America’s Geographic Ignorance

A look at the US’s problematic incompetence at a crucial yet often misunderstood subject.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a university student who studies geography. You are having this conversation for the 11th time this week, and unfortunately, you know that it won’t be the last time.

“What’s your major?”

“Oh, I study geography.”

“Cool! Like studying rocks and stuff. So you’re going to be a teacher?”

“No, that’s not exactly…”

“…so what are you going to do with that degree?”

“………”

This was a typical experience during the four (okay, five) years that I spent at the University of North Texas as an undergraduate student; having to regularly explain my major (and how I planned to use it in the future) to strangers was at least a weekly occurrence, and the same rang true for my classmates as well. It’s just something that comes with the territory of studying an often misunderstood subject like geography.

There’s an insidious truth behind this misunderstanding, though. The average person is awful at geography, especially in the United States, even at the basic bits. Ask random Americans on the street to locate states in their own country on a map, and many of them will have a hard time getting even 50% correct. Ask them about foreign countries, even popular tourist destinations or the ones often in the news for wars that the US is waging on their soil, and the results will be embarrassingly worse yet.

The fact is, most people don’t care about geography and don’t even really understand what it actually is, and while their failure at grasping even the watered down version of it as shown above is a bit troublesome, the complete ignorance surrounding even the simplest aspects of “academic” geography is much more problematic.

At their foundations, the most critical issues facing our world are geographic in nature, including environmental problems of all scales, crises related to international relations and global politics, many human rights abuses (such as human trafficking), and a variety of other major areas of concern. We cannot solve them without geography, because they are geography. Trying to solve climate change without geography, for example, would be like trying to solve the COVID-19 pandemic without biology. The public’s lack of understanding about the subject makes fixing these huge problems that much more difficult, and given the time-sensitive nature of something like climate change, this is a significant concern.

Environmental issues, like air pollution, are inherently geographic. (Ho Chi Minh City on a polluted morning; Christopher Otis, July 2020)

Despite most people’s rather simplistic understanding, geography is a very complex subject. By its very nature it is interdisciplinary, its students and teachers commonly finding themselves delving into a variety of other subjects in order to fully understand the topic or problem at hand. Far from just the study of maps, mountains, rivers, and capital cities, it is often the overlooked link between other crucial areas of study such as history, politics, and economics, and how they relate to the physical environment that we both live in and interact with.

There are two main branches of the study of geography that are split off into a number of sub-fields. There’s physical geography, which deals solely with the natural environment, and includes areas of study such as climatology, oceanography, biogeography, and many others. Then there is human geography, which adds people and society to the equation, and often looks at the interaction between humanity and the environment. Some of the sub-fields of this discipline include economic geography, medical geography, urban geography, and many more that delve into topics as widely varied as energy production in Russia or the study of indigenous ethnic minority cultures in Southeast Asia.

One of my geography professors at the University of North Texas defined the overall field of geography in a simple yet profound way: it is the study of why things are where they are. This has always stuck with me. It’s this why factor that is typically missed in the mainstream understanding of the subject, but it is by far the most important part.

As one can imagine, these why questions can range from purely physical ones — for example, “why are the highest mountains found in the Himalayas?” — to much more complex questions that deal with the reasons for and effects of how humanity has organized itself across the surface of the Earth. Some examples of this could be, “why is climate change disproportionately affecting developing countries?”, or, “why do COVID-19 infection and death rates differ across regions and countries?”.

Tracking the global distribution of COVID-19 is an example of medical geography. (Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash)

School has failed us in regards to geography, at least in the United States. Growing up, I was an absolute geography nerd. I spent hours playing with an interactive globe my sister had bought me, and almost every book I checked out of the school library was about one of the 50 states. I was simply addicted to finding out more about the world that we all inhabit.

But sadly, school did little to stoke the flames of my curiosity; the last time I formally studied geography before university was in the 7th grade. As a result, I entered my college years with no idea that majoring in geography was even a thing I could do. Thankfully, by chance, I learned about the geography program and was able to pursue a degree in a field that I’m passionate about, buy many others whose passion isn’t geography aren’t going to get the chance to learn even the foundations of this crucial subject.

The truth is, the American education system has pumped out an untold number of graduates year after year, from both high school and college, who have virtually no knowledge of the world beyond the USA’s borders, and a rather limited understanding of the world within them, as well.

Perhaps this stems partially from decades of American exceptionalism propaganda turning everyone’s focus and interests inward, or maybe it’s simply another result of the continued rise in anti-intellectualism in the US.

Regardless of whatever the reason may be that this has happened, the ramifications of having a large portion of a country being geographically ignorant are clear. It’s much easier to convince someone that climate change isn’t real, for instance, when they don’t understand even the most basic aspects of the science behind it. It’s also terrifyingly easy to demonize some faraway country in order to justify a war there when the overwhelming majority of the population doesn’t know a single thing about it, not even what region of the world it’s located in.

Given the current political climate in the United States, where one of the two major parties bases part of its platform on the denial of the existence of anthropogenic climate change, and both of them are keen on violently intervening in the affairs of foreign nations to suit American hegemonic interests, this is obviously a massive problem.

A more localized example of how Americans’ lack of geographic knowledge can be used against them would be gerrymandering. Without a basic understanding of how to read the maps that show how the voting districts of their local area compare to demographic data such as race, average annual income, and political affiliation, voters are rendered defenseless against politicians redrawing the districts in ways that can silence their voices.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone needs to be an expert in geography, or that those who studied the subject in university are inherently more equipped to solve the worlds’ problems than those who studied other things. It’s going to take experts in a variety of fields to fix the crises we’re facing at present. It is clear, however, that there is an issue here that needs to be addressed.

The fact of the matter is that America has a massive problem with ignorance and anti-intellectualism in general, but a major aspect of this is related to a total misunderstanding of geography and its importance to the world. This issue isn’t going to simply disappear, and there aren’t any quick and easy solutions, but reforming how the subject is approached and taught in schools across the country is a necessary start; our future may very well depend in part on how well we educate the youth of today, and a solid foundation in geography would go a long way towards making sure they are equipped with the knowledge needed to clean up the mess they’re inheriting.

For more content, follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

American living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photographer, teacher, geographer, writer.

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