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ABD-ELHAMEED: Americans are geographically challenged — it is embarrassing

Column: Something to Think About

The U.S. public system needs to require geography classes for American students so that they are more globally conscious students.  – Photo by Amy Humphries | Unsplash

Americans are notorious for embodying certain cultural stereotypes and behaviors. Some are comical, such as wearing blue jeans and being overly patriotic, but others reflect a more serious concern in American culture: a lack of geographic knowledge.

In other words, there is a widespread lack of knowledge among Americans that has to do with anything outside of America's borders, and the U.S. school system is to blame.

In my junior year of high school, I heard a student confidently say in class that Portugal was located in South America. Another student once asked me if Dubai was in India after I mentioned that I always wanted to visit the city.

Part of me felt second-hand embarrassment for those people at the time, but the other part of me could not place the blame entirely on them. The American school system and overall culture are to blame for the raging (but true) stereotype that Americans are geographically challenged.

To prove that the American school system has failed students in geography, let me present several findings regarding how the U.S. compares to other countries.

In a National Geographic-Roper Poll from 2002 conducted by the National Geographic Education Foundation, approximately 3,000 people aged 18 to 24 from Canada, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Mexico and the U.S. were tested on geographic education. 

The results revealed that the U.S. placed second to last in geographic knowledge. Those from the U.S., on average, answered "just 23 questions correct out of 56 total questions," approximately 41 percent.

It is telling that geography is not a required subject in America, while it is in most European countries. In 10 European countries, including France, Austria and Norway, it is a requirement for students to take geography as its own course every year until they graduate high school. In twelve countries, including Italy, Ireland and Germany, geography is a requirement until students are 15- or 16-years-old.

Looking back on the material I learned growing up in the American public school system, I can only vaguely recall a few times when we were tested on any kind of geography. 

During some years in elementary school and another time during sixth-grade history, I remember taking quizzes on the 50 states. In fourth or fifth grade, I also remember learning the names of the seven continents, as we were given an unlabeled map and had to label each continent and the oceans.

This about sums up the geography curriculum in American public schools.

During my sophomore year of high school, I decided to replace taking fine arts with AP Human Geography. While I may be biased since I was always interested in the subject, taking that class was one of the smartest decisions I have ever made for my education. 

Not only did I learn the U.S. map in addition to the location of each country across all continents, but this course also taught me why the world functions the way it does. The subject covered population and migration trends, languages, cultures, agriculture, land use, urban geography, economic development and several other subtopics. 

I can confidently say that this class shaped how I think of the world and led me to take many of the courses that I did at Rutgers, eventually leading me to declare a major in journalism and media studies with a focus in global media. 

There are countless reasons why teaching geography should be prioritized throughout public schools in the U.S. From the words of National Geographic, the education of geography aids students to be "internationally competitive in the global economy by providing them with an understanding of the complex relationships among world trade, resource location, migration flows and technology innovation." 

The study of geography, in my own words, goes beyond that. Understanding geography makes you generally a more knowledgeable person because you become less ignorant about everything that goes on around you. With a better knowledge of geography, people would likely be more aware of global issues, allowing them to be more empathetic toward different demographics and to help those in need.

More empathy produces a better sense of understanding overall and a less hostile attitude toward anything and anyone beyond the country's borders. Stronger communities would be created, and better decisions would be made across political, social and economic lines. 

Ethnocentrism and nationalism would not be such strong forces, and people would be more willing to learn about things more important than ourselves and our communities.

At the end of the day, learning and understanding geography would hopefully allow American society to prosper and function in a more united way. Learning geography while growing up would be a step in the right direction toward combating the greatest weapon of mass destruction: ignorance.

It is time that schools across America require that geography be taught at all levels.

Naaima Abd-Elhameed is a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in journalism and media studies and minoring in Arabic and international and global studies. Her column, "Something to Think About," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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