WASHINGTON–Despite the barrage of news coverage about the Iraq war since it began in 2003, six in 10 young Americans ages 18 to 24 cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, according to a new National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study. Two-thirds do not know that the catastrophic October 2005 earthquake that killed 70,000 people struck in Pakistan. More than four in 10 can’t even place Pakistan in Asia.
Even domestic natural disasters like Katrina appear to have little impact on the geographic knowledge of young Americans. One-third of those surveyed could not find Louisiana on a U.S. map, and almost half (48 percent) could not locate the state of Mississippi. On a more practical level, given a map of a hypothetical place and told they could escape an approaching hurricane by evacuating to the northwest, one-third would travel in the wrong direction.
The survey demonstrates young Americans’ limited understanding of their world within and beyond their country’s borders. Respondents answered just over half (54 percent) of the questions correctly, and they don’t appear to value skills that would enhance their knowledge. In fact, fewer than three in 10 of those surveyed think it is absolutely necessary to know where countries in the news are located. Only 14 percent believe speaking another language fluently is a necessary skill.
“Geographic illiteracy impacts our economic well-being, our relationships with other nations and the environment, and isolates us from our world,” said John Fahey, National Geographic Society president and CEO. “Geography is what helps us make sense of our world by showing the connections between people and places. Without geography, our young people are not ready to face the challenges of the increasingly interconnected and competitive world of the 21st century.”
According to the survey, conducted in December 2005/January 2006, young Americans are alarmingly ignorant of the relationships between places that give context to world events. Seventy-four percent believe English is the primary language spoken by the most people in the world; it is Mandarin Chinese. Seventy-one percent don’t know that the United States is the largest exporter of goods and services; nearly half (48 percent) think it is China. And while China’s population is actually four times the size of the U.S. population, 45 percent of young Americans think it’s only twice as large. Though outsourcing of jobs to India has been a major business news story, almost half the respondents (47 percent) were not able to find that country on a map of Asia.
Respondents also demonstrated poor understanding of global hotspots. Seventy-five percent couldn’t locate Israel on a map of the Middle East, despite the fact that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been ongoing throughout these young people’s lives. Seven in 10 couldn’t find North Korea on a map of Asia, and six in 10 did not know its border with South Korea is the most heavily fortified in the world. Thirty percent thought the most heavily fortified was the U.S.-Mexican border.
On a more hopeful note, the study shows that the Internet can have a positive impact. Since the previous National Geographic-Roper Geographic Literacy Study in 2002, the percentage of young Americans who use the Internet for news on world current events has more than doubled, up to 27 percent from 11 percent. Eighty percent of young adults have been online within the past month. Roper analysts found that going online to get world news is positively associated with young Americans’ performance on the quiz.
The National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study polled 510 respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 in the continental United States. The poor performance of young Americans on the poll underscores the results of the 2002 study in which Americans scored second to last on overall geographic knowledge, trailing Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and Sweden. For additional 2006 Roper Poll results, go to www.nationalgeographic.com/roper2006.
A coalition of business, nonprofit and education leaders, led by National Geographic, is launching a public engagement campaign, called My Wonderful World, to inspire parents and educators to give their kids the power of global knowledge. Coalition partners include: 4-H, American Federation of Teachers, Asia Society, Association of American Geographers, Budget Rent A Car, Committee for Economic Development, Council on Competitiveness, ESRI, The GLOBE Program, iEARN-USA (International Education and Resource Network), Lindblad Expeditions, NBA Cares, The National Council for Geographic Education, National Council of La Raza, National Council for the Social Studies, National PTA, SeaWorld/Busch Gardens Adventure Parks, Sesame Workshop, Smithsonian Institution, United Nations Foundation and World Affairs Councils of America.
A rich Web site, Mywonderfulworld.org, is at the heart of the campaign and provides resources to help kids become smarter about their world, including suggestions for outdoor family activities, ways parents can work to get more geography into the classroom, links to the best geography games and online adventures for kids and teens, classroom materials for educators, and ways for young and old to test their global IQs. The site also includes tools for communicating the importance of geography literacy to policymakers and educators.
The coalition is appealing to parents, caregivers, educators and students with an outreach program that includes a public-service advertising campaign, promotional events, grassroots activities and e-mail campaigns.
Since conducting its first survey on geographic literacy in 1988, National Geographic has developed an Education Foundation and programs that provide geography learning opportunities for young people in and out of the classroom. The National Geographic Bee, a nationwide contest, attracts nearly 5 million fourth- through eighth-graders each year. Other activities include the annual outreach Geography Action program and a grassroots network for teachers that provides professional development, online resources and grant programs to support innovative teaching methods.