellyfish, or if you didn't know the capital of Vatican City, you got a few points off on a single unit test. You wouldn't even get caught on a midterm or final (we didn't have them in elementary or middle school). I think in high school, we were just supposed to know relevant information, so geography never came up. It would have been easy to miss a capital or two in fifth grade, after which you would never be reminded you didn't know them.

Other than that, I think people are just being momentary ditzes, or they're forgetting stuff they learned when they were 10-15 -- which I'm sure I do; if I were given a blank map, I'd need a little trial and error before I could place all of the states. Also, think of how bad the average person is -- and then realize that half the population is worse.*

*not necessarily statistically true
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:48 PM on January 1, 2007

I live in Australia and during my University years, one of my lecturers, who taught a subject on American Politics, referred to the cliche you're also referring to. He made a very good point about why this is so.

America is an enormous country. It's landscape and climate in the north is vastly different to it's landscape and climate in the south. In many respects this is true of its culture, too. A resident of New York is an American but he is vastly different from his brother in Texas. Both are different from their brothers and sisters in California.

My lecturer made the point that because of the country's large size, and because of the vast changes in lifestyle and culture the average American would find as he travels his own country from north to south or east to west, America has tended to be a very inward looking country, politically speaking. And how this relates to the 'Haw haw, Yanks don't know geography unless they bomb it' cliche is, as my lecturer put it, if you have to get your head around so much to do with your own country, you're not going to spend alot of time memorising the geography and culture of the rest of the world.

I don't know how true this actually is (given I don't live in the US) but given my lecturer is supposed to be an expert on the US and specifically its politics, I give it some credence. I especially like it because it's more than just a simple "Ha, Americans are stoopid" explanation to this question.
posted by Effigy2000 at 8:50 PM on January 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

My experience was much like the one k8t described. Social studies was mandatory all four years of high school, with a different "specialization" each of those years. One year (10th, I think) the specialization was world geography. Though everyone took the class, as with everything else, the results were dependent upon the skill of the teachers and effort of the individual students.

(This was a public school in Illinois.)
posted by christie at 8:53 PM on January 1, 2007

I went to school in California. We did not have any geography whatsoever. The closest we came to it was memorizing a list of states and capitals, which was only in written form (no maps used). As with Frogan, we learned a little state history (missions) but no geography per se. This was in grade school-- in high school I had no geography at all, and certainly not in college or grad school.

I do not have the slightest idea where Philadelphia is, except that it's on the East Coast. I would not be able to tell you its population. I would not consider Miami to be on the East Coast, so I may be as stupid as the anonymous person overheard (although the passport and 'crazy shots' strikes me as what we humans refer to as 'joking'). I would not be able to locate Omaha on a map. Frankly, I don't think I would be able to locate Sweden on a map either, except for maybe pointing vaguely towards Scandinavia.

I may be exceedingly dim based on these criteria, but I've never had any need in life to point to any of these places on an unlabeled map, however often one comes across those.

I did once see a map of the world for sale in Slovakia, on which the capital of the U.S. was clearly written "Newport". A city by the same name was shown as the capital of Mexico. (No joke.) So the Slovaks, anecdotally speaking, are at least as dimwitted as myself.
posted by baklavabaklava at 9:06 PM on January 1, 2007

Rote memorization has a bad rap in the U.S., and as such our school system no longer attempts to make students memorize things just for the sheer hell of it.

Other than a few songs that help people name the fifty states and their capitals (although why they would want to do this is beyond me), American schools pretty much just teach you how to read maps and use an atlas. It's assumed that if you're interested in memorizing maps you can do that on your own time.

