22 June 2008

Survey reveals geographical ignorance of American children

It would appear that more and more young Americans know less and less about the world they inhabit. A recent survey has revealed that the average 18 to 24 year old could only answer 54% of questions correctly. This is indeed a depressing and worrying figure.

Over 60% of Americans aged 18-24 couldn’t find Iraq on a map of the Middle East (yes, a map of the Middle East… not even a map of the world) in a 2006 survey (that’s three years after the start of the war). The survey found a few other interesting facts:

Only 50% think that map-reading skills are “absolutely essential”
Despite that fact, 75% couldn’t find Iran or Israel on the same Middle East map.
65% couldn’t find the UK on a world map.
88% couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map of Asia.
Half of people couldn’t find India or Japan on the Asian map
70% couldn’t find North Korea, and only 37% knew that the North/South Korea border is more heavily fortified than the US/Mexico border and the China/Russia border (both of which are mostly barren).
Only 35% knew about the huge earthquake in Pakistan, which had killed 70,000 people only a few months before the survey.
74% of people thought that English is a more common first language than Mandarin Chinese(which was picked by 18%).
When asked to pick the country with a Muslim majority (between Indonesia, India, Armenia, and South Africa), 48% thought it was India (which is only 10% Muslim) and only 25% picked Indonesia (which is over 80% Muslim).
More interestingly, people thought that the Mississippi’s flow had something to do with Hurricane Katrina.

Even for U.S. geography, the survey results are just as dismal.

Half could not find New York State on a map of the United States!

A third of the respondents could not find Louisiana, and 48 percent couldn’t locate Mississippi on a map of the United States, even though Hurricane Katrina put these southeastern states in the spotlight in 2005.

Many young Americans also lack basic map-reading skills.

Told they could escape an approaching hurricane by evacuating to the northwest, only two-thirds could indicate which way northwest is on a map.

Perhaps even more worrying is the finding that few U.S. young adults seem to care.

Fewer than three in ten think it’s absolutely necessary to know where countries in the news are located. Only 14 percent believe speaking another language fluently is a necessary skill.

Fewer than one in five young Americans own a world map.

This geographic ineptitude was further emphasized when young Americans were asked questions on how the United States fits into the wider world.

Three in ten respondents put the U.S. population between one and two billion (it’s just under 300 million, according the U.S. Census Bureau). Seventy-four percent said English is the most commonly spoken native language in the world (it’s Mandarin Chinese).

Although 73 percent knew the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of oil, nearly as many (71 percent) did not know that the U.S. is also the world’s largest exporter of goods and services, when measured in terms of monetary value; half think it’s China.

And what about India, which features prominently in the job-outsourcing debate, even more so in the USA than the UK? Forty-seven percent of young Americans were unable to locate where their jobs may well go on a map of Asia.

On a positive note, since 2002 the percentage of young Americans who use the Internet for news has more than doubled from 11 percent to 27 percent. Respondents who use the Internet were found to do better on the survey than those who do not. So perhaps as Internet usage increases so will Americans geographical knowledge. But as long as the American educational system is obviously failing its young people in this respect there is more and more liklihood of a dangerous trend towards isolationism born out of ignorance. It might be worth whoever wins the election in November giving this some consideration - just don’t hold your breath.

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