Lost in America

We don’t know— and don’t wanna know

It’s a big, big world.

It’s a big, big world.

Photo Illustration by Ginger Fierstein

“Wow, Brazil is big.”

Those were the words of President George W. Bush last November when the president of Brazil showed him a map of that country.

We should not be surprised at his surprise. Americans from the top down just don’t know much about the layout of things. Every six months or so, the news media serve up the results of this or that poll of American ignorance, and those polls never fail to deliver the goods.

We’re dumb as sticks, and we have the numbers to prove it.

The most recent numbers from a Roper Geographic Survey validates our global position as No. 1, ignorance-wise.

For instance, 48 percent of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could not find the state of Mississippi on a map, this even after all that time Anderson Cooper spent down there giving us his 360 on the place after Hurricane Katrina. Way over half of the young people polled also were clueless about the location of Iraq. Though the question wasn’t asked, it can be safely assumed that those same respondents would, if shown a map of Brazil, agree with the president that it was “big.”

Nor does this ignorance matter very much. Most of the people surveyed did not think it was important to know where things are; less than one in three thought it is important to know the location of countries in the news. It’s good they feel that way because 75 percent of them could not locate Israel on a map, and about half couldn’t find India, which, like Brazil, is big. The same number, 75 percent, thought that English was the most widely spoken native language in the world. Perhaps they thought that because Chinese people tend to speak English in the movies, and movies are where most Americans get big chunks of their sense of the world.

The results of this latest poll show virtually no change from a similar Roper Geographic Survey taken back in 2002. One element of the national character remains intact: No matter the news or the results of the surveys, we don’t go changin’ just because of polls. Like our leaders, we will not be poll-driven. American young people can’t identify the states within their own country as well as foreign students can identify the countries in Europe. We may be a fiercely patriotic people, but just don’t ask us to know much about the place we love. Our love is blind. Maine, Montana or Mississippi? What’s the diff?

Despite the dismal results of the current sampling—and of samplings dating back to 1988—Americans stick to their guns when it comes to remaining ignorant. And, as is so often the case with ignorance, if you’re going to make a commitment to staying stupid, you’re probably going to wind up needing guns by which to stick. Back in 2002, only about one-third of young Americans knew where England was, or what it looked like on a map. That’s about the same percentage as the number of young Americans who claimed to get their news from newspapers: about one in three. And in that same year—the year the United States went into Afghanistan—only 17 percent of the people in the age group most likely to fight there could find that country on a map.

Back in the 1980s, I did some polling of my own, asking my college students up in Washington State to identify people, places and things I thought most high-school grads should or would know. 60 Minutes found the results of those quizzes interesting. Mike Wallace came and sat in on my classes for a couple of days to discuss the dismal state of knowledge with students who had performed poorly in response to questions about where things were and when things happened.

Their answers were what made my little quizzes worthy of momentary media attention. My college students had some fairly bizarre notions. Rio de Janeiro was in France, Calcutta was in New Mexico, Belfast was in Germany. Nagasaki was in Vietnam and Copenhagen was in Canada. Timothy Leary was secretary of defense in Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet. Antonio Vivaldi invented ravioli. The United States once fought a “Silver War,” and Joseph McCarthy was once the nation’s president.

Good night, and good luck, indeed.

Things happen when 60 Minutes takes note. Following that broadcast, National Geographic began its practice of taking regular surveys of geographic knowledge held by young people around the world. Those surveys have become a tradition: The United States and neighboring Mexico (if you don’t believe me, you can consult a map) consistently score at the bottom when it comes to geographic knowledge. Sweden, thought by many to be in northern Europe, always scores at the top.

After that 60 Minutes broadcast in 1987, CBS News changed its policies, urging news writers to attach identifying clauses to stories in order to clarify matters for an audience now revealed to be ill-prepared to digest the news without help. For example, if there was a story about “apartheid,” that story would, henceforth, carry a definition of what apartheid was. If a news report mentioned a particular country, producers were urged to feature an accompanying map locating that country for viewers.

In addition to changes in the news media since 1988, school districts throughout the nation have begun to put the study of geography back in the curriculum. Remarkably, in the late ’80s, only 30 percent of the nation’s school districts bothered to teach the subject at all. It gradually had been displaced in the curriculum, lumped in with “social studies,” and then forgotten. Social studies was also the class most likely to be taught by coaches who needed to be assigned duties other than the primary duty they’d been hired to perform. By 2002, some 55 percent of the young people polled claimed to have studied geography in school, though ignorance of the location of places in the world still rocked and still ruled. And now, in 2006, the majority of American young people know the contribution made by Kevin Federline to the general population, but they don’t have the faintest idea of the population of the country they call home. They can name all three judges on American Idol, but can’t name three justices who serve on the Supreme Court.

People who don’t know where they are or where they’ve been aren’t likely to figure out where they’re going. A country led by a man who doesn’t know the location of places—or how big things are—is a country that has lost its way.

Or, in the words of that old conundrum routinely asked in Philosophy 101, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one knows where the forest is, what the hell difference does it make?”