Your examples ("You're from Australia? You speak English very well!") are not about geography though; They're about culture. The United States is extremely self-sufficient, culture-wise, and given that you can travel 3000 miles in a straight line without crossing an international border, there's little reason for most Americans to look outwards at all.
posted by tkolar at 9:07 PM on January 1, 2007

I don't infer conspiracy, so I think there may be a humungous parochial blind spot down there in the US: To take into account the physical/spatial world around us would take into account differing cultures as well as the nonhuman environment full of other living things. That really isn't part of the mainstream mindset from the US, that I see. Capitals and general geography are incidental to a geographic way of thinking, it seems to me, though, sadly, IANAG. I was always told geography's not a lucrative thing to study. I guess the US marketing mavens and other businesspeople are into geography though: demographics, land use, all that.
posted by Listener at 9:10 PM on January 1, 2007

I had to learn the names and locations of all the states in the U.S., all the countries in the World, and all of their capitals. That was in 8th grade in California (though it was a private school). I don't recall learning much about the culture, just memorization of locations and capitals. I still miserably failed SFgate's geography test.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:34 PM on January 1, 2007

More than being unable to find places on maps, IME, most Americans are fairly ignorant concerning maps, period. But, so are most people of other nationalities.

I've worked in retail jobs where I was normally asked directions several times a day. My natural inclination was to whip out a map, and show people their routes, but I quickly learned that less than 1 in 20 people I offered to do this with accepted my offer. Most people, IME, do not bother to remain compass oriented (north, south, east and west, in directions mean little or nothing to them). Most people given waypoints and landmarks will be confused rather than helped by them.

And of those that know anything about conventionally used maps (Cartesian coordinates, latitude/longitude, elevation representations on contour maps) or even the basics of street maps or weather maps, only a small portion of those can take a large area flat map, such as a Mercator projection, and collapse it mentally, in any kind of reasonable way, onto a globe. Few people I meet can correctly visualize Alaska or Greenland, in reference to North America or Europe, much less Australia. 1 in 100 people I know (and only that high a percentage, because my circle of acquaintances includes a fair number of aviators) could describe to me the advantages of great circle routes for air travel.

I'll postulate that not having a working diagram of the world in your head as the set of abstractions that compose the pictorial representations we call maps, means that you haven't a ready mental structure for attaching subsequent information you learn about the world in an organized fashion. I say this because, IME, people that have a good grasp of geopgraphy are cartophiles, too. And while I might agree intellectually with cadastral that being able to find place on a map is worth little, of itself, in terms of broader geographical knowledge, my experience is that people who don't have a decent mental map of a place, simply don't retain much additional information about it either. So, the ability to find a place on a map becomes a pretty good indicator of whether a person knows anything else about it, too, in practice.

I do think the amount of geographical knowledge imparted by the American public school system is woefully inadequate. My own exposure to geography courtesy of the middle and high schools of Johnson County, Kansas in the mid-1960's was surpisingly good. I had geography as a class in 7th grade, and a further semester of geography in my sophmore year in high school, plus a fair bit of practicuum in maps as a result of various math and science courses, in which the teachers in my small high school seemed to cooperate in creating lesson plans. We focused in middle school on the geography of the Western Hemisphere, and by 8th grade, most people in my class knew what a Mercator projection's faults were, and had passed tests locating all the U.S. states, Canadian provinces, and countries of Central and South America. In high school, we focused on the geography of Europe and because of Vietnam, of what we still called then, Indo-China.

But my own children, going to Catholic schools in Nashville, TN, in the late 70's and early 80's, weren't so lucky. They learned very little about maps in school, and I wound up subscribing them to National Geographic, and teaching them map reading and basic navigation on our summer vacation trips. To this day, they both have fairly current Rand McNally road atlases in every car they drive, and prefer to consult maps and use a compass if needs be, rather than ask directions.

But if I was betting my own money, I'd take long odds against either of them, or both together, being able to point to Nepal on an unlabeled globe, or know that Togo is country on the African continent, or that most of the country of Japan is northeast of the entire Korean penisula.
And I think they are at least of average geographical knowledge, compared to other Americans.
posted by paulsc at 9:36 PM on January 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I moved around a lot in grade school, and I think the different school systems taught it at different levels, because I never really learned where countries where, etc.

