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It is embarrassing just how bad we are at geography

Once again, the hurricane season has brought out a disturbing fact about our country.

Many of the people living in our country are geography illiterates; they apparently don’t know how to look at a map, don’t know where certain cities or countries are and don’t take the time to do simple research to find them.

I write this after watching The Weather Channel and television network reporters cover Hurricane Sally, where one reporter was broadcasting from “Pascagoula, Florida.” Of course, many of us recall The Weather Channel snafu several years ago when Mississippi was identified as “that landmass between Alabama and Louisiana.”

And the problems are not just limited to the television folks. I can recall working for a weekly newspaper in Plaquemine, La., while in college and seeing press releases from NOAA about hurricane evacuation routes with Plaquemines Parish underlined and highlighted because somehow the author thought Plaquemine was in Plaquemines Parish.

A quick check of a map of Louisiana would have revealed that Plaquemine was in Iberville Parish and a few hundred miles from Plaquemines Parish. Even now I get emailed press releases about a “local student” or a “local resident” getting a reward to find out the local person lived in Tupelo or Meridian or Jackson or Hattiesburg. 

When I, like many in my generation, was in elementary and junior high, geography was a separate class and learning how to read a map, learning the countries and cultures of the world was required. In my first two college history classes, geography was part of each course.

I wondered about the rise in geographic illiteracy, so I went online to look for articles on geographic literacy and found an article from Directions Magazine about a 2006 National Geographic study about young American geographical knowledge. It said, “majorities of young adults fail at a range of questions testing their basic geographic literacy.”

At the time, the survey found, only 37 percent of young Americans could find Iraq on a map even though U.S. troops had been there since 2003. Six in 10 young Americans do not speak a foreign language fluently. Twenty percent of young Americans thought Sudan was in Asia when it is the largest country in Africa.

Forty-eight percent of young Americans believed the majority population in India is Muslim when it is Hindu, and half of young Americans could not find New York on a map.

The reason, according to the article, is as the world became more technically oriented, programs like geography began taking a back seat to mathematics, physics and computer science, which became important in the academic and corporate worlds.

As our world gets smaller through technology, it is more important that we understand the cultures and customs in different countries and where they are located.

And with all the misinformation circulating about countries and cultures, it’s time geography took a more prominent place in our schools. We need to re-emphasize it. Knowing the Pythagorian theory is important, but so is learning the location, customs and cultures of Luxembourg and Oman.

 

John Surratt is a staff writer for The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at john.surratt@vicksburgpost.com.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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