WASHINGTON–Despite the devastating 9/11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent media spotlight on the Middle East and Central Asia, 83 percent of young Americans aged 18 to 24 could not find Afghanistan on a world map, according to a new National Geographic-Roper study on geographic literacy among young adults. More young Americans in the study knew that the island featured in last season’s TV show Survivor is in the South Pacific than could find Israel.
Young people in the other predominantly English-speaking countries surveyed Canada and Great Britain fared almost as poorly overall as those in the United States. And none of the nine countries surveyed earned an excellent mark. Worldwide, three in 10 couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean, which covers 33 percent of the earth. In no nation could even half of young adults surveyed locate Israel on a map of the Middle East and Asia. Young adults worldwide also showed scant knowledge of world population issues or geography in the context of nuclear weapons.
The National Geographic-Roper Global Geographic Literacy Survey polled more than 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States. Top scorers were Sweden, Germany and Italy. Mexico ranked last. Americans, who came in next to last, expressed an exaggerated image of America’s size and fully 30 percent estimated the U.S. population to be a billion or more. The correct response in the survey was 150 million-350 million.
The study found that young Americans were the least likely among their counterparts to know that Afghanistan is where the Taliban and al Qaeda were based. Less than half the Americans could identify France, the United Kingdom or Japan on a world map. Fewer than two in three could find China on a map of the Middle East/Asia, and more than half and 56 percent were unable to locate India, home to 17 percent of people on Earth. Just half of young Americans could find New York, one of the nation’s most populous states.
Questions on nuclear capability and population revealed an alarming lack of understanding among respondents in most countries. Fewer than 25 percent of French, Canadian, Italian, British and American young adults could name four countries that officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons. Except for the Swedes, only 45 percent or fewer young adults in all the countries surveyed could name China and India as the two countries with a population over 1 billion.
“If our young people can’t find places on a map and lack awareness of current events, how can they understand the world’s cultural, economic and natural resource issues that confront us,” asked John Fahey, president of the National Geographic Society. “National Geographic is committed to making sure the next generation of young adults is better prepared to be informed citizens and responsible stewards of the planet. But we can’t do this alone.”
To that end, National Geographic will convene an international coalition of policy-makers and leaders in business and the media to develop strategies to fight geographic ignorance and apathy among young people around the globe and to encourage interest in world affairs.
Coalition members include AOL, AFS Intercultural Programs, American Federation of Teachers, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Asia Society, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Markle Foundation, National Education Association, News Corp, Nickelodeon, Palm Pictures, SeaWorld/Busch Gardens Adventure Parks and Sesame Workshop.
The Council on Competitiveness, the Council on Foreign Relations, Roger Downs, head of the Department of Geography at Pennsylvania State University, Harry Harding, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, and Robert Pastor, vice president of international affairs and professor of international relations at American University, have agreed to serve as resources to the coalition.
Next year the coalition panel will make recommendations about specific initiatives that could be taken by educators, the media, policy-makers and business leaders, as well as parents and children, to reverse the trend of geographic and world affairs illiteracy.
“The organizations that have already raised their hands represent a wonderful cross-section of media, education, business and policy leaders who share our belief that we must find new and better ways to engage young people in their world. We invite others to join us,” Fahey added.
The Geographic Literacy Survey was conducted by RoperASW in June and July 2002. It is a follow-up to a similar study commissioned by National Geographic and conducted by the Gallup Organization Inc. in 1988. In that study, Americans 18 to 24 years old came in last compared with their counterparts in eight other countries. Fourteen years later, things have not substantially improved.
The latest survey did identify a few bright spots: American youth in 2002 were more likely to report having taken a geography class in school, and those who did performed better on the survey questions. The number of young adults who reported having taken geography courses is up from 30 percent in 1988 to 55 percent today; on average, those who reported taking a course were able to identify more countries on maps.
Several possibly interrelated factors that positively affected performance on the survey included Internet usage, use of multiple news sources, international travel and language skills, and level of education. Young Americans who reported they accessed the Web within the past 30 days scored 67 percent higher than those who had not been online. The study’s top-tier countries, Sweden, Germany and Italy, are places where international travel and multilingualism are widespread. Countries where residents are least likely to travel abroad and who speak only one language, America, Japan and Mexico, scored lower.
The 2002 Roper study was sponsored by the National Geographic Society’s Geography Education Foundation, with the goal of determining if, in the post-September 11 world, young people were knowledgeable about current events and where places are located.
“The results are disappointing, but they highlight the urgency of the problem of geographic ignorance and the need to broaden our efforts beyond the classroom,” said Fahey. “This is a cultural crisis, and it will take all our efforts to reverse the alarming trend of geographic apathy. When we do this survey with the next generation of young people, we are determined that the efforts of our international coalition of policy-makers, and business and media leaders will have made a difference.”
An online version of the survey, at www.nationalgeographic.com/geosurvey, allows members of the public to compare their own geographic knowledge with that of young adults worldwide.
Since launching its Geography Education Foundation in 1988, National Geographic has spent more than $100 million to improve geographic knowledge in and out of the classroom. Activities include the National Geographic Bee, a nationwide contest in which nearly 5 million fourth- through eighth-graders participate each year. Through the Education Foundation, teachers can tap into a grassroots network of geographic alliances, online resources, grant programs to encourage teachers to develop new and innovative teaching methods, and public-awareness campaigns for geography.