I have a friend in Australia. The other day I mentioned we were going to my husband's home of Seattle, Washington. He asked, isn't that near where you're from? (Virginia) I explained that Washington DC was near VA, but Washington State was on the other side of the country. It took a few times of explaining and a map to make this clear. Then I had to explain what DC was.

He had an excuse - being from the other side of the world, I can't think of why he would know that we have two Washingtons and they are on opposite sides of the country. I have no idea what states/provinces/whatevers are in Australia. If I were going to live there, I would learn, but it's not really relevant, and so I don't try to learn it.

Geography is really not something most of us need to use very often. I have problem-solving skills - if I need to know where something is, I know how to find a map. :)
posted by jesirose at 9:49 PM on January 1, 2007

Obviously some people do have a basic grounding in geography because they're sending in these hilarious examples.

Obviously people don't send in examples of people knowing geography, because they're not hilarious, so this is a classic example of selection bias.
posted by smackfu at 10:02 PM on January 1, 2007

Response by poster: Just dropping in to say, interesting answers so far and thank you, but lots of people seem to be defending Americans against the charge of "not knowing where foreign countries are on a map of the world" whereas my bafflement stems more from people not even knowing the basic geography of their own country.

All of the examples I linked to were about Americans not knowing American geography.

I would have to think for a while before locating Iraq on a map too, but I like to think if I was an American I would at least know where Alaska was.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:18 PM on January 1, 2007

All of the examples I linked to were about Americans not knowing American geography.

The last one you linked to appeared to be more of a blonde joke than anything else.

The meme of "Americans don't know American geography" is not one that I'm aware of. The examples you provide are all of the "Boy, isn't this person stupid" variety, not the "Boy, isn't this stereotypical."
posted by tkolar at 10:32 PM on January 1, 2007

You seem baffled because dumb people don't know things, and somehow think that makes smart people also not know things. Sometimes people are just dumb.
posted by smackfu at 10:39 PM on January 1, 2007

I hope I can help dispell the misconception that Americans are ignorant!

As others have pointed out, public school curricula in the US are regulated by individual states. I graduated in 1999 from a school in New York state (which admittedly has comparatively high standards for education).

In New York, the subject that encompasses geography is referred to as "Social Studies" and combines history with geography and cultural studies; therefore geography was part of our curriculum in some form or another throughout my education. We did have to memorize all the states and their capitals in fifth grade, along with Canada's provinces and territories, and their capitals; however in general the approach was more holistic. If we were studying World War II, for example, knowing the various theaters around the world would have been part of the curriculum (and therefore knowledge of geography would have been essential), but after fifth grade I can't remember being given lists or maps to memorize. I think I learned much better without rote memorization, to be honest. I find it much easier to absorb facts when given a context.

I haven't heard of any American curriculum so deficient that it would only teach the geography of one state, or even one country for that matter. Effigy2000's comment strikes me as the most likely reason for these soundbites, as well as the fact that we all have lapses from time to time. But overwhelmingly, these comments are the exception and not the rule.

I apologize if my tone comes across as defensive, but living in Canada, the "ignorant American" assumption is something I encounter frequently. In fact, I have met Canadians who were shocked to learn that California is not within a day's drive of Toronto, that New England is not a state, and that Newfoundland has been Newfoundland and Labrador since 2001 (not to mention a whole host of misconceptions about their own governmental process); yet snort derisively at Americans. I cringe every time someone tells me I don't act American and expects me to take it as a compliment! I guess my point is that assuming Americans are generally ignorant is itself rather unenlightened.

Whew, enough ranting. I really do hope this was helpful to you! I enjoy overheard in the office too, and until now I never thought of how it does cast our society in a dim light. This is a very interesting thread.
posted by AV at 10:40 PM on January 1, 2007

I think students are pretty good at shutting out those topics they care little about. Let's face it... geography isn't a topic many people care about.

And I say this as a curious Geography geek who plastered his walls with maps as a child, participated in geography bees through high school, and double-majored in the subject (along with International Relations) as an undergraduate. I think it's a shame so many people can't find Iraq on a map, but I can't blame them for focusing their energy on topics of greater personal benefit and/or interest. I didn't put much time or effort into my classical literature classes, for example. As a high school student, I couldn't give a flying you-know-what about Shakspeare.

Anyway, for my personal experience as a public school student in Texas: in elementary and middle school, geography instruction was part of the overall social studies curriculum, consisting almost exclusively of memorizing names of countries and capitals and locating them on a map. US geography came first, and world geography came later. I don't recall any special emphasis on Texas geography, although there WAS special emphasis on Texas history. At the high school level, an actual Geography class was available as an elective. I didn't take the class, however, so I couldn't tell you about its scope.

It's worth noting that, in college, my favorite International Relations professor liked to give occasional geography quizzes in his classes (of which I enrolled in several over the years)... simple quizzes, really, involving matching country names to their location on a map. I was often surprised by how poorly many of my classmates performed on these quizzes. And I'm talking about some bright people here. Never quite understood that.
posted by jal0021 at 10:40 PM on January 1, 2007

I went to school in California. In elementary school (5th and 6th grades, IIRC) we had a little geography mixed in with history/social studies. We had to be able to identify all 50 U.S. states on a map, with their capitals, and also some major lakes/deserts/mountain ranges. Later we had to do the same for Canadian provinces and countries in "Latin America" (i.e. everything south of the U.S.). We never learned any geography of Europe, Asia, Africa, or Australia. In high school there was no geography at all. Our history books had lots of maps in them, but we were never expected to learn anything from them.

In 5th grade, everybody absolutely had to know all the U.S. states; you had to re-take the test until you got all of them. So at that point, everyone knew them. By high school, almost everybody had forgotten at least some of them. People were terrible about remembering history, too, so I don't think this is related to the nature of geographical knowledge; I'd say it's just general forgetfulness.

All those statistics and horror stories sound 100% believable to me. Speculating irresponsibly, though, I think it has something to do with the legendary American anti-intellectualism, but not much to do with the legendary American self-centeredness; I think people pretty much remember the stuff that's pounded into their heads most often, and there just wasn't very much pounding of geography.

I do think Americans know their local geography, though. Most New Yorkers don't have much use for knowledge of the Great Plains, but they know the Eastern Seaboard pretty well, etc. So there isn't some kind of anti-geography mental block or anything; people just forget the stuff that's not useful or interesting to them.
posted by equalpants at 10:41 PM on January 1, 2007

Most New Yorkers don't have much use for knowledge of the Great Plains, but they know the Eastern Seaboard pretty well, etc. So there isn't some kind of anti-geography mental block or anything; people just forget the stuff that's not useful or interesting to them.

Definitely true. In Georgia, I think just about everyone can identify where Florida, Alabama, and other nearby states are; but telling Colorado from Wyoming may not be as simple a proposition.

I do think complete ignorance is an exception, though; I had a teacher once relate the story of a student who believed Canada was a US state and that we had "53 or 54" of them. But the reaction from the rest of that person's class, and my class upon hearing the story, indicates that it's less pervasive than "overheard" might indicate.
posted by SuperNova at 10:59 PM on January 1, 2007

I would not consider Miami to be on the East Coast

Well, to be fair, it is slightly farther west than Pittsburgh.
posted by oaf at 11:19 PM on January 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and to address specifically your follow-up: it's a big country! There's simply a lot more to learn and remember. Along those lines, it's infinitely easier to remember where something is if you've been there, and few people have the time or opportunity to travel to every state in the US. Additionally, it's easier to place locations if you've passed through them by car or rail as opposed to flying over them, yet the size and geography of the US makes flying the most practical option for most people.

To put things in perspective, England is roughly 50,000 square miles in area, about 4,000 square miles smaller than the state of New York. That's just one of fifty states. The US itself is closer in size to the entirety of Europe. Do you know where Dubrovnik is? Lviv? Do you think most Brits do? I know it's a bit different as these are in different countries, but the fact remains that there is a lot of area to cover without a lot of regular interaction to reinforce the knowledge.

Again, I hope this was helpful to you.
posted by AV at 11:56 PM on January 1, 2007

The examples given in the original question are ridiculous. I doubt those statements were actually made, but if they were, they were made by extremely stupid people. That a Harvard MBA would not know that Philadelphia is a big city is impossible, not because being a Harvard MBA makes you a genius, but because being a Harvard MBA means you have spent some time around cosmopolitan people on the east coast. You've also taken a basic American history course at some time in your life, in which Philadelphia plays a prominent role. Also, being probably middle class, there's more than a slight chance that you've seen Rocky, Philadelphia, or numerous other pop-culture indications that Philadelphia is not a quaint little village. Similarly, there isn't anyone who is not literally retarded who thinks that Alaska and Hawaii are actually next to each other.

I grew up in Kansas, and I had to learn the geography of the state, the country, and the world. I've forgotten most of it, but it's all relative. To me it's weird that there are people upthread saying they don't know where Colorado is; it's huge and practically in the center of the country, but then, I'm from the state right next to it.
posted by bingo at 5:16 AM on January 2, 2007

I don't think it's just school related, geographically fluent parents expose kids to the world differently. Homes where atlases and maps are used and trips are taken will have a profound effect on a childs geographic sense.
posted by Xurando at 5:43 AM on January 2, 2007

Apparently oddly, in Arkansas, we had (and still have to, I think) take a year of geography in the 7th grade where we had to memorize the location of every country on maps of the various continents, all the US states, and the capitols of said countries and states. We also had some passing geography instruction in social studies classes before and after that, but not any rigorous instruction using maps and whatnot, excluding a couple of classes where the teachers were particularly into us being able to identify countries on a map. I think that tying the geography in more strongly with history classes would have been helpful to people's understanding of geography, but as I mentioned, that wasn't done in any meaningful way in most classes.

Embarassingly enough, I can hardly make heads or tails of an unlabeled map of Africa, although I'm pretty decent with the rest of the world.

As an aside, I do have to question how the hell we as an electorate are supposed to have any idea about events if we can't even place their locations on a map? I wouldn't be surprised to learn that half of Americans have no idea where Lebanon is and that it's in the same region as Iraq, or even that Iran and Iraq share a border, or that Iran sits directly between Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems like these are important little nuggets when trying to place events in our current wars.

People do seem to have a general concept of "middle east," but I doubt many could place it on a map..I'd half expect them to identify it as being around the Ural mountains east of Moscow. ;)

In the end, I don't think that complete geographic illiteracy is as pervasive as some might think, but so as there are plenty of functionally illiterate people in reading and writing (especially the latter) here, there are plenty of people who have no idea how to read maps.
posted by wierdo at 6:07 AM on January 2, 2007

I'm grew up in Michigan in a school district that spent serious money on education (early 60's), including (what I did not realize) was an unusually large amount of money on truly fabulous pull-down maps. I love maps, especially the new ones on computers, and in GPS units.

We were always looking at maps for one reason or another, but Geography as a subject was only in 7th grade, and the teacher was a total asshole. How rude, to have one's favorite subject taught by a burnt-out hate-filled shit of a man! (I'm talking about you, Arola) At least he is almost certainly retired (or dead) by now.

I can't say what happened past 9th grade, I skipped out and went to college instead. (How do you people cope with highschool?!) As a 9th grade dropout, I had better education than many of the highschool grads I've known, so my example is probably extreme on the good side.

I do remember the ditto sheets of blank maps for filling in, coloring, etc. They helped, no doubt. The states & capitols thing was okay, but I don't care in the slightest about capitols, and have forgotten most. If I'd been required to DRAW maps, I'd have hated geography. I can't draw!
posted by Goofyy at 6:12 AM on January 2, 2007

Sorry to spam the thread, but it also occurs to me that the use of anachronistic geographic terms can't at all help with people's ability to identify locations within the US. Take "midwest" for example. To some people, that means Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and that general area, when these days, that's in the northeastern quadrant of the country. To me, intuitively speaking, it should refer more to the plains states, like South Dakota, Iowa, etc.

Or south, for that matter, which is often used to refer to the once Confederate states. When "south" starts at Virginia, I can see how some people teetering on the brink of having no clue about geography might get confused.

Until 10 years ago, the college sports conference called the "Southwest Conference" consisted of teams in Texas and Arkansas. "Southwestern Bell," was until recently the name of the telephone company in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. Oops? Could we please have a few more directional anachronisms?

I suppose that goes hand in hand with the relatively recent fixing of state boundaries. After all, in the early 1900s, when many of these terms solidified, most western states were still just territories.

That doesn't excuse the general lack of knowledge of world geography, as we don't tend to use such outdated geographic terms for the rest of the world, but perhaps it explains part of the problem with our missing sense of internal geography.
posted by wierdo at 6:24 AM on January 2, 2007

I too went to school in California, and I did in fact do maps in seventh and tenth grades. Because I am a giant nerd, I loved it and have a pretty solid grasp of the world's layout. I wouldn't call that geography, per se, because I didn't learn anything but where the countries are.
posted by dame at 6:35 AM on January 2, 2007

Also, regarding American geography: America is freaking huge. I was discussing this with a Brit this weekend and he said he compared it to being able to name and place all the counties in the UK: something he could do once but couldn't replicate now. So yes, many people don't have a huge grasp of the groagraphy of a third of a continent in detail. I wish they did, but it isn't crazy. (And Alaska is always shown on American maps in a little box next to Hawaii, somewhere in the Pacific.)
posted by dame at 6:39 AM on January 2, 2007

As the anecdotes above reflect, most of the geographic education in the US in the last 40-odd years (I can attest personally to the latter 70s and particularly the 80s) has been the fill-in-a-blank-map, name-the-capital Trivial Pursuit sort of thing.

Real map skills--pretty few and far between, I'd wager. No clue, really, of what relevance degrees, minutes & seconds have to much of anything (pace the explosion of GPS in the last decade), or what other coordinate/reference systems are out there and why one might use them; no idea what a map projection is, or why it might be important.

None of this is to say, of course, that map skills=geographic knowledge. Most USians are pretty hidebound. They don't travel at nearly the rate of Europeans or Australians (or anyone else with the means, for that matter), in part because the US is a big country. Also because, yes, there is some real xenophobia and witting ignorance. It's a hard row to hoe in terms of real, contextualized geo. knowledge. On the other hand, and to be fair, the integrated study of climate/culture/geography/language/history has much to be said for it, and I feel as though I was given at least the basic tools for it in my primary and secondary educations.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:50 AM on January 2, 2007

My wife is a high school history teacher. History is part of the larger group of social studies which also includes geography. In Texas public schools, the high school cirriculum for social studies is:

9th Grade: World History
10th Grade: World Geography
11th Grade: United States History Studies
12th Grade: United States Government (1/2 year), plus Enomics (1/2 year)

The problem is that for many students, history, geography and English are de-prioritized in favor of math and science courses in the minds of many educators and students. With the advent of technology, the importance of math and science is apparent while the liberal arts are viewed more as something that just need to be passed so students can move on to the next grade. So the effort and priority just isn't there.
posted by Doohickie at 7:25 AM on January 2, 2007

If we were studying World War II, for example, knowing the various theaters around the world would have been part of the curriculum (and therefore knowledge of geography would have been essential)

This, to me, is the mystery: I can understand not presenting geography for its own sake (much as I love it), but since you can't understand history without it, how can you get through high school and college classes without a basic grasp of the world's countries and regions? Roman Empire spread through Europe and North Africa and into Mesopotamia, where it confronted the Persian Empire, which was ultimately destroyed by invaders from Arabia... Europe confronted for centuries by invaders from Central Asia, who also repeatedly invaded China and had a huge area of Eurasia under their control after Genghis Khan... How can you conceptualize any of that without knowing where those places are?
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on January 2, 2007

I think this statement "I don't think it's just school related, geographically fluent parents expose kids to the world differently. Homes where atlases and maps are used and trips are taken will have a profound effect on a childs geographic sense.
posted by Xurando"
really sums it up.

Having been to Europe for a length of time, I am familiar with that country and try to explain the "close-ness" of their respective countries when the dinner table talk turns to other countries or governments.

We get Nat'l Gepgraphic and we have the maps plastered all over our gameroom, our home office and I even have a couple in my office at work. I can say that they are a valuable resource. Employees come to my office when looking for a country. If they need an address of directions, they go to, but for countries and their neighbors, the NG maps ROCK!

OTOH, I have a couple of camaro-driving, head-bangin, stuck-in-the-80's, type of friends and they couldn't find thier asses with both hands, a GPS and a Rand McNally Atlas, but they are the obvious minority.

Very interesting question. The Bottom Line is, we tend to retain what we consider valuable, I plan on going back to Europe within the next 5 years and knowing the geography of that country and it's neighbors seems like it will benefit me then.
posted by winks007 at 7:57 AM on January 2, 2007


Well, that's the point of teaching them all together: the various imperial boundaries (to use your example) make a lot more sense when one has the history of who conquered whom, when, why, and how to go along with it.

Obviously we weren't just thrown into a unit on World War II in kindergarten; the basics are given in elementary school (I recall the same map-coloring and labeling that others have mentioned) and subsequent years build on that. I know none of my teachers would have dreamed of expecting us to know where, say, the Ottoman Empire at its height was located without showing it to us on maps and tying it to present-day boundaries (thus reinforcing knowledge of both).

(sorry for the slight derail, OP : )
posted by AV at 8:25 AM on January 2, 2007

I actually had a semester of Geography in high school (it was required) but it was so much memorizing that I promptly forgot absolutely everything that I learned in that class.

Before that... social studies always seemed kind of an afterthought for elementary school. 3rd grade we had kind of a weird civics thing, then we talked about Michigan in 4th grade, then about the US in fifth grade, then in 6th grade we learned about "Canada and Latin America". We never really talked at all about Europe or Asia or any other areas. History sort of emerged fully formed somewhere in the 15th century.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:56 AM on January 2, 2007

I went to public school K-12 in Maine (class of 2000). I have distinct memories of memorizing all the countries and capitals in North, Central and South America, most of which I still remember, in 6th grade. Then again learning all the Spanish-speaking countries and capitals, along with the Mexican states, in high school Spanish class. In fourth grade, social studies was focused strongly on state geography/history/culture. Ask someone who went to Maine public school for 4th grade anytime in the past 25 years (possibly longer), and they will be able to tell you (or sing you) all the names of the counties in Maine. The states we learned in 5th. In high school, the only required social studies courses were world history, US history and Civics (this has since changed, and they do require a World Geography course). I took some social studies electives, including Maine Studies, because the college I wanted to go to required more than my high school. My two history teachers, while awesome, were dinosaurs. I learned a lot from them, just not much curriculum.

Then I have more vague memories of learning different kinds of geography in all the grades. Looking at or coloring maps of whatever region we were studying, learning about maps themselves, things like longitude and latitude, and natural geography like deltas, mesas, etc. The honest truth is that I was taught this stuff...I just wasn't paying that much attention. And maybe I wasn't taught it in the optimum way to help me retain it...but that would go for various subjects over the years, depending on the teachers and curriculum.

Not that this particular stereotype isn't true to a certain extent, but I wouldn't put much stock in those overheard things. Nor even on those man on the street type interviews where people seem ignorant of geography. It's just that there are so many other factors involved--one is that the dumbest statements are by definition going to be the ones shown/sent in. Another is that we all say stupid things now and then, especially when put on the spot.
posted by lampoil at 10:20 AM on January 2, 2007

I should say though, that my US history dino-teacher (god I hope he's not reading this) did always have three wall-sized maps in his classroom that he himself painted--one of the world, one of the US, and one of Maine. So he definitely encouraged map-loving/looking/making.
posted by lampoil at 10:25 AM on January 2, 2007

and that Newfoundland has been Newfoundland and Labrador since 2001

umm ... since 1964 actually.
posted by squeak at 2:16 PM on January 2, 2007

Response by poster: >That a Harvard MBA would not know that
> Philadelphia is a big city is impossible

I think you skimmed the question -- he was a Harvard MBA student, and he knows now.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:07 PM on January 2, 2007

Response by poster: I think my puzzlement over this lack of knowledge is somewhat peculiar to me, in retrospect. I'm constantly amazed by people who don't have what I consider basic knowledge of the world, the things that surely everybody knows.

Basic knowledge for a North American, in my view, would certainly include the facts like "Alaska is joined on to the continent of North America, but there's a bit of Canada between Alaska and the USA", but perhaps that's not basic knowledge at all for someone who's not planning to drive there.

When I hear that people don't know "basic" things like that, I just think "how do they even get get their shoes on in the morning?"
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:00 PM on January 2, 2007

They put their feet in and tie the laces. It has absolutely nothing to do with geography. If they had traveled to many countries and went to Alaska often, and STILL didn't know that, you could wonder how they had gotten there.

You could apply that logic to anything pretty much. Let's take your basic web browser. Most people don't know what a URL is, what an IP address is, what the padlock symbol means, etc, these are basic things. You might find that hard to believe, but those people aren't the ones you're going to find frequenting many online communities, so you might not know them. Those people can still manage to check their email or play a game - If that's all they use the net for, they don't need to know the keyboard shortcuts and what the heck http really means. Would it enrich their life? Possible. Is it vital information for daily life? Maybe for some. For most, it has absolutely nothing to do with putting on their shoes and other basic functions.
posted by jesirose at 8:28 PM on January 2, 2007

I think you skimmed the question -- he was a Harvard MBA student, and he knows now.

Whatever. He doesn't exist. The quote is bullshit, and so are all the other quotes you linked to. Since it's a big strange world, it's remotely possible that there are one or two people in it who would say those things, but they are far, far, far from being representative of even a significant minority of Americans.

The general location of Alaska absolutely IS basic knowledge for most Americans.

Interesting how I'm an American, I've traveled all over the US and other parts of the world, and I've never met an American who said anything indicating that they're as ignorant about geography as those quotes would make someone out to be. And yet, I've encountered a great many Brits who marvel out loud about the geographic ignorance of Americans, and in fact over-explain to me where they're from, e.g. "England, over in Europe, across the Atlantic Ocean."* It's as if there's a Ministry of American Disinformation operating out of London.

*British mefites I met last week not included.
posted by bingo at 6:28 AM on January 3, 2007

Geography is simply a luxury topic that most schools can't afford to teach when they're struggling with the basic reading, writing, and math. I attended public high school in one of the wealthiest counties in the US, and I was lucky to get teacher who thought geography was important (thank you, Alexander the Grape). We were made to reconstruct maps, freehand, as we studied world history. However, I had attended elementary school in one of the poorer counties, and we had not one bit on geography IIRC.
posted by zennie at 10:56 AM on January 3, 2007